Poland: Attempts to compromise the judiciary, a threat on media independence and attacks on LGBTQIA+

CIVICUS Monitor update on Poland - February 2020

Threats on judicial independence

On 14th October 2019, the governing right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party won Poland’s parliamentary election. While PiS did not manage to secure the majority it would have needed to rewrite the constitution, it retained 49 seats in the 100-member upper house, the Senate, and 235 seats in the more powerful 460-member lower house, the Sejm.

Just three days before the elections, the European Commission announced it was referring Poland to the European Court of Justice over a law violating the principle of judicial independence.

The law is not the first one that aims to put the judiciary under political control. A new study: “The Time of Trial. How do changes in the justice system affect Polish judges?” by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights shows how several changes in the Polish justice system, introduced over the last four years, are being used to increase pressure on judges.

It is important to note that without judicial independence, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association are not duly protected against unlawful acts by the government.

Peaceful Assembly

As reported in a previous Monitor update, gay pride marchers in several Polish cities faced increased violence. During July 2019, dozens of gay pride marchers were injured in Bialystok. Police fined or charged over 77 people for attacking the participants of the march. In the Lublin Pride March, anti-gay demonstrators clashed with police and two were arrested for possessing homemade explosive devices. The police’s role in protecting LGBTQIA+ marches in Lublin was praised by Human Rights Watch in a statement:

“Such action should stand as an example of how Polish authorities need to defend free and assembly rights as anti-LGBT rhetoric reaches a fever pitch ahead of national elections”- Kyle Knight, Senior Researcher, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program, Human Rights Watch.

On social media people took the hashtag #JestemLGBT (#IamLGBT) to show solidarity with queer and trans people in Poland.

As a result, the 2019 EU and parliamentary campaign in Poland saw aggressive targeting of the LGBTQIA+ community. Jarosław Kaczyński, PiS’s most influential politician, has described the LGBTQIA movement as “a threat to Polish identity”, claiming that only PiS can defend the traditional family from alien values.

Expression

A recent report by Poland’s Journalist Society (Towarzystwo Dziennikarskie) and the Stefan Batory Foundation found that public service media in Poland does not provide the public with independent and balanced news, but rather serves as a marketing tool for the PiS government.

The report, based on research conducted in May 2019, observes that Wiadomości, the main news programme on Poland’s public broadcasting station TVP:

“ran content which favoured the ruling party and omitted, downplayed, ridiculed or vilified the opposition parties’ candidates and politicians by the use i.e. of fake news, picture and sound manipulations.”

PiS members and supporters tend to acknowledge this bias and argue that the party’s control of TVP is a necessary and proportionate response to the skewed media environment dominated by liberals.

PiS has used a number of successful methods to stifle critical reporting. Aside from using its influence in state-owned companies to stifle advertisements of critical outlets, PiS politicians repeatedly invoke criminal libel laws against journalists. In early September 2019, PiS made a concerning announcement about its latest plan to create a “self-government” body after the elections “to regulate the journalistic profession”.

In the 2019 edition of the World Press Freedom index, Poland fell to 59th place among 180 countries. This is a significant drop, given that in 2015, when PiS came to power, it held the 18th place.

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