Democracy & Justice


Civicus Monitor

by LibertiesEU

Polish opposition leader investigated for corruption

Donald Tusk of Civic Platform (PO), the main opposition party, is under investigation for abuse of power during his term as Prime Minister from 2007 to 2014. In 2014, recordings were made public by news outlets that revealed liberal politicians in Tusk’s administration making unofficial deals with business. Prosecutors are investigating whether Tusk abused his powers to intimidate the persons who recorded the deals. Tusk faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years, if found guilty. Previously, Tusk has said he suspects Russia was behind the leaked recordings.

Border crossings on the rise

Around 100 people attempt to cross into Poland from Belarus every day, the Polish Border Guard reports. Since winter, the number has been steadily increasing. Deaths too have frequently occurred on the border, as previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor. Spring 2023 will be the first test to see if Poland’s newly constructed 200-kilometre border wall will be effective or not at stemming migration flows. In an interview with Balkan Insight, Alicja Palecka, a sociologist at Fundacja Ocalenie, an activist group assisting migrants on the border, seemed skeptical, asserting that: “What we know from experience with other border walls is that they do not actually stop crossings, but make it more difficult and riskier for people to get through to the other side”.

Poland’s rule of law crisis

The Constitutional Tribunal, the top court in Poland, is locked in a dispute over whether chief justice Julia Przyłębska should step down. Six of 15 judges say her term ended in December 2022. Przyłębska denies this and the ruling party has supported her claim that her term lasts until 2024. As a result, on 5th May 2023, a group of MPs from PiS introduced a bill to reduce the minimum number of judges required to rule on cases from 11 to nine. The bill had its first reading on 23rd May 2023. The six judges’ protest has become highly political as they are also refusing to rule on a Polish law intended to unlock €36 billion in EU funds until the chief justice steps down.

Polish media reports that the European Commission has sent six formal notices to Poland, urging them to pay the outstanding daily fine for not complying with the EU Court of Justice's decision. The decision requires Poland to dismantle the controversial Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court, which is seen as a potential tool for persecuting government-critical judges. European Commission spokesperson Christian Wiegand stated that if Poland continues to refuse payment, €174 million will be deducted from the country's EU funds. The Polish authorities dissolved the Disciplinary Chamber and replaced it with a new chamber, but the Commission did not revoke the fine as the measures were deemed insufficient. The fine has been reduced to €500,000 per day. The final ruling on the Polish disciplinary system for judges will be issued by the EU Court on 5th June 2023.


Poland and Ukraine reach grain deal, farmers protest

Since the Russian war on Ukraine started, around three million tonnes of Ukrainian grain has reportedly been stuck in Polish markets, driving food prices lower. Farmers say the tariff-free imports from Ukraine have undercut their ability to sell grain since the autumn of 2022. The Polish Agriculture Minister Henryk Kowalczyk resigned on 5th April 2023 due to his team’s inability to solve the issue and appease powerful farmer unions. Later that same day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited Poland and promised to find a solution regarding grain imports. On 7th April 2023, Kyiv promised to halt exports to Polish markets of certain grains until the new season. However, on 18th April 2023, the Polish and Ukrainian agriculture ministers announced a deal to reverse a Polish ban on importing Ukrainian food products. The newly minted Polish Agriculture Minister Robert Telus promised to electronically track the produce to ensure it is moved out of Poland and does not linger in domestic markets.

The price drops caused a week-long protest by Polish farmers starting on 12th April 2023 at Hrubieszow, a Polish city bordering Ukraine. Polish farmers drove a number of tractors to block streets and attempted to blockade the rail line, but police prevented them from doing so. The protest was organised by unions, including Agrounia. Besides price drops, the farmers are claiming that Polish people are eating Ukrainian cereals not fit for consumption and are meant for industrial uses. Farmers say the situation is politically motivated, accusing the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party of close connections to companies profiting from the influx of Ukrainian grain.

Catholics march in support of former Pope John Paul II

On 2nd April 2023, tens of thousands of Catholics marched to honour Pope John Paul II, originally from Poland, on the 18th anniversary of his death. The showing of support follows accusations that he was negligent in responding to child sex abuse reports during his time as Pope from 1978 until his death in 2005. Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of PiS, the ruling party, said attempts to undermine the Pope’s legacy were attempts to control Polish society. Politico reports that PiS wants to make his legacy the main political issue ahead of elections to distract from inflation, the war on Ukraine, and corruption.

People with disabilities forced to stop protesting in Polish parliament

A protest which started on 6th March 2023 was forced to end at the end of March due to poor health from protesters occupying the corridors of the Sejm, the lower house of parliament. The protesters’ main demand was to increase the disability pension to a livable wage. On 23rd May 2023, PiS party officials blocked people with disabilities from entering the parliamentary session when they were debating a pension increase.

Nurses protest for better wages

Over 2,000 nurses and midwives traveled to Warsaw on 23rd May 2023 to protest pay inequality in front of the parliament building. Polish nurses have collected over 130,000 signatures in support of a bill the group submitted to the parliament to raise wages in the sector.

Polish truckers protest “unfair competition” from neighboring countries

Starting in the first week of May 2023, Polish truckers blocked key freight checkpoints with Belarus and Ukraine. The truck drivers accused Ukrainian and Belarusian drivers of offering shipping services at lower prices which they cannot match.


Proposed law threatens free expression

The ruling PiS party voted on 14th April 2023 to create a commission to investigate Russian influence. The proposed commission on Russian influence in the Polish public sphere is to investigate the actions of individuals who held public office or were members of senior management between 2007 and 2022. The commission will consist of nine members selected by the Sejm, the lower house of parliament which is controlled by the ruling coalition. The head will be appointed by the prime minister. Opposition politicians say the commission will be used to punish government critics and opposition members ahead of the Fall 2023 election.

In addition, the Polish Ministry of Justice is considering introducing a law that could potentially be used against civil society actors as a form of anti-foreign agent law. The new law is aimed at targeting those who would disclose information that could harm the Republic of Poland. The proposed punishment for such actions would be imprisonment ranging from three months to up to five years.

Press freedom ranking improves

Reporters Without Borders published its annual World Press Freedom Index on 3rd May 2023 and found that Poland rose nine places — from 66th in 2022 to 57th in 2023. Countries that are closer to No. 1 have the most press freedoms. In general, countries in Southeast and Central Europe improved their global rankings. This was the first time Poland moved up in ranking in the past eight years.

Spyware usage by politicians

A report by the EU Parliament’s spyware inquiry committee, released on 8th May 2023, found that the Israeli-made Pegasus spyware was being used by politicians in Poland and Hungary to keep the ruling party in power and intimidate critics. The report showed that “the scope for legal surveillance in Poland has been expanded to the near unlimited” and the information harvested is used for “smear campaigns by government critics and opposition, through the government-controlled state media”.

Non-PiS aligned media attacked

On 3rd April 2023, Tok FM journalist Piotr Maślak was found guilty by the District Court of Sokółka of insulting the Polish Border Guard in a tweet about the Polish-Belarusian refugee crossings. The court ordered Maślak to pay over €660 to a Victim Assistance Fund, plus the cost of the proceedings. Maślak said he will appeal the verdict.

On 7th April 2023, media regulator KRRiT opened a probe into Radio Zet the day after it published a critical report on the husband of the Speaker of the Sejm, Elżbieta Witek. The report found that Witeks' husband was occupying an ICU bed when he did not need that level of care, denying other patients a bed in the limited-capacity unit. The report alleged abuse of power. KRRiT’s probe will examine if the media report violated article 18, section 1 of the Broadcasting Act, which punishes the promotion of false information.

On 20th April 2023, KRRiT opened a regulatory probe into broadcaster TVN’s interview with a Polish academic critiquing Poles’ actions to undermine Jewish people during WWII. Experts suspect KRRiT chairperson Maciej Świrski of using his position to pressure new outlets that clash with the ruling party PiS’ ideology.

On 28th April 2023, Tok FM was fined €17,680 by KRRiT, Poland’s broadcasting regulator, for “inciting hatred.” The station argues it was criticising hate speech within a controversial textbook, which was authored by a former politician within the ruling PiS party. The fine comes ten months after the show was originally broadcast on 7th June 2022. The station called the fine an “assault on independent media.” The International Press Institute agreed and demanded the “fine to be rescinded immediately”.

On 6th May 2023, the state-controlled public broadcaster TVP launched a smear campaign against independent media in Poland in an effort to discredit their work. The campaign focuses on independent media’s acceptance of foreign financial support from German, Belgium, and Dutch organisations.

On 18th May 2023, six Polish news websites were hit with DDoS attacks, which crashed their websites for several hours. The Polish government said the cyber-attacks came from Russian hacking groups. Poland’s most popular news magazines and daily newspapers were targeted, including Super Express, Gazeta Wyborcza, Rzeczospolita, and Polityka.

Polish academic faces backlash for her statement on WWII

Polish academic Barbara Engelking faced condemnation from the nationalistic ruling party PiS for saying Poles did not help Jewish people during WWII on 19th April 2023 during a TV programme. KRRiT, the Polish broadcasting regulator, requested that she be investigated for insulting the Polish nation and launched an investigation into the U.S.-owned Polish TV station on 22nd April 2023. In response, over 300 Polish and international academics and research institutions voiced support for Engelking. The Polish education minister responded by saying his ministry will not fund academics who insult the Polish state.

Hate speech sentence overturned

On 19th April 2023, Poland’s Supreme Court acquitted a man sentenced in 2021 to a six-month prison sentence for inciting hatred in Facebook posts that called for a “white Poland” and condemned “rainbow politicians”.

Religious feelings offense charges

On 7th April 2023, a man was detained for vandalising a statue of Pope John Paul II in the Polish city of Łódź during the weekend of the 18th anniversary of the Polish pope’s death. The unnamed 25-year-old man was charged with “offending religious feelings,” which carries a prison sentence of up to two years. The statue was doused with red spray paint dripping from the hands, symbolising blood for accusations that the pope neglected to respond to clerical child abuse cases.

This religious blasphemy law has also been used against an artist for an abortion protest painting that displays a cross being jammed up a woman’s vagina. This will be artist Krzysztof Soroka's second time going on trial, which was due to start on 23rd March 2023. He was convicted in 2022 for the same image. “Religious feelings rule over freedom of speech and my artistic freedom,” Soroka wrote on Instagram after the 2022 ruling.

Court convicts woman for rainbow Virgin Mary portrayal

Two women were convicted for offending religious feelings on 21st April 2023 for portraying the Virgin Mary and Jesus with a rainbow halo in a pro-LGBTQIA+ march. One was ordered to do five months of community service and another was fined around €440. The pair, who have the same lawyer, plans to contest the judgment. Similar court cases happened in the last few years as LGBTQIA+ activist regularly use the image of the Black Madonna with a rainbow halo symbolising differences and acceptance.

Poland remains the worst EU country for LGBTQIA+ people

The annual Rainbow Europe index, released on 11th May 2023, has ranked Poland as the worst European Union country for LGBTQIA+ people — again. Poland has held this position since 2020. The report was produced by ILGA-Europe, a Brussels-based NGO.

Activists found guilty of attacking anti-LGBTQIA+ van

Three activists were sentenced on 22nd May 2023 for a June 2020 incident in which they attacked a van displaying messages that linked the LGBTQIA+ community to paedophilia. The activists were ordered to pay damages and to six months of community service. Earlier in March 2023, the leader of Fundacja Pro, the anti-abortion organisation behind the van, was found guilty of defamation.

See the original article on Civicus Monitor.

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