In response to the ruling, the European Commission reacted swiftly, stating:
“The Commission will not hesitate to make use of its powers under the Treaties to safeguard the uniform application and integrity of Union law.”
Despite the warning, the Polish government published the verdict on 12th October 2021 - meaning that the ruling is now enforced.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, of the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, who had brought the contested case to the court, has insisted that Poland will remain in the EU despite the standoff. The European Commission has yet to approve Poland’s 57 billion Euros EU COVID-19 recovery fund. The Commission will not do this until the dispute is settled. The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, noted that she would act to prevent Poland from undermining EU values. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Morawiecki has said: "Blackmail must not be a method of policy”. In his view, the EU is overstepping its power.
In another development, on 13th October 2021, the leader of Poland's ruling PiS party, Jarosław Kaczyński, announced that he is stepping down from his post as deputy prime minister at the beginning of 2022. He was appointed to the post in October 2020. According to the pro-government PAP news agency, Kaczyński finds that his government position does not allow him to have enough control of party affairs. Kaczyński is regarded as Poland's most powerful politician and the de-facto leader of the country.
Abortion ban anniversary
On 22nd October 2020, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled to impose a near-ban on abortion, sparking massive protests in the country. Ahead of the one-year anniversary of the near-total ban on abortion, Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) from the Polish Women’s Strike have been collecting signatures for the “Legal Abortion Without Compromise” bill, which would permit abortion without restriction as to reason, up to the twelfth week of pregnancy. It would permit abortion after 12 weeks in cases of risk to the person’s mental or physical health, a non-viable pregnancy, or pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. The bill needs 100,000 signatures to be introduced to the parliament.
Meanwhile in September 2021, a draft law “Stop Abortion 2021” was introduced to the Sejm, after garnering 130,000 signatures. The draft law is backed by ultra-Conservative group Ordo Iuris. The bill aims to criminalise anyone who has an abortion and anyone who assists them, with punishment of up to 25 years in prison.
Organisations working on abortion care state that the ruling has had a chilling effect on their work, as those in need of an abortion and medical professionals fear the potential consequences they may face.
“The Constitutional Tribunal ruling is causing incalculable harm to women and girls – especially those who are poor, live in rural areas, or are marginalized. The dignity, freedom and health of pregnant people are compromised because their own government is denying them access to essential reproductive health care,”- Urszula Grycuk, international advocacy coordinator at the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa) in Poland.
Ahead of the anniversary, 14 human rights organisations, including CIVICUS, called on the Polish government to end its efforts to undermine reproductive rights and weaken protections from gender-based violence and to commit to protecting WHRDs who have faced ongoing threats and attacks since the October 2020 decision.
“Extreme restrictions on abortion are part of a broader assault by Poland’s government on human rights, including women’s rights and LGBTI rights, and the rule of law. It should alarm all Europeans that this is happening in their own backyard, even as European governments claim to be leaders on women’s rights and democratic values,” - Marta Lempart, co-founder of Strajk Kobiet (Polish Women’s Strike).
Following the Constitutional Tribunal ruling on the primacy of Polish law (see above), on 10th October 2021, pro-EU mass protests took place in 120 Polish towns. The number of protesters exceeded 100,000, with the largest numbers gathered in the cities of Krakow and Warsaw. The protesters disagreed with the recent decision of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal and carried slogans “we are staying” as they expressed solidarity with the European Union and discontent with the deteriorating relations between the Polish government and the EU.
A Woman Human Rights Defender told the CIVICUS Monitor that the authorities responded to the protests with detentions and physical violence. Nine people were detained, including an LGBTIQ activist, and authorities have taken down the names of 71 people who were protesting. In addition, non-state actors organised counteractions impeding peaceful protesters, with little reaction from police.
In another concerning development, co-founder of the Polish Women’s Strike, Marta Lempart, has been assigned police protection in public spaces after an escalating threat was made against her life. Lempart, who was part of the pro-EU protests, was informed of the security threat during the march. Police have since arrested the man responsible, who has a criminal background. As reported previously, Lempart and other WHRDs have faced death threats, rape threats and bomb scares, with police failing to respond. She told Gazeta Wyborcza:
“I don't know if the threat was real. I have been receiving threats in bulk for a long time, and my experience in this case is, for example, that when bomb alerts related to the support of the Women's Strike by various organizations were reported in March, the police dropped the cases. So I'm quite skeptical - but it's only a few years from now that we'll find out if it was real security or a way for me to march with a policeman without hesitation.”
In a separate protest, on 11th September 2021, around 30,000 medical workers from across the profession demonstrated in Warsaw. The protesters demanded urgent pay rises and reforms to Poland's neglected healthcare system. Doctors and other healthcare employees complained that with the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been overworked and cannot cope anymore. No altercations were reported.
'Stop LGBT' Bill
On 28th October 2021 the Polish parliament will consider the “Stop LGBT” bill which aims to ban LGBTI pride events as illegal with an intention to stop “homosexual propaganda in public space”. The bill also proposes to make it illegal to illegal “to promote sexual orientations other than heterosexuality”, “to challenge marriage as a union between a man and a woman” and “to promote sexual activity among children and adolescents under the age of 18”. The bill poses a serious threat to both freedom of peaceful assembly and expression.
Lex TVN bill
In early September 2021, legislators in the Senate, the upper house of the Polish parliament, rejectedthe so-called “Lex TVN” bill and sent it back to the Sejm. A few weeks earlier, on 11th August 2021, the PiS-controlled Sejm, the lower house of the parliament, approvedit. The bill is aimed at forcing US-owned Discovery to sell its controlling stake in TVN. TVN’s all-news channel TVN24 and flagship evening news programme is known to be critical toward the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.
According to the bill proposed by the PiS government, foreign companies except those from the European Economic Area cannot hold more than a 49% stake in Polish radio and TV. The leader of the PiS party, Jarosław Kaczyński said he wants Polish media to be controlled by the Polish owners and to prevent Russian capital from entering the industry. As a reaction to the proposed legislative changes, Discovery threatened the government with legal action. The company reminded legislators that by adopting these changes, they violate the 1990 bilateral agreement between the United States and Poland, which provides for non-discrimination in granting licences. The US government said that they are "deeply troubled" by the proposed legislation.
On 23rd September 2021, the licence of the TVN channel was extended, after close to two years of delays. However, before extending the licence the regulator adopted a resolution in line with the amendments proposed in Lex TVN and also asked the Polish parliament to provide more legal clarity over whether TVN24 had the right to continue operating. The European Union has said it will continue to "closely" monitor the issue of media freedom in Poland.
Related to the developments on TVN, on 23rd August 2021, journalist Marcin Mindykowski was firedfrom regional public station Radio Gdańsk after he signed a letter opposing the TVN bill. The letter, signed by more than a thousand journalists, is the largest ever joint statement of the journalistic community in Poland. In a letter, the broadcaster justified its decision, stating that under the principle of freedom of contract, termination of civil law contracts is the right and sovereign decision of each contractual party.
Incidents against journalists
On 2nd October 2021, four police officers searched the apartment of Piotr Bakselerowicz, a reporter for the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. The officers seized the reporter’s personal and work phones, internet router and laptop. Warsaw police said that the reason for the search was that legislators had received threats from the IP address linked to the address of Bakselerowicz. However, the journalist claims that he has never sent threats to anyone. Roman Imielski, the paper’s deputy editor, said the police incursion took place without a warrant and “strikes against the fundamental right to journalistic secrecy in a democracy.” Responding to the incident, the Committee to Protect Journalists said:
“Polish authorities should stop harassing journalist Piotr Bakselerowicz, immediately return his equipment, and refrain from searching reporters’ homes. If police want to question a member of the press, they should summon them for an interview, not send armed agents to raid their homes and confiscate their devices,”- CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna, in New York.
As a follow-up to this development, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) sent a letter to the Capital Commander of the Police, emphasising that the actions of the officers are of deep concern as the protection of journalistic secrets was put at risk by the actions of the police officers. HFHR lawyers emphasise that the principle of protecting journalistic sources is the cornerstone of media freedom, without which the press would not be able to properly exercise its control function over the authorities.
In another development, on 10th October 2021, police officers and the State Security Service did not allow journalists from certain editorial offices to cover the celebration of the so-called monthly Smolensk, the commemoration of the plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczyński, the twin brother of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, in 2010. One of the journalists also reported that he was pushed away and deliberately knocked down by police. The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights sent a letter to the chief of the Metropolitan Police with a request to mitigate the actions of the police against journalists.
State of emergency: Freedom of press under threat
On 2nd September 2021, Poland implemented a “state of emergency” at its borders with Belarus, limiting journalists and human rights defenders from accessing the area. According to the Polish government, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has been encouraging Iraqi and Afghan refugees to flout EU law and cross the border in a bid to put pressure on the bloc to lift economic sanctions.
As Balkan Insight reports, the state of emergency means “a ban on staying in designated places, facilities and areas at specific times”. The decree includes “a prohibition of recording by technical means the appearance or other features of specific places, objects or areas” and envisages “limiting access to public information on activities carried out in the area covered by the state of emergency”.
An Investigaton by Amnesty International found that:
“the state of emergency has prevented the oversight of potential human rights violations, raising concerns about the treatment of refugees and migrants in the area, including the unlawful return of other people back across the border to Belarus. Since 19th September 2021, five people have died in the border area, including as a result of hypothermia.”
“The dire situation facing the Afghans on the border is one that the Polish government has created. The declaration of ‘the state of emergency’ is illegitimate and must be lifted. The situation at the country’s borders does not constitute a public emergency by European and international definitions.”- Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office.
Despite international criticism, Poland extended the state of emergency in the last week of September 2021.
In addition, Poland has also ignored the interim measures from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) issued on 25th August 2021 and subsequently extended on 27th September 2021, which instruct Poland to provide the group with assistance, including “adequate food, water, clothing, medical care and, if possible, temporary shelter”.
There have also been several incidents documented against journalists who have been attempting to cover the refugee border crisis. On 14th September 2021, 30 newsrooms in Poland issued a joint appeal to the government to allow journalists to work freely in the border zone.
"We find that the actions of the authorities are contrary to the principle of freedom of speech, they also constitute a manifestation of unlawful obstruction of journalists' work and suppression of press criticism. We inform the authorities of the Republic of Poland and the public that we do not agree with the ban on journalists working in the border area. Allow us the possibility of fulfilling the mission of our profession, and the society the constitutional right to information. " (translated from Polish)
The following cases of incidents involving journalists reporting on the Poland/Belarus border were documented:
- On 3rd September 2021, Onet journalist Bartłomiej Bublewicz and his camera operator were informedthat police had filed two criminal charges against them for reporting from an area near Poland’s border with Belarus. The reporter was asked to appear at the police station where he was interrogated for half an hour, during which police seized the memory cards from his cameras. Police also attempted to seize the journalist’s phone, which he objected to. The pair were told that they were charged with staying in a prohibited area and for illegally filming border infrastructure.
- On 27th September 2021, Agnieszka Kaszuba, a journalist from daily newspaper Fakt was briefly detained by police as she and her team were reporting on developments at the Polish-Belarusian border. Police held the journalists for an hour and searched their car.
- On 28th September 2021, three journalists were arrested by police near the Polish-Belarusian border, detained overnight and then found guilty of violating rules under the state of emergency imposed by the Polish government. Journalist at French-German ARTE TV, Ulrike Dässler, her camera operator and Maja Czarnecka, a Warsaw-based journalist for Agence France-Presse (AFP), were arrested. While in detention, their journalistic equipment and work devices were confiscated and their car was towed away. On 5th October 2021, a lawyer for ARTE filed a complaint against the police alleging that the overnight detention of journalists was disproportionate.
Positive development: Some 'LGBT free-zones' revoked
Several Polish regions have revoked anti-LGBTI declarations over the threat of losing funds from the European Union. The European Commission wrote to five Polish regional councils at the beginning of September 2021 urging them to abandon declarations to receive recovery funding. Following this, in Świętokrzyskie, Małopolska, Lublin and Podkarpackie anti-LGBT resolutions were revoked. As reported previously on the Monitor, over 100 municipalities declared themselves so-called ‘LGBT free zones’, in the name of protecting traditional family values.
See the original article on Civicus Monitor.