Civic space under threat: protesters intimidated, journalists attacked, LGBTI rights targeted
As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, on 22nd October 2020, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortion due to foetal abnormality is unconstitutional. However, it should be noted that the Tribunal’s ruling has not been published in the Polish Journal of Laws nor has it yet legally entered into force. However, even though it is not in force legally speaking, in practice hospitals have stopped performing abortions based on foetal abnormalities as doctors fear being prosecuted later. Nevertheless, a set of demonstrations against the near-total ban on abortion took place in Poland - a country whose abortion laws were already considered some of the most restrictive in Europe. Police brutality against protesters has been documented and cases of violence against journalists have been reported. Ever since stepping into power in 2015, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party has been trying to advance its anti-LGBTI agenda, which has resulted in several steps back in the rights of this group.
In early November 2020, Polish president Andrzej Duda proposed an amendment to the abortion law that would allow the termination of pregnancy in cases of lethal foetal abnormality, however not in the case of Downs Syndrome. However, protesters continued to take to the streets of Poland, since the aforementioned amendment was considered insufficient. According to Maciej Kalisz from the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, protesters rightly believe the proposed amendment continues to significantly limit access to abortion.
Amidst mass demonstrations against the near-total ban on abortion, there have been multiple reports of police brutality and the use of excessive force on protesters. On 18th November 2020, when a protest moved from Parliament to the headquarters of TVP, the state broadcaster, unidentified police officers responded to protesters with violence by using pepper spray, tear gas and batons.
On 28th November 2020, while taking part in a demonstration against the abortion restrictions and policy brutality, Barbara Nowacka, Member of the Polish Parliament, was tear-gased whilst showing her parliamentary identity card. Throughout the course of the same demonstration, protestors were prevented from reaching specific destinations, were kettled and the names of 900 people were recorded by the police. The police have also issued fines against hundreds of demonstrators for contravening the current coronavirus restrictions, where public gatherings of more than five people are prohibited by the government.
There have also been other incidents of police violence during protests. In a concerning case, video footage on social media captured how a 19-year-old protester’s arm was broken in three different places by a police officer while being taken into police custody. Police in the video are heard saying “take them in for disruptions...”. This incident demonstrates the extreme levels of police violence used on protesters.
Film, na którym słychać jak jakiś zwyrodnialec z pislicji łamie M. rękę. Somplikowane złamanie spiralne, czeka ją operacja.— #StrajkKobiet (@strajkkobiet) December 10, 2020
Wszystkich was rozliczymy, spisane zostaną nazwiska i czyny. pic.twitter.com/B0KjwjQ9KE
Intimidation and detention of protesters
Protesters, including minors, have faced intimidation from the authorities for taking part in or freely expressing support for protests.
- On 26th October 2020, a 17-year-old was knocked to the ground by police during a protest and detained overnight.
- On 9th November 2020, during a protest in front of the Ministry of Education, activist Gabriela Lazarek was arrested after she intervened when police were preventing a bystander from passing through. She was questioned by police for three hours, with no access to a lawyer. She was charged for “unlawfully influencing by force or threat the official acts of authorities” and “insulting a public official”.
- On 10th November 2020, activist Katarzyna Augustynek,part of the “Polish Grandmothers” group, was arrested for peacefully protesting in Warsaw. Police asked for her ID, which she refused to show. She tried to resist the arrest and lay on the ground. She was charged for “violating the physical integrity of an officer on duty”.
- On 17th November 2020, a 14-year-old was visited by police at his home to inform him that the post he had shared on Facebook concerning a demonstration against the abortion ban was “a public incitement to commit a criminal act”. The police officers also affirmed that the minor’s participation in the demonstration could lead to eight years in prison since he would be considered one of the demonstration’s organisers.
- Also in November 2020, a 17-year-old was called in for questioning by authorities for committing “demoralisation” because she "participated in an illegal gathering".
- Some teachers and professors have threatened students with disciplinary action for using symbols of protests, showing support for the Women's Strike (Strajk Kobiet) and for participating in protests.
Amnesty International Poland condemned the continuous crackdown on protesters:
“Women of all ages, from girls to grandmothers, have joined overwhelmingly peaceful protests to reclaim their rights. We are therefore horrified to see excessive use of force by police, disproportionate charges used against protestors, and speeches from public officials that could encourage further violence toward them,”- Nils Muižnieks, Europe Director at Amnesty International.
Furthermore, in one month alone, almost 70 people have been detained in Warsaw and the number of detentions continues to increase.
It should be noted that several Polish institutional figures have been attempting to delegitimise the demonstrations against the near-total ban on abortion. While police have described the demonstrations as “illegal gathering[s]'', PiS’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, has labelled the protesters as “anti-Polish”. Constitutional Tribunal judge Krystyna Pawłowicz compared the symbol of All-Polish Women's Strike to Hitler’s SS Units’ emblem.
Further threats on peaceful assembly
On 9th November 2020, a proposed law meant to ban LGBTI parades and public gatherings was submitted to the Polish Parliament. Labelled as the “Stop LGBT” bill, the aforesaid proposal collected over 200,000 signatures and is a citizen’s initiative, led by the Life and Family Foundation, which is led by a prominent anti-abortion activist. A representative of the Foundation said the aim of the proposed law is to protect Polish families and “put an end to homo-propaganda”. The bill seeks to ban gatherings which promote, among other things, “sexual orientations other than heterosexuality”, the idea of non-biological gender, same-sex marriage or civic partnerships, or the adoption of children by same-sex couples. Considering more than 100,000 signatures were gathered, the Polish Parliament has now provided a timeframe of three months to conduct its first reading of the proposed law.
The right of association and peaceful assembly in Poland may also be compromised due to a recently announced law proposal, led by Solidary Poland. According to the bill, people would no longer have the option to refuse to pay a fine issued by the police for illegally protesting, or the request that the police prove before a court why the protester is guilty. Citizens could only contest such a fine -- which would be effective immediately -- by writing a motion to the court and include all evidence supporting their innocence within seven days. No further such evidence could be used in the proceedings.
Maciej Kalisz from the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights believes this restriction aims to discourage people’s participation in all sorts of demonstrations, even justified ones.
Calls to the EU and UN Special Rapporteurs
In response to the ongoing developments in Poland, several international and Polish organisations, including CIVICUS, wrote a letter to EU commissioners Věra Jourová, Vice-President, Values and Transparency, Didier Reynders, Commissioner for Justice, and Helena Dalli, Commissioner for Equality on 30th November 2020.
“We are writing to raise our longstanding and grave concerns concerning the deterioration of the rule of law and fundamental rights in Poland. In light of recent developments and continued and persistent attacks against the rule of law and human rights in Poland, we believe it is critical for the European Commission to issue an update to its Reasoned Proposal under Article 7(1) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) expanding the scope of the ongoing procedure to include violations of EU values as set out in Article 2 TEU.”
In addition, CIVICUS, International Planned Parenthood Federation, (IPPF), a Great Coalition for Equality and Choice and other organisations expressed concerns about the ongoing repression of the right to peaceful assembly in a letter addressed to several UN Special Rapporteurs.
Violence and harassment against journalists
Several cases of violence against journalists were documented during the Polish Independence Day March:
- On 11th November 2020, a 74-year-old photojournalist was injured in the face by a rubber bullet. The photographer was holding his camera and was visibly distanced from the crowd when a police officer fired the projectile.
- Journalist Renata Kim from Newsweek Polska was hit in the kidney twice with a police baton, despite the fact that she was wearing a vest which clearly stated “PRESS”.
- Przemysław Stefaniak was also hit on the head with a baton and footage shows police throwing a stun grenade near the group of journalists.
- Adam Tuchliński from Newsweek Polska was hit on his back and legs with a police baton.
- Dominik Łowicki, a reporter in the video section of Gazeta Wyborcza, denounced episodes of police brutality, having been hit with police batons and pepper-sprayed, despite holding up his hands and shouting “Media”.
On 23rd November 2020, despite having shown her Press ID, photojournalist Agata Grzybowska was arrested and charged for “violating the [police officer’s] physical integrity” while covering the demonstrations in Warsaw. On her Facebook page Grzybowska said:
“Today another border has been crossed. While I was doing my job, photographing a protest in front of the Ministry of Education, I was attacked by a police officer (only because, when I was taking the photo I flashed the lamp in his face), and then, despite showing my press ID, I was brutally thrown into a police van, where they were trying to tell me that I was the aggressor. (...).”
Photojournalist Agata Grzybowska (@AP @gazeta_wyborcza) while being detained by the police during the demonstration that she was covering— Bartosz T. Wieliński 🇵🇱💯 (@Bart_Wielinski) November 23, 2020
That's another example that Polish police under #PiS-rule uses violence and conducts unlawful detentions in order to hinder journalist’s work pic.twitter.com/rWwzZPYefa
Reporters without Borders called on the authorities to drop the charges against the journalist.
“Agata Grzybowska’s arrest and the charge brought against her show that Poland has crossed another threshold in the suppression of media freedom. Instead of preventing journalists from reporting in the field, the police should protect them. Such press freedom violations are unworthy of an EU member country. The charges against this journalist must be dropped,”- Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk.
Close to 700 journalists sent an appeal to authorities to refrain from deliberately hindering the work of the media during protests.
“In recent weeks, we have been observing further attempts to limit the freedom of the media by the Police, which carries out the orders of the authorities. First, blocking access to the sites of events that should be reported and broadcast by the media. Then officers attacked journalists and photojournalists in their work – with the use of physical force and tear gas against them.”
A step back for media freedom
As reported previously, Poland’s dominant ruling coalition party, Law and Justice (PiS) has been planning to reform the Polish media by bringing foreign-owned media outlets under Polish control. On 8th December 2020, PKN Orlen -- a state-owned oil company -announced the acquisition of Polska Press from its German owner. Polska Press is one of the country’s largest media publishers with an audience of 17,4 million internet users (it owns 20 out of 24 regional newspapers, 120 local weeklies and 500 online portals across the country). Although PKN Orlen described the acquisition as an expansion of PKN’s “business interests”, concerns over media freedom have been raised. The CEO of PKN Orlen, Daniel Obajtek, is said to be a loyal supporter of Law and Justice party president Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The leader of Civic Platform, the main opposition party in Poland, declared:
“Through state-owned companies, with the money of Polish taxpayers, [PiS] is trying to take control of independent media”
The International Press Institute (IPI) likened the move to a “Hungary-style takeover of independent media”.
“The sale of Polska Press represents a major and historic setback for press freedom and pluralism in Poland and a damaging blow for independent journalism, which had remained strong in the country despite great pressure. In addition to numerous daily titles, the government now has unparalleled access to an average of over 17 million monthly readers. While Orlen’s CEO may characterise this as a simple business investment, it appears clear that its true purpose is aiding PiS in nationalizing foreign press and bringing independent media to heel,”- Scott Griffen, IPI deputy director.
Independent media is a vital part of any democracy and accusations of the PiS led-government using public broadcasting stations -- namely Telewizja Polska (TVP) -- as propaganda outlets are not new.
🇵🇱 Let's be clear. This is "repolonization" via the back door. The sale of #PolskaPress represents a major setback for #pressfreedom & pluralism in #Poland, and damaging blow for independent journalism which has for so long remained strong in the country despite great pressure. https://t.co/mdEhquSK52— IPI - The Global Network for Press Freedom (@globalfreemedia) December 23, 2020
LGBTI rights remain under attack
The trial of the three Polish women who in 2019 put up posters of the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo in the city of Plock, began on 13th January 2021. The three women -- Elżbieta Podleśna, Anna Prus and Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar Podleśna – laid out the posters in what they described as an action against the “homophobic” stance of a church in Plock. The church had displayed an Easter setting in which it listed “gender” and “LGBTI” as sins. The three women were accused of “offending religious feelings” and may face up to two years in prison. The next date for the hearing is set for 17th February 2020. Organisations have repeatedly called for the charges to be dropped.
Three activists face up to two years in jail after distributing posters depicting the Virgin Mary with an #LGBTI rainbow halo🏳️🌈. The trial has begun right now and there are supporters in the front of the court with the message: you will never walk alone. #TeczaNieObraza pic.twitter.com/02W1Z7QYXu— Amnesty Polska (@amnestyPL) January 13, 2021
Recently, Poland also announced the creation of the new “Department of European Identity”. Among other purposes, the Department aims to to protect “children’s rights and counteract domestic violence” and enhance “the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms including the constitutional protection of marriage, family, motherhood and parenthood, and European identity”. It should be noted that the Department is currently led by Michał Wójcik, deputy leader of Solidary Poland, a party known for supporting anti-LGBTI policies and Poland’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (known as the Istanbul Convention). Thus far, Wójcik’s public legislative proposals intend to “ban” LGBTI ideology” and prevent “the recognition of same-sex marriages concluded abroad”.
In a memorandum, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović called on Poland to undo the current negative trends targeting (LGBTI) people and activists in the country.
“Public officials and opinion makers should stop promoting an atmosphere of hate and intolerance vis-à-vis LGBTI people and instead improve respect for their human rights. Stigmatisation and hate speech carry a real risk of legitimising violence. LGBTI are people, not an ideology.... Hate and dehumanisation have an impact not just on victims but also on the well-being of the society. They send a signal of social exclusion and threaten social cohesion.”
Despite the government’s anti-LGBTQ+ agenda, there have been small victories within the country that represent a glimmer of hope amidst the hostilities against this group. In December, the city of Krakow became the first city in the country to financially support a LGBTI shelter that was in financial distress. In addition, a driver whose van transmitted anti-LGBTI messages, was fined by a court -- though not for the anti-LGBTI slogans but for breach of broadcasting limitations in built-up areas. Nevertheless, the legal decision was celebrated as a means to limit the scope of action of anti-LGBTI groups.