Nationalistic feelings surge during large Independence Day march
On 11th November 2017, approximately 60,000 people marched through Warsaw to celebrate Poland’s Independence Day. The demonstrators threw red-smoke bombs, carried banners with slogans stating - “white Europe of brotherly nations” and chanted “Pure Poland, white Poland!” and “Refugees get out!”. According to reports on the march, nationalist-oriented demonstrators pushed and kicked several counter demonstrators who carried a banner reading “Stop fascism” and chanted anti-fascist slogans. Politicians from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party insisted that the march was patriotic and that racist, antisemitic and xenophobic ideas did not play a significant part in the celebration. The first unequivocal condemnation from the country’s conservative leadership came two days after the march, when President Andrzej Duda said: “there is no place in Poland” for xenophobia, pathological nationalism and antisemitism.
In October 2017, Amnesty International published a damning report on the recent legal developments and human right breaches in Poland. The report "Poland: on the streets to defend human rights" focused on several demonstrations against policies introduced by the government since late 2015, when PiS came into power. According to Amnesty’s report, the Polish authorities infringed on the freedom of assembly through legal means and also in practice as a number of protesters were subjected to harassment and intimidation. Taken together, the measures applied:
“reflect an environment in Poland where there is an ever-shrinking space for the public to express its opposition to repressive and often unlawful measures by the state, and they threaten to have a chilling effect on future endeavours to express such opposition via peaceful public assemblies”.
The Interior Ministry of Poland rejected the allegations. In an email to the Associated Press, the Ministry's press office stated: “All actions by the security forces toward the participants of (public) gatherings are solely related to breaches of regulations, meaning crimes or offenses. Since taking office in 2015, the PiS government has provided heavy police protection for street demonstrations organized by groups on the right of the political spectrum, including the extreme right”.
On 11th December 2017, the BBC reported that Poland's National Broadcasting Council had fined the private TVN station because of its coverage of opposition demonstrations in Warsaw in 2016. TVN, a US-owned broadcaster often critical of the Polish government, was fined 1.48 million zloty (approximately 414,000 USD) for promoting “illegal activities” and encouraging “behaviour that threatened security”. The critics of the ruling PiS party say that the Council's decision amounts to censorship. The demonstrations in December 2016 were triggered by the so-called "Parliamentary Crisis". During the Parliamentary Crisis the opposition MPs blocked the plenary hall for several days as a reaction to Poland’s government putting forward a plan to limit the number of journalists and television stations allowed to cover parliamentary proceedings. In response to the demonstrations, the government had mostly dropped the plan
A month earlier on 15th November, the European Parliament called on Poland to respect, among other things, the rule of law concerning media freedom and the freedom of assembly. The Socialists & Democrats president, Gianni Pitella, criticised the Polish government’s interference with media organisations. The five board members of Poland's National Broadcasting Council were either appointed by the Parliament, currently dominated by the PiS party, or by the president Andrzej Duda, who is a former member of PiS.
Poland is currently ranked 54th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). In 2015, before PiS came to power, Poland ranked 18th in the same index. The last time Poland was ranked lower than now was in 2007, when it placed 56th. RSF urged Brussels not to allow media freedom to continue to deteriorate in Poland.
As previously reported on the Monitor, in October 2017 police raided the offices of two women's empowerment organisations - the Women's Rights Centre and Baba - both of which had participated in anti-government protests a day earlier. Some days later, President Andrzej Duda signed into law the National Freedom Institute Bill, which extends government control over funding to civil society organisations. The law was passed despite calls from a number of well-established organisations for the president to veto the act.
The Polish civil society minister, Adam Lipiński, stated that the establishment of the Freedom Institute will enable the government to exert greater control over funds coming into and out of civil society organizations, and thus improve the way they function. “The Polish NGO sector is one of the weakest in Europe,” Lipiński told POLITICO. “We need to know more about it. Perhaps in these murky waters there are sharks that are now afraid they will be better seen? It’s all public funds and the government should know what’s happening to this money”. A number of NGOs worry that the real agenda behind the law is to mold civil society in the image of the current right-wing government.