Press freedoms continue to decline
Mixed treatment of people on the move
24th February 2023 marked one year of Russia’s war in Ukraine. As a result, around a million Ukrainian refugees reside in Poland. From 1st March 2023 onwards, Ukrainian refugees must cover half of their accommodation costs (capped at €8.50 a day) if they stay in Poland for more than 120 days in public housing. Other state-funded benefits including free public transportation and healthcare are not impacted. While Poland received over €300 million from EU funds and global fundraising to support refugees, lawmakers say the state does not have enough money to continue subsidising housing at the same rate. In 2022, Poland spent €8.36 billion on Ukrainian refugees.
Around 60-70 percent of Ukrainian refugees in Poland have jobs, according to an estimate from the Polish Development Fund, an organisation that supports businesses. The fund’s leader, Bartosz Marczuk, anticipates that in 2023, the amount of taxes paid by Ukrainian refugees will exceed the Polish government's spending on supporting them by 1.1 billion zloty (equivalent to 230 million euros).
As opposed to Poland’s support of Ukrainian refugees, Poland’s approach to other refugees tends to be hostile, especially those coming from its neighbour Belarus, as a result of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s political ploy of importing and pushing migrants to the Polish border. In February 2023, the bodies of four migrants trying to cross the Belarusian-Polish border were also found. It is suspected they had died from exposure to cold weather and malnourishment, as a result of Poland’s policy to deny care and push migrants who cross the border back to Belarus. The Polish border guard announced on Twitter on 1st March 2023 that it had banned a 26-year-old German woman from the country for five years for repeatedly crossing a private zone on the Belarusian-Polish border and throwing packages through the border wall. This is part of an ongoing trend to criminalise humanitarian work on the border, as previously reported by CIVICUS Monitor.
Legal battle between the EU and Poland continues
In order to get access to 36 billion euros in European Union grants and loans, in mid-January 2023 the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party made efforts towards judicial reform - even though its junior partner in government, United Poland, voted against it in the parliament. The reform bill aimed at meeting the milestones set by the European Union that earlier froze the funds over rule of law concerns. United Poland has seen the reform as a breach of Poland’s sovereignty.
While the parliament passed the reform bill, Polish President Andrzej Duda refused to sign it. Instead, he sent the bill to the country’s highest court, the Constitutional Tribunal, for adjudication.
However, a couple of weeks earlier, on 4th January 2023, six of the 15 judges in the Constitutional Tribunal called for Chief Justice Julia Przyłębska to step down. While Przyłębska is a close friend of PiS’s effective leader Jarosław Kaczynsk, the six judges are seen as being close to Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, the leader of United Poland that voted against the justice reform bill in the parliament. The judges say that the chief justice’s six-year term ended in December 2022. Przyłębska, however, insists her term runs until 2024. The opposing judges attempted to nominate her replacement, but Przyłębska was able to secure the backing of a majority of the court’s judges on 1st March 2023 to stay in power. However, whether the tribunal will be able to rule on the justice reform is still unclear. Przyłębska needs to gather 11 judges to hear the case and without at least two of the opposing justices agreeing to sit on a panel, she will not be able to investigate the constitutionality of the reform needed to put in practice in order to release the much-needed EU funds.
On a related, yet independent development, on 15th February 2023, the European Commission announced it is taking Poland to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over two rulings of the Constitutional Tribunal in 2021 that declared that the state constitution supersedes EU law.
Duda changes electoral code ahead of fall elections
On 14th March 2023 Polish President Andrzej Duda passed a new amendment to the electoral code which is aimed at increasing voter access to polls. The amendment is intended to increase voter turnout for the elderly and residents of small towns by requiring polling stations to be created per 200 voters (currently the minimum is 500). It also establishes the right to free transport to polling stations for disabled voters and voters aged 60 and above. Opposition members say the change is intended to boost votes for PiS, the nationalist ruling party, because the electoral code changes are designed to benefit voter demographics that vote for PiS. The opposition also says the change violates previous rulings from the Constitutional Tribunal on the principle of “legislative silence” in electoral law since Polish parliamentary elections are less than six months away.
Human rights reports give Poland a bad score
Poland's government has been criticized for its attacks on judicial independence and the rule of law by the newest Human Rights Watch annual world report published on 12th January 2023. The report also criticised Poland's stance on women's sexual and reproductive rights, the use of anti-LGBT language by officials, and the hindrances faced by journalists in their work. Though HRW praised Poland for its welcome of refugees from Ukraine, it highlighted continued unlawful pushbacks at the border with Belarus.
Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” report published on 9th March 2023, showed Poland remained classified as “free,” but lost 12 points in its score due to judicial independence concerns. Central Europe as a whole declined.
People living with disabilities protest for a higher welfare allowance
On 6th March 2023, protesters began occupying the corridors of the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish Parliament, with no end in sight. Protesters want the government to raise the monthly welfare allowance for people living with disabilities to that of the minimum wage. Currently, the monthly allowance is less than half of the standard minimum wage. Notes from Poland reports that similar protests happened in 2014 and 2018, each lasting several weeks. On 7th March 2023, the protest group submitted a bill for consideration with nearly 200,000 public signatures.
The guards in the Sejm seem to try to make the protest invisible – by isolating the protesters from visitors, employees, and journalists entering the main hall, and and using a ploy to get protesters to leave the main hall. The ruling party PiS in the meantime tries to sell the message that they have greatly improved the situation of disabled people in the last few years, and in fact, caretakers are doing well in the country.
Judge acquits abortion protesters charged for interrupting mass
On 13th March 2023, a judge acquitted 32 people who interrupted a mass on 25th October 2020 to protest the Polish government’s new abortion bans. The protests were part of a massive wave of protests immediately following the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling on a near-total ban on abortion, as previously covered by the CIVICUS Monitor. The protesters, whose trial began in December 2021, were charged with “maliciously interfering with a religious act,” a crime punishable by up to two years in prison. However, the judge did not find malice in their actions. The lawyer representing the protesters told OKO.press in Polish that "the court found that the church itself invites politics to the altar." The Catholic church is largely seen as an advocate for the restrictive abortion laws.
In response to the ruling, the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS) asked on 14th March 2023 for the judge in the acquittal to be retrained "in constitutional law, including the protection of religious worship". The request is retribution for the judge not ruling the way the conservative majority wanted. KRS is a public body responsible for nominating judges and reviewing ethical complaints against judges. KRS was the first judicial council ever to have been expelled from the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ). As reported earlier on the CIVICUS Monitor, the reason for its expulsion in 2021 was that KRS had lost its independence under the current Polish government.
Environmental activists occupy a mountain forest with hammocks
As of 14th February 2023, Polish activists are occupying a forest within the Carpathian Mountains in southeastern Poland to prevent industrial logging. Protesters want the forest to be turned into “Turnicki National Park” because they say it is one of the few remaining primeval mountain forests in Europe. The forest is also home to endangered species including the European bison. As of February, no clashes with the police had been reported, but in the summer of 2022, the police violently broke up a protest group known as Wilczyce’s occupation
Press freedoms continue to decline
Three different recent reports show press freedom in Poland on the decline. In the first report, published on 7th February 2023, Media Freedom Rapid Response recorded 21 alerts involving 28 victims in Poland in 2022. Forty-three percent of the press freedom violations recorded were legal threats to journalists, including defamation lawsuits and various SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation). In three cases the lawsuits led to convictions.
The second report, published on 7th March 2023 by the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, finds that harassment, intimidation and smear campaigns have increased so much that they are becoming normalised in a number of countries in Europe, Poland among them. The report also emphasised that in July 2022, the Polish parliament elected three politicians in the governing PiS party as new members of the National Media Council, “enabling PiS to maintain its majority in the five-person council for the next six years. This ensures PiS sole responsibility for appointing management and supervisory boards of Polish Television (TVP), Polish Radio and the Polish Press Agency.”
Around the same time that these reports were published, on 22nd February 2023 Norges Bank, the central bank of Norway, placed Poland’s largest company, the energy giant Orlen, on a watch list that prohibits the Norwegian oil fund from further investment over concerns the company has violated the freedoms of the press. Orlen, a state-owned company aligned with PiS, the ruling nationalist party, has acquired dozens of Polish media outlets in recent years, severely crippling the ability of outlets to independently report the news. In the eyes of Norway’s Norges Bank, this targeted capital accumulation constitutes a serious human rights violation.
Opposition party member’s son commits suicide after state media targets him
Polish state media is facing heavy criticism after the 15-year-old son of an opposition politician committed suicide in March 2023 following a report that traced his abuse by a paedophile. The teenager killed himself two months after Radio Szczecin, a public broadcaster within the Polish public media system that PiS has editorial influence over, published the story targeting Poland’s main opposition party, Civic Platform (PO). Tomasz Duklanowski, the journalist who wrote the story, has defended his work, saying because the perpetrator was a PO activist it shows it “wasn’t just the Catholic Church” that covers up abuse cases. The perpetrator was sentenced to prison in 2021. Prosecutors are investigating the teen’s death while PO supporters are calling for greater accountability against state propaganda. Three Radio Szczecin personalities have since resigned from their shows in protest. A group of 40 Radio Szczecin employees has also signed a letter saying they do not agree with the reporting.
Polish government used spyware to monitor an opposition member
On 3rd March 2023, news came out that Jacek Karnowski, an opposition politician, was targeted by state surveillance using the spyware Pegasus in 2019. Pegasus is a tool that allows the surveillor to intercept phone calls and text messages and even allows total control of hacked devices, including access to their cameras and microphones. Findings show the Polish Central Anti-Corruption Bureau monitored Karnowski’s phone 10 to 20 times between 2018 and 2019. Karnowski said the hacking was a “violation of privacy and human dignity,” and called for the people responsible to be brought before the Constitutional Tribunal. This isn’t the first time Polish politicians have been targeted. In 2022, Senator Krzysztof Brejza, among others, was monitored, as reported previously by CIVICUS Monitor.
State surveillance potentially increasing in the future
In January 2023, the lower house of the Polish parliament started working on the government’s proposal on a new electronic communications law. Critics say the proposed law is an overreach. The bill was originally meant to update Polish standards on digital safeguards in accordance with the European Electronic Communications Code, but it ended up extending the government's ability to spy on its own citizens.
At the same time, media reported that Polish police have purchased software from the Israeli firm Cellebrite to boost surveillance capabilities. According to Balkan Insight, Polish courts approve 99 percent of police requests to access the personal data of citizens. Currently, Poland is fighting the EU Parliament over a proposed EU law on political ads that completely bans using personal data for targeting techniques.
Singer of metal band charged for offending religious feelings
On 29th May 2023, Polish musician Adam Darski, known by “Nergal” as the lead singer of the metal band Behemoth, is expected to appear in court to appeal charges of offending religious feelings after posting a photo on social media in 2019 that showed him stepping on the face of the Virgin Mary. The ultra-conservative Polish Catholic think tank, Ordo luris, notified state prosecutors of the social media post. He was found guilty in 2021 and issued with a fine of nearly €4,000, but without a full trial taking place. Both Darski and the prosecutors appealed the 2021 ruling. While the court then ruled that the case should be discontinued as Darski was forewarning his followers about the nature of the content he may publish, Ordo Iuris appealed the decision.
Proceedings against TOK
On 2nd February 2023, Poland’s broadcasting regulator KRRiT launched regulatory proceedings against the independent media outlet TOK FM. The head of KRRiT, Maciej Świrski has not disclosed the reasons behind the proceedings to the public, but media outlets report TOK FM was targeted after criticising PiS, the ruling party.
First abortion activist convicted in Poland
On 14th March 2023, a Polish court convicted Justyna Wydrzynska for mailing abortion pills in 2020 to a pregnant woman facing domestic violence. Wydrzynska is a member of the Aborcyjny (Abortion) Dream Team, a nonprofit based in Poland helping people access abortions.
As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, Wydrzynska originally faced up to three years in prison. The court sentenced her to eight months in confinement and 30 hours of community service a month. The court acquitted her of the charge of possession and marketing of prohibited substances. Both assisting an abortion and abortion are crimes in Poland and are punishable by up to three years in prison, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruled in 2020.
Wydrzynska said she will appeal the court case, saying she does not feel guilty for sending pills to Ania, the pregnant woman. “I sent Ania pills because she was abused like me,” she said. “Freeing yourself from an unwanted pregnancy in an abusive relationship opens the way to freeing yourself from violence in general.”
After the verdict, Aborcyjny Dream Team posted to Instagram writing in Polish, “We are not afraid of the PiS court, Ziobro's prosecutor's office or religious fundamentalists. As we said from the beginning: this process is an artificial spectacle. It is an attempt to intimidate not only us, abortion activists, but all women and people who jointly help each other to terminate pregnancies.” Other international human rights organisations are calling for her conviction to be overturned.
Justyna Wydrzyńska became the first activist in Poland to be found guilty of aiding an abortion in a landmark case over women’s rights, and she says "I will do the same again". #AbortionRights #PolandAbortionRightshttps://t.co/muB27MDVPf— SVPA (@SVPAOfficial) June 1, 2023