Pro-EU and Pro-Choice Protests Sweep Poland
“Lex Tusk” - law seeking to ban “pro-Russian” politicians from office causes controversy
On 26th May 2023, lawmakers passed a bill to establish a commission aimed at monitoring Russian influence on Polish public officials and other prominent figures. The commission’s investigations could result in “remedial measures,” including a 10-year ban on holding public positions involving the use of public funds, essentially ending a person’s political career. Public hearings and suspicions of improper ties to Russia could have significant consequences for politicians and public figures, even without the imposition of penalties. On the surface, the law seeks to address concerns about foreign influence on Poland’s governance and protect national interests. However, there are concerns that it might be abused to discredit or remove powerful opposition figures like Donald Tusk.
The Polish human rights watchdog, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR), has expressed the view that the proceedings conducted by the commission would be highly stigmatising and could portray the accused individual as a Russian agent. This, coupled with the punitive nature of the measures enforced by the commission, warrants classifying the proceedings as repressive. Marcin Wolny, a lawyer at HFHR, highlighted the need to implement a certain standard of procedural guarantees in such proceedings and ensure every individual's effective right to a fair trial. Wolny asserted that the Act establishing the commission does not meet this standard and that the commission is “venturing into territory exclusively reserved for the courts.”
President Andrzej Duda signed the bill into law on 29th May 2023. However, in response to widespread criticism, on 3rd June 2023, Duda issued a statement indicating that he would propose amendments to Parliament. These changes would exclude Members of Parliament from the commission, provide those found guilty the opportunity to appeal before a general court, and most importantly, eliminate the provisions stating that individuals found guilty would be barred from holding public office.
On 7th June 2023, the European Commission initiated a new infringement procedure against Poland in relation to the law. The Commission issued a "letter of formal notice" to Warsaw and allowed Poland less time than usual to respond due to the potential impact of the legislation on the autumn parliamentary election. If the infringement procedure progresses, it could lead to a new case against Poland at the Court of Justice of the European Union and possible fines.
On 28th July 2023, just two days after the Council of Europe's expert body, the Venice Commission, deemed both the original and revised versions of the law “fundamentally flawed,” the Polish Parliament passed the President's watered-down version. Under the new version, a person found to be under Russian influence will not be prohibited from holding public positions. However, the commission will issue a statement designating them as someone influenced by Russia who “cannot be guaranteed to serve the public interest.” The opposition argues that the new version could still be used to cast doubt and discredit prominent opposition figures.
Poland closes borders to Belarus in response to journalist's sentencing
On 26th May 2023, Poland announced plans to indefinitely close its eastern border to freight vehicles registered in Belarus and Russia, as outlined in a draft regulation released by the interior ministry.
This decision follows a Belarusian court's affirmation of an eight-year prison sentence for a Polish-Belarusian journalist, which has further heightened tensions between the two nations. While the regulation, which is intended to ensure public safety, does not explicitly mention the journalist's case, Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski announced via Twitter that he would impose sanctions on hundreds of Belarusian officials in response to the verdict.
In the wake of the journalist's imprisonment and the expulsion of Polish diplomats by Belarus, Poland had previously shuttered certain border crossings with its neighbour. Belarus, in turn, has criticised Poland's border closures, accusing Warsaw of causing delays and failing to uphold bilateral agreements. Poland, for its part, alleges that Belarus is artificially generating a crisis at the border by facilitating the entry of migrants from the Middle East and Africa and attempting to push them into Poland.
Although the number of border crossings has decreased compared to the peak of the crisis in 2021, the Polish Border Guard reports daily attempts to enter Poland. As previously highlighted on the CIVICUS Monitor, Poland's treatment of non-Ukranian migrants at its borders has been flagged as a violation of international and national law.
PiS says no to EU's planned Migration Act
On 9th June 2023, EU member states' Interior Ministers reached a consensus on a unified approach to overhaul the bloc's migration and asylum policy, despite facing staunch opposition from anti-migration countries such as Hungary and Poland. According to the EU plan, countries can either accept an assigned number of asylum seekers or pay a fee for each individual they decline.
A week later, the Polish parliament, backed by the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the far-right Confederation alliance, passed a resolution advocating for a referendum on the relocation of asylum seekers. This referendum could potentially coincide with the general election in autumn 2023, signalling the ruling parties' intent to place migration at the forefront of the upcoming election campaign.
Freedom of association
Ruling on freedom of association and the right to privacy for judges
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) determined that disclosing judges' affiliations with organisations or political parties encroached upon their right to privacy and compromised their independence. The court affirmed that several elements of the Polish justice reform in 2019 were in violation of EU law and underscored the critical importance of upholding the rule of law within the Union. Poland is now required to rectify the unlawful aspects of its judicial system or face potential financial penalties, as this ruling is considered definitive.
Freedom of assembly
Pro-European protests held throughout Poland
On 4th June 2023, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Warsaw to commemorate the 34th anniversary of the first partially free elections in post-war Poland. At a rally organised by the opposition party Civic Platform (CO), the protesters voiced their disagreement with the policies of the conservative-populist Law and Justice party (PiS), which they believe pose a danger to fundamental rights. The procession in Warsaw stretched for over a mile, with participants displaying messages such as “Liberty for a Europe-minded Poland” and “We support the European Union, but not PiS.” Similar protests, drawing thousands of participants, were also held in other major Polish cities.
Some protesters voiced their disagreement with a proposed law to combat Russian influence on Polish politics. As previously detailed on the CIVICUS Monitor, the law would establish an extrajudicial commission to investigate individuals under Russian influence who held public office or were in senior management positions in the public sector. Civil society organisations have expressed concerns that it may be used to smear and discredit opposition politicians.
Protest against Russia's ecocide in Ukraine
On 6th June 2023, a small protest unfolded in front of the Russian Embassy. Bartłomiej Kiełbowicz, the organiser of the protest, emphasized the pressing need for action to counteract terrorism and guarantee a safe future. This call comes in the wake of the deliberate destruction of a dam in Nova Kakhivka by the Russian military, which has endangered the lives of residents in 80 villages and Kherson, leading to severe ecological devastation.
Pro-choice protests after yet another woman dies
On 14th June 2023, in 70 different locations across Poland, thousands of women held protests following the tragic death of a woman due to a delayed abortion. The 33-year-old woman named Dorota Lalik sought medical assistance when her waters broke prematurely. Instead of informing her that the foetus had little chance of survival, the medical staff instructed her to lie down and elevate her legs. While the doctors did end up performing an abortion three days later, she developed sepsis and tragically passed away the same day. Protesters expressed their defiance against the stringent anti-abortion laws in the country through chants and signs. Lalik's death has further intensified opposition to the government in the lead-up to the upcoming elections.
Protests were held across Poland on Wednesday after a pregnant woman died due to sepsis. "In 2005, the director of the hospital where Lalik tragically passed away made a public declaration stating that the institution would no longer conduct abortions." https://t.co/2n2HvuasSz pic.twitter.com/paeYmz7RZZ— Alliance For Choice (@All4Choice) June 20, 2023
As reported previously by the CIVICUS Monitor, in 2020, the Polish Supreme Court declared abortion in cases where the foetus is compromised as unconstitutional. Doctors who perform unauthorised abortions can face up to three years in prison. The rules, in theory, still allow abortion in cases where the mother’s health or life is at risk due to the pregnancy.
The country's Ombudsman stated that the hospital should have informed the woman, who tragically passed away, that terminating her pregnancy could have saved her life. The Ombudsman cited a violation of the patient's rights and a failure to provide healthcare services in accordance with medical knowledge.
Marta Lempart, founder of the All-Poland Women’s Strike, which organised many of the protests, told The Guardian: “All pregnant women are in danger the moment they’re referred to a Polish hospital. We are afraid of all doctors, because we don’t know which ones will act to prevent their patient’s death. [...] This is another hospital death caused by the decision of doctors to deny access to a legal abortion. We again saw the doctors lie and deceive the family and wait passively as the patient died of sepsis [...] The anti-abortion legislation in Poland is very restrictive [...]. But doctors are denying access to abortions that are legal. Their interpretation of the law is stricter than the government’s.”
While Health Minister Adam Niedzielski blames the individual doctors and reminds critics that women have the right to terminate a pregnancy if their lives or health are at risk, some argue the government’s passing of restrictive legislation has resulted in a climate of fear. Many doctors are hesitant to perform abortions, fearing that prosecutors may find their professional judgement unfounded, potentially leading to imprisonment. Threatened with legal repercussions and possibly even imprisonment, it is not surprising that doctors are reluctant to perform terminations even when the mother's life is in danger. Other critics, however, caution against discounting the role played by doctors’ personal beliefs – some interpret the law as strictly as they do based on their conviction that it would be against God’s will to perform an abortion to save a woman’s life.
There have been at least six other cases of women dying due to abortion restrictions. Women suspected of terminating their pregnancies are harassed by the police. In July 2023, a woman identified publicly only as Joanna, came forward detailing how she was mistreated by police after taking medication to terminate her pregnancy. Feeling unwell after ingesting the abortion pill, Joanna called her doctor and asked for assistance – the doctor, in turn, called an ambulance, which arrived under police escort. Police officers proceeded to follow her into the emergency room. While there, the officers searched her, forcing her to undress, and seized her phone and laptop. Under Polish law, a woman undergoing an abortion holds no legal liability, while anyone assisting her could potentially face a prison sentence of up to three years. On 25th July, hundreds of women in Krakow, Warsaw and other cities gathered in front of police stations to show solidarity with Joanna and demand an end to the stigma surrounding abortion in Poland.
Protests are mounting in Poland over the reports of law enforcement going after women who took abortion pills.— POLITICOEurope (@POLITICOEurope) July 28, 2023
That threatens the ruling party's chances of winning the next election, as the majority of Poles support liberalization of the abortion law.https://t.co/2f1g1vA0uz
Freedom of expression
Journalists in Poland and Central Europe commit to defending media freedom
On 28th June 2023, editors from various Polish media outlets came together to issue a collective declaration in defence of press freedom. This action was prompted by concerns that the ruling Law and Justice party might be seeking to curtail it in the lead-up to the forthcoming elections.
Critics of the party contend that state-run media has been wielded as a propaganda tool since PiS took office in 2015. Independent publications and broadcasters assert they have faced governmental pressure. In response, the editors pledged to safeguard the autonomy of Polish journalism and committed to keeping the public informed about any efforts by authorities to exert influence over the media.
The editor-in-chief of Onet disclosed that a government-affiliated figure had proposed appointing a deputy editor tasked with representing the government's standpoint. Additionally, the editor-in-chief of Wp.pl reported that a state-owned company had expressed interest in purchasing the portal and that a state institution had recommended specific journalists for recruitment and dismissal. Concerns about media freedom in Poland have arisen before, notably surrounding a contentious law on foreign ownership, as reported previously by the CIVICUS Monitor. This legislation was ultimately vetoed by the president after facing criticism for targeting TVN24, which is owned by Warner Bros Discovery.
In a separate but related development, on 3rd July 2023, editors representing the Central Europe Independent Media Network of the International Press Institute (IPI) issued an open letter urging EU institutions to enact a robust and impactful European Media Freedom Act (EMFA). The letter underscores the significance of safeguarding independent journalism and combatting media capture within the European Union, particularly in countries like Hungary and Poland.
Political harassment of critical journalist
During a press conference on 27th May 2023, the leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party, Jarosław Kaczyński, and Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak fielded questions from TVN24 journalist Mateusz Grzymkowski. Asked whether he trusted Minister Błaszczak after the wreckage of a Russian missile was discovered near Bydgoszc in northern Poland, Kaczyński responded by accusing the journalist of acting as a “representative of the Kremlin.” The situation was further exacerbated by the interruption of the reporter's questions, which included his microphone being turned off.
In a statement issued by the editors of TVN24 following the incident, they asserted that they “strongly protest labelling a journalist who is asking socially significant questions” as a 'representative of the Kremlin',” further adding that the incident “constitutes another assault by the authorities on the independence of the media, and another attempt to stifle press criticism.” “We will persist in asking questions in the public interest and on behalf of our viewers. These are the constitutional responsibilities of the media, which are obligated to oversee public institutions. In light of Jarosław Kaczyński's statement, we will take appropriate legal measures to defend our journalists and the reputation of TVN.”, the statement continued.
Attempts to discredit journalists writing about Pope John Paul II's failure to fight paedophilia
On 2nd June 2023, the Association of Polish Journalists (SDP) conferred the “Hyena of the Year” anti-award upon Marcin Gutowski and Ekke Overbeek for their criticism of the late Pope John Paul II. The SDP accused them of “attacking” the pope and called on them to apologise for the “fundamental flaws” in their publications. The controversy originated in March when TVN24 aired a documentary asserting the pope’s awareness of cases of paedophilia within the Polish Catholic Church. Supporters of the late pope and the ruling party PiS continuously targeted TVN24, Gutowski and Overbeek in the months following the broadcast. TVN24 defended its report, asserting that it was founded on extensive research and adhered to the highest journalistic standards. According to the European watchdog Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), the current composition of the SDP board, elected in 2021, is perceived as pro-government and consists of right-leaning journalists.
Civil lawsuit against journalist reporting on corruption
On 7th June 2023, Miłosz Manasterski, a journalist and political commentator, addressed a letter to Paweł Figurski, a reporter for Wirtualna Polska. In it, he demanded a correction and sought compensation amounting to 20,000 PLN (approximately EUR 4,500). This request stemmed from an article published in May 2023, where Figurski disclosed that the Macierz Polonia Centrum Development Foundation, where Manasterski held the position of vice president, had allegedly misused state subsidies. The Foundation denied the allegations, characterising them as part of a campaign against conservative and patriotic values. Manasterski’s legal representative stated an intention to pursue legal action against all involved parties, citing a violation of Manasterski’s personal rights.
Miłosz Manasterski chce ode mnie 20 tys. zł na Caritas i żąda sprostowania. Pisze: "Nie zostałem ukarany żadną grzywną przez sąd, w tym zwłaszcza za niezłożenie dokumentów do KRS".— Paweł Figurski (@p_figurski) June 7, 2023
Ale do sądu też pisze i prosi o umorzenie grzywny. pic.twitter.com/P3zzoeY96n
Attempts to discredit independent broadcaster TVN
On 1st July 2023, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki publicly discredited the independent broadcaster TVN during a press conference in Rusocin, Pomerania. He likened TVN to “communist television” and accused the network of inadequately covering the ongoing civil unrest in France. Morawiecki suggested that the protests in France were a result of “illegal immigration.” He further claimed that TVN's reporting on the riots resembled the way the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was handled by television in 1986, implying a lack of proper coverage. However, these accusations were found to be unfounded, as TVN had indeed covered the protests in France on multiple occasions across various programs.
On 3rd July 2023, the government-controlled public broadcaster TVP Info launched a new series titled “How they lie,” explicitly targeting the independent broadcaster TVN and its program “Facts.” The series aimed to undermine TVN by exposing what TVP Info alleged to be lies, manipulations, and concealed information from the rival station. The TVP host introduced the series by stating, “Here we will address falsehoods, distortions, and what TVN may be keeping from its viewers. Welcome to the Polish media.”
Journalist detained during climate protest
On 14th July 2023, photojournalist Maciej Piasecki was detained during a climate protest in Warsaw, raising concerns about media freedom. While documenting the Extinction Rebellion demonstration, Piasecki, an active freelancer operating the SKRAJ agency, was violently arrested by police officers, had his camera confiscated, and was taken to a police station for questioning. Footage of the incident shows a police officer grabbing Piasecki from behind by the neck and dragging him down to the ground, falling over and injuring himself in the process. Despite threats that he will be prosecuted for “violating a police officer's bodily integrity,” Piasecki was eventually released without facing any charges.
„Odgrodzić mi tego dziennikarza!” – „Zatrzymujemy go za naruszenie nietykalności cielesnej policjanta!” – zostałem z użyciem siły zatrzymany przez #Policja, gdy dokumentowałem protest pod Min. #Klimat. Powód: rzekome złamanie nogi funkcjonariusza. Prawdę nagrało @XRPolska pic.twitter.com/FZpYJ5zDst— Maciek Piasecki (@TuPiasecki) July 14, 2023
Employee of Telewizja Republika shot at
On 24th July 2023, an employee of Telewizja Republika was fired upon with a non-lethal BB gun or air rifle near the TV station's headquarters in Warsaw. The employee did not sustain any injuries. Initially, a 35-year-old man was detained but later released without charges. Subsequently, a 15-year-old boy was arrested and charged with endangering a person's health in connection with the incident. Although no motive was immediately suggested, the proximity of the attack to Telewizja Republika raised concerns of a potential link to the TV station or its programming. In an interview, the station's editor-in-chief, Tomasz Sakiewicz, stated he believed the attack was premeditated, and possibly connected to the station's critical stance towards a political figure. After being charged, the boy was released, and the case materials were forwarded to the family and juvenile court for further action.
Inspections on LGBTQI+-friendly schools proposed
On 10th May 2023, Mikołaj Pawlak, Poland's Children's Rights Ombudsman, called for inspections of the 10-20 institutions that topped a list of LGBTQI+-friendly schools published by the GrowSPACE Foundation. While speaking at a conservative Catholic event under the patronage of the education ministry, Pawlak assured those present he would immediately begin inspection proceedings against the schools in order to determine “how this friendliness manifests itself”. He later confirmed this in an interview for right-wing daily Gazeta Polska Codziennie, adding that school administrators often do not perform the due diligence necessary to protect children against “paedophiles” and “criminals.” He went on to comment that “it is often precisely in these foundations that consider themselves to be the most tolerant that various irregularities occur,” seemingly in reference to LGBTQI+ CSOs and allies.
Dominik Kuc, the coordinator of the LGBTQI+ Youth Friendly Schools Ranking, expressed apprehension that the Ombudsman's call might be seen as an attempt to intimidate students, teachers, and particularly school principals who have put in substantial effort to create a safe and inclusive environment for all. Kuc announced the release of a legal guide on 26th May 2023, which aims to offer support to schools that may be subjected to inspections.
This isn't the first example of Pawlak attempting to generate fear and animosity towards sexual minorities. In 2020, he made baseless claims suggesting that sex educators in schools were administering drugs to children in an attempt to alter their gender.