State continues to constrict civic space but Polish civil society pushes back

Peaceful Assembly

On 23rd March, thousands protested in Poland over the government’s renewed attempts to create a more restrictive abortion law. Following nationwide mass demonstrations in 2016, the government abandoned its plan to ban all abortions regardless of circumstances. Its latest proposal, however, would ban abortions in cases where the fetus has congenital anomalies. The new proposal sparked strong international reactions, with over 200 human and women’s rights groups from across the globe calling on Polish lawmakers to cease their attempts to take away Polish women’s reproductive rights.

Dorota Głowacka, a lawyer at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (Poland) (HFHR), described some of the challenges protesters and journalists reporting on the protests faced, stating that:

“there is still a lot of tension around protests and demonstrations in Poland organized in response to certain aspects of the government's policy. A number of people who participated in those protests or simply covered them as journalists are now facing legal proceedings against them before the courts. Fortunately there is hope that eventually they may not be sanctioned as so far, in a number of cases which have been resolved recently, the courts refused to impose penalties on protesters or journalists covering the protests".

In particular, Głowacka highlighted the case of three Green Party activists accused of insulting the symbol of the anchor, a misdemeanor in Poland, on a flag displayed during a women's rights march. The symbol of the anchor was used by the underground Polish Secret State and Armia Krajowa (People's Army) during World War II as they fought for independence. Głowacka commented on the outcome of the case, stating that:

“The HFHR supported the activists and we succeeded in obtaining a positive outcome of the trial – the court acquitted the activists. Such judgments are very important steps for the preservation of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly in the current political context in Poland”. 


As reported previously on the Monitor, in January the Polish parliament approved a bill criminalising statements that "against the facts ascribe responsibility or co-responsibility for the crimes perpetrated by the Third German Reich to the Polish nation or the Polish state”.

The law provoked reactions both in Poland and internationally. Jewish groups warned of rising antisemitism, while politicians of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) decried an “internationally coordinated campaign” to defame the Polish nation. In February, the leader of the Polish senate called on expat Polish communities to notify diplomats of any instances of violations of this law. Meanwhile, a campaign group with close connections to PiS has already filed defamation charges against a newspaper in Argentina under the new law.

In March, 111 Polish civil rights organisations issued an open letter to the international community expressing their opposition to and disagreement with the law, declaring that:

“A law has been ratified by the Polish parliament, which provides imprisonment for speech, statements are being made that seek to whitewash Poles’ involvement in the Holocaust, thoughtless actions are being taken by politicians that arouse anti-Semitic sentiment – all this is not being done in our name".