Civil society worries over chilling effect of Holocaust Law on free speech

Judicial independence under threat

On 16th January 2018, Poland’s Supreme Court adopted a resolution in which they found the governing Law and Justice (PiS) Party's judicial reforms to be unconstitutional. The reforms have sparked serious internal and external criticism of the country's current state and future trajectory. In December 2017, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights issued an open letter to Polish President Andrzej Duda calling on him to veto new legislation that would curtail judicial independence. In response to the government's controversial moves, the European Commission enacted Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union (EU), which could suspend Poland's voting privileges within the EU. The government, however, seems undeterred as head of the ruling party PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, has asserted that the government will continue along its course and that the momentum on its reform agenda "will not slow down", despite civil society and the EU's concerns. 


In January, both houses of the Polish parliament approved a controversial bill - the National Remembrance Institute Act (also known as the Holocaust Law) - that criminalises statements that “publicly and 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”. President Duda signed the bill, but also announced that he would file a motion with the Polish Constitutional Tribunal to review the constitutionality of certain provisions within the law. 

The new law carries a penalty of a fine or up to three years in jail for claiming publicly and contrary to the facts that the Polish nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible for Nazi crimes. Civil society organisations fear that the law will discourage citizens from discussing and debating certain aspects of Poland’s history. The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights office in Warsaw, Poland  believes that the law could have another detrimental effect as it could be used against watchdog organisations that criticise the government or state institutions' actions. Małgorzata Szuleka, lawyer and advocacy officer at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw, asserted that the Foundation "find[s] the potential chilling effects of the National Remembrance Institute Act very concerning". 

Poland is currently on the Monitor Watch List of countries where there is an urgent, immediate and developing threat to civic space.