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Court: journalist transferred to archives for upholding professional integrity was discriminated against

The District Court for the Capital City of Warsaw issued a judgment in the case of Dorota Nygren, a journalist working for the Radio Information Agency, who brought a lawsuit against the state radio broadcaster Polskie Radio alleging discrimination in employment. The Court found that Polskie Radio had infringed the principles of equal treatment vis-à-vis a journalist.

In the verbal reasons for the judgment, the court pointed out that Ms Nygren’s transfer from a news production role to an archiving role constituted a discriminatory retaliation for her consistent application of the principles of journalistic integrity and ethical conduct. The presiding judge presented a dissenting opinion. The judgment is not yet final.

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights submitted an amicus curiae brief in this case.

Standards of journalistic ethics and transfer to the archives

The case began in September 2017, when Dorota Nygren edited a report about the insult and attempted robbery of a priest in a local church in Italy. The perpetrator was a Moroccan national, but Ms Nygren made no reference to his nationality in the report.

When her superiors asked her to explain her decision, the journalist pointed out that the information about the man’s nationality was irrelevant in the circumstances. She invoked standards of journalistic ethics, according to which characteristics such as nationality or ethnicity should be reported by the media only if they are relevant to the case in question. The journalist explained that communicating such information in a situation where circumstances of an incident have nothing to do with those characteristics can lead to the stigmatisation of the perpetrator’s ethnic group.

During the subsequent conversation, the superiors told the journalist to specify suspects’ nationality in all further crime reporting pieces. Dorota Nygren refused to do so, citing journalistic standards and pointing out that such disclosure is not always reasonable and sometimes can lead to stigmatisation. Because of her attitude, the journalist was removed from her news editing post and transferred to the Radio Information Agency’s archives. The position of an archivist is considered less prestigious by media professionals and entails a lower salary.

Discrimination lawsuit

In March 2018, Dorota Nygren filed a lawsuit against the broadcasting company. She is represented pro bono by Karolina Kędziora, an attorney and President of the Polish Society of Anti-Discrimination Law and DLA Piper’s advocate Weronika Papucewicz. The lawsuit alleged that Polskie Radio was responsible for the so-called discrimination by association on the grounds of nationality (the claimant received worse treatment on the grounds of nationality of a man described in a press report). The Association of Journalists and the OKO Civic Control Centre Foundation also joined the case.

Judgment and the dissenting opinion

On 8 November 2019, the court found that the principle of equal treatment had been violated in Ms Nygren’s case and awarded her damages for discrimination. The court also ordered the broadcaster to compensate the claimant for the salary reduction. Giving the verbal reasons for the judgment, the court stressed that the editorial policy and interests of a news company must yield to requirements stemming from the principle of journalistic diligence. The court also held that Dorota Nygren complied with the standards of her profession and that the discrimination occurred precisely because of her consistent adherence to the principles of journalistic integrity and ethics.

The presiding judge submitted a dissenting opinion, challenging the majority ruling in its entirety. He argued, inter alia, that the Radio Information Agency is an organisation different from other media companies and that, at the time of the dispute between the journalist and her superiors arose, the Press Law Act obliged journalists to comply with the editorial policy set out by their employers.

HFHR’s brief

“We stressed in our amicus curiae brief that journalists should be able to practise their profession without undue interference in the content of produced news”, says Weronika Bilińska, a lawyer at the HFHR.

Another member of the HFHR legal team, Konrad Siemaszko, observes: “Journalists should be given the option to refuse to comply with instructions from their superiors in a situation when they are told to produce news that violates journalistic ethics.” “This rule applies to all journalists but is particularly relevant for state-controlled media outlets. These media are obliged by law to fulfil their public service remit, while institutional guarantees of their independence have been significantly weakened by the ‘reforms’ of 2016”, Mr Siemaszko adds.

The case is litigated under a grant from Media Legal Defence Initiative, which offers legal aid for journalists and bloggers.

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