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Journalist covering protests in Białowieża Forest acquitted

On Wednesday 1 August 2018, the District Court in Bielsko-Podlaskie acquitted Rafał Wojczal, a photojournalist who reported on the protests in the Białowieża Forest in the summer of 2017. The journalist was charged with unlawful entry into the forest and a failure to leave the area at the request of an authorised person. The judgment is not yet final.

In the verbal justification of the verdict, the court indicated that the ban on entering the forest was defective. The forest inspector is only competent to issue temporary bans, whereas the ban imposed in Mr Wojczal’s case was introduced “until further notice”, or indefinitely. Therefore, the ban was not effectively implemented, which meant that the rule according to which forests are generally accessible was not in fact excluded and that everyone could freely remain in the area supervised by the forest inspectorate.

At the request of the HFHR, Mr Wojczal is represented pro bono by Ms Monika Górska, Ms Agnieszka Lisiecka and Mr Janusz Tomczak, attorneys with Wardyński i Wspólnicy.

Protest in Białowieża Forest

The judgment concerns the events of 22 June 2017. At that time, the Białowieża Primeval Forest was the scene of a protest against logging, which included the blocking of logging machinery. Rafał Wojczal was one of the photojournalists who arrived at the Forest to cover the action of eco-activists. This resulted in the necessity to violate the ban on entering to the Forest, which was introduced in December 2016 by the Browsk Forest Inspectorate.

Forest Guard wardens arrived at the protest site and ordered all persons present to leave the forest. Since the request was not complied with, all those present at the site, including Mr Wojczal, were asked to produce their IDs. The photojournalist informed the wardens that he was there in his professional capacity to report on the blockade. After several months, he was summoned to a hearing where he needed to once again explain that his presence at the protest site was purely professional and that he had not actively taken part in the protest himself. Nevertheless, the Forest Guard issued a motion to appear against the photojournalist, accusing him of trespassing in a forest area closed to the public and a failure to comply with a lawful order of an authorised public officer. In February 2018, the Hajnówka-based 7th Local Department of the District Court in Bielsko Podlaskie issued a summary judgment against the photojournalist, giving him an official reprimand and ordering him to pay the costs of the proceedings in the amount of 50 zloty. Mr Wojczal made a complaint against the judgment, which resulted in its automatic annulment and the allocation of his case to the procedural track of ordinary hearing.

Special role of media coverage of protests

The case is important from the perspective of guarantees of the freedom of media coverage of protests and demonstrations. The European Court of Human Rights has emphasised that, while the status of journalist does not, in principle, exempt the press from the obligation to comply with law during the collection of information, any official charges against journalists related to their coverage of demonstrations constitute a serious interference with the freedom of expression and should be subject to strict controls. This is because state authorities should take into account the special role of the media, both at the time when a demonstration takes place and at the stage of taking any follow-up action, including any attempts to hold members of the media responsible in connection with their work.

To find out more about the standards of media coverage of demonstrations, see an opinion of the HFHR.

The case of Rafał Wojczal is conducted as part of HFHR’s project of legal aid for journalists and bloggers.

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