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New risks emerge to threaten freedom of press in Poland

Poland ranked 58 in the latest World Press Freedom Index by the Reporters Without Borders. Our country fell four places down compared to the previous year’s Index and recorded a worrying decline (40 places) over the period of last three years.

The organisation explained this negative assessment by pointing to the politicisation of the public media and pressure extorted on anti-government private outlets. The Reporters Without Borders give several examples of the stifling atmosphere around the media in Poland, for instance referring to the Defence Ministry’s attempt to bring criminal charges against investigative journalist Tomasz Piątek who wrote a book on the then Minister of National Defence Antoni Macierewicz (ultimately, almost a year after the alleged “crime” was reported to authorities, the prosecution service refused to take proceedings against the reporter). The RWB also mention the (ultimately rescinded) fine imposed on TVN, a private television broadcaster, by the National Broadcasting Council for the station’s coverage of the 2016 “Parliamentary Crisis”.

Negative trend

“Poland’ has been dropping in the ranking since 2015 and now occupies the lowest place since 2006. Regrettably, we have been seeing this negative trend in our media freedom work, too”, HFHR lawyer Dorota Głowacka says.  “In recent years, the Helsink26i Foundation has taken on many cases of journalists fired from public media organisations on disciplinary grounds. Even more worryingly, we’ve been handling increasingly more cases of employees of public institutions or state-owned companies dismissed for expressing critical views on changes made at their workplaces after the last parliamentary elections”, Ms Głowacka adds.

Such cases include the disciplinary termination of employment of three journalists of the Polish Radio, who were reinstated to work in 2017 following a court-sanctioned settlement. The journalists’ contracts were terminated due to their involvement in a labour union and defence of the editorial independence of the radio’s staff. Several similar cases, brought by Jerzy Sosnowski, Kamil Dąbrowa or Tomasz Zimoch, among others, are currently being litigated.

Law against freedom of speech

Furthermore, the HFHR has been noting with concern as the Government and other public institutions use various legal measures in order to place pressure on journalists critical of the current situation in Poland. Even if this pressure ultimately does not lead to the imposition of sanctions, the very threat of receiving a penalty can result in editorial teams employing self-imposed censorship in fear of legal consequences that they may face.

“Apart from the threats indicated by the Reporters Without Borders, we notice many new restrictions in the media’s ability to cover the works of public institutions such as the Constitutional Tribunal or the Parliament”, Dorota Głowacka explains. Repressive measures are also used against journalists covering social protests, such as those that unfolded in the Białowieża Forest.

Another means used to weaken the freedom of the press in Poland is the adoption of laws that are not directly related to the operation of the media but nevertheless may pose a risk to the freedom of speech. Apart from the “reform” of the public media, such laws include the National Remembrance Institute Act, to so-called “Surveillance Act” or Anti-terrorism Act. Moreover, the adoption of the new law on the transparency of public life may also negatively affect the media freedom.

The ranking of the Reporters Without Borders can be accessed here.

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