POLAND – Overview of recent restrictions to civic freedoms

Civic space in Poland has been in decline since the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) came into power in 2015. The government has passed over 15 laws and reforms which have undermined judicial independence, the rule of law and as a result civic space. Women’s sexual and reproductive health rights have repeatedly come under threat, most recently by the near-total ban on abortion which came into effect last month. LGBTQI+ persons have faced government led smear campaigns and persecution. Media freedom is under threat, with attempts to undermine and exert control over independent media outlets.

Protests over the near-total abortion ban erupted in October 2020 after a ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal made abortion in almost all cases illegal. Ongoing protests have been met with excessive force; tear gas, pepper spray, kettling tactics and physical violence have also been used against protesters. Authorities have intimidated and charged protesters, both minors and older people, for taking part in protests. At least 150 people have been detained so far and there have been reports of police violating detainees through strip searches and physical abuse.

Media freedom under attack
The government has adopted Hungarian style tactics to undermine media independence. The public broadcaster, Telewizja Polska (TVP), is seen as a government propaganda tool. Recently during protests against the near-total abortion ban, TVP has run smear campaigns against protest leaders. Independent media outlets such as Gazeta Wyborcza have faced dozens of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) from the government due to its independent coverage. In December 2020, Polska Press- one of the country’s largest media publishers with an audience of 17,4 million internet users, was bought over by PKN Orlena, (a state-owned oil company) whose CEO has close ties with PiS party Leader  Jarosław Kaczyński. This month (February 2021), independent media outlets staged a media blackout protest over fears that the government’s proposal to impose an advertising tax will further restrict press freedom.

Recommendations to the Polish government
• Authorities must refrain from the use of excessive force, physical violence and detention of protesters.
• Police officials who have used excessive force towards protesters must be immediately and effectively investigated and held accountable.
• Authorities must stop the persecution and hateful attacks against LGBTQI+ persons.
• Authorities must drop ill-founded charges against protesters, journalists and LGBTQI+ activists.
• Restore the independence of the judiciary in Poland including the Constitutional Tribunal and other courts.
• Respect the rights of freedom of assembly and stop misusing criminal law provisions against peaceful protests.

Recommendations to the international community
• The European Union and its leaders must firmly condemn attacks against protesters, journalists and
LGBTQI+ activists.
• The EU must take urgent and immediate action to address fundamental rights violations, including
violations of the right to peaceful assembly, expression and overall deteriorating civic space and rule of law in Poland.

SOURCE: Monitor Civicus Poland Watchlist, 18 February 2021