Attacks on the Press 1999: Poland

Poland became a member of NATO in April 1999 and looks forward to further integration with the West, including European Union membership in the next few years.

The country has free and relatively professional media, but Poland’s positive press freedom record is marred by the government’s retention of criminal- libel statutes despite President Alexander Kwasniewski’s 1996 pledge to eliminate them.

Although these statutes, which impose jail sentences on journalists convicted of defaming public officials or the president, are rarely enforced, there is pressure from the West to eliminate them. This pressure may mount as Poland prepares to join the EU. Domestic press freedom advocates, including the independent Press Freedom Monitoring Center in Warsaw, condemn the law as an “anomaly” in a democratic society and “potentially . . . a very serious restriction of freedom of speech.”

While criminal-libel prosecutions are rare, civil-libel suits are common, with public officials accounting for the greatest number of plaintiffs in such cases. The landmark civil-libel case of 1999 was the still-pending lawsuit filed by President Kwasniewski against the right-wing daily Zycie, which accused him of spending a holiday with a KGB officer several years ago. The trial, which began in April 1998, has been delayed many times, most recently in October when Kwasniewski refused to appear in court to testify. The president is suing for about US$800,000 in damages, an amount the Press Freedom Monitoring Center called “mind-boggling.”

Some watchdog groups have raised concerns about bias in broadcast media. The ruling center-right coalition, which includes Solidarity, continued to complain that state-run TV favors the opposition. In November, a new bill was proposed in the legislature to “make the country’s public broadcasters independent of party politics.”