Attacks on the Press 2000: Poland

LEGAL AND INSTITUTIONAL REFORMS CONTINUED IN 2000, as Poland moved closer to joining the European Union. While journalists struggled under longstanding legal burdens, new court rulings favored press freedom, and legislation was drafted to improve access to information.

Meanwhile, one violent attack against a journalist was recorded, and the political opposition alleged that the state television network was biased in favor of the government.

In February, an appeals court in February overturned a lower court’s defamation judgment of 10,000 zloty (US$2450) against Jerzy Jachowicz of the Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyorcza. The fine had been imposed in 1999, after Jachowicz published the name of a Polish intelligence officer in a 1996 article about a spy scandal.

On May 22, President Alexander Kwasniewski won a libel judgment but was denied damages by the Warsaw District Court in his suit against the right-leaning Warsaw daily Zycie. The case stemmed from a 1997 series of articles alleging that Kwasniewski had vacationed at a Baltic Sea resort with a former agent of the Soviet KGB.

Much of the case hinged on journalistic standards of proof required before publication. During the hearings, Zycie lawyers submitted hotel bills and several witnesses that placed Kwasniewski at the resort at the same time as the former KGB agent, while the plaintiff’s lawyers sought to show that Kwasniewski had sent his family to the resort but was himself in Ireland at the time.

Although the court ruled that Zycie had not in fact proved its allegations with sufficient rigor and ordered the paper to publish an apology, denying damages set a crucial precedent for the Polish press. President Kwasniewski had requested 2.5 million zloty (US$600,000) in damages. “If the court had [imposed damages], it would…have meant that it is possible to financially destroy a newspaper in libel cases,” said Andrzej Goszczynski, director of the Warsaw-based Press Freedom Monitoring Centre. Zycie appealed the ruling.

On May 10, Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek voiced support for a draft Freedom of Information Law that had already been endorsed by the Press Freedom Monitoring Centre and other watchdog groups. The new law would aid journalists covering civil trials and seeking information on government activities and expenditures. The bill was later submitted to Parliament, but had not yet been approved by a parliamentary commission at year’s end. It was to be re-submitted in 2001.

On April 8, Dorota Kania of Zycie was assaulted by a group of Roma women while covering a Warsaw meeting of the Council of Romanies in Poland. Police believed the attack was provoked by Kania’s February reporting on alleged fraud by Roman Kwiatkowski, head of the Roma Association of Poland, in administering compensation for Roma survivors of World War II concentration camps. The attackers told Kania that she should “leave Romany topics alone from now on,” the journalist said in a later interview with TV Polonia. At year’s end, no prosecution had been reported in connection with the attack.