Journalist’s prison sentence postponed following protests

New York, March 23, 2004—The prison sentence of a journalist convicted of libeling a local official has been postponed after a large group of journalists protested the imprisonment.

Andrzej Marek, editor-in-chief of the weekly Wiesci Polickie (Police News) in the western Polish town of Police, was convicted in November 2003 of libeling Piotr Misilo, then the appointed speaker of the Promotion and Information Unit of the Police City Council, in two articles that were published in Wiesci Polickie in February 2001. The articles accused Misilo of obtaining his post through blackmail and using his public post to promote his private advertising business.

On March 2, 2004, the Szcecin District Court ordered Marek to appear at Szcecin Municipal Prison today to begin serving his sentence.

In protest, a group of prominent Polish journalists, including popular television anchors and prominent editors, gathered outside the Polish Parliament yesterday in the capital, Warsaw. They rented an empty tiger cage from the Warsaw Zoo and took 30-minute turns locking themselves inside it to demonstrate their solidarity with Marek, according to local and international reports.

Following the protest, the Szcecin District Court postponed Marek’s sentence for six months.

Local media and human rights organizations, including the Polish Press Monitoring Center, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland, the Polish Journalists’ Association, and the Parliament-appointed ombudsman, have actively lobbied for Marek’s acquittal.

Andrzej Krajewski, director of the Polish Press Monitoring Center, told CPJ that during the next six months, his organization will lobby to decriminalize libel in the country.

Had Marek been jailed today, he would have become the first journalist in Poland to serve a prison term for his work since the collapse of communism in 1989. The case would have set a negative precedent for the country, which is only weeks away from joining the European Union.

“We welcome the support and solidarity that Polish journalists have shown for their colleague,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “However, we urge Polish authorities to bring their laws in line with international standards so that Marek will not be jailed six months from now.”

On February 6, 2004, the Szcecin District Court upheld its November 8, 2003, verdict sentencing Marek to three months in prison for defaming Misilo. The court ruled that it would suspend the sentence if Marek apologized to Misilo in his newspaper, but the journalist refused. For more information, see CPJ’s February 12, 2004, alert.