The TVN headquarters in Warsaw, pictured in September 2017. Poland's Internal Security Agency raided the home of one of the broadcaster's reporters over his undercover reporting. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)
The TVN headquarters in Warsaw, pictured in September 2017. Poland's Internal Security Agency raided the home of one of the broadcaster's reporters over his undercover reporting. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

Gagging orders, legal action, and communist era laws used to try to ‘choke’ Polish press

Polish security agents enter the house of a prominent TV journalist over accusations that he propagated Nazi propaganda. Police summon a reporter over claims that he breached the privacy of the vice-head of the constitutional court. And Poland’s central bank files gagging orders against two papers, demanding they remove several articles about a corruption scandal allegedly involving the bank’s president.

These incidents, which happened within a couple of weeks of each other at the end of last year, have prompted journalists and press freedom activists to question whether the fears they raised with CPJ during a fact-finding mission to Poland last year are being realized, and whether the government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, is attempting to muzzle critical voices before the European Parliamentary vote in May and national elections in the fall.

“They are now putting a plastic bag on our head to choke us,” said Jarosław Kurski, deputy editor-in-chief Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s biggest daily. Kurski told CPJ that he thinks that the legal complaints filed by the National Bank of Poland (NBP) fit into a wider strategy by the ruling party to harass independent media.

“They have been flooding us with lawsuits, we have been denied state advertisements since they came to power, we have been boycotted by government officials and now they are trying to censor us with gagging orders,” he said. Kurski added that the bank’s civil defamation complaints, filed November 30, included requests that journalists from Gazeta Wyborcza and Newsweek be banned from reporting further on potential links between an emerging corruption case allegedly involving the bank’s president, and that articles be removed from the online archives.

In response, Gazeta Wyborcza published a column in Polish and English in which Kurski assured readers that the paper would not be intimidated, and wrote, “We will uncover what those in power would like to keep hidden from you. We will not be silenced.”

In a statement sent to CPJ, the bank said that news reports about its court order were incorrect, and denied that it requested articles to be removed and reporters to be censored.

The statement said that the bank wanted to protect its reputation and added that “firm legal steps [needed to] be taken in order to halt … further damage due to the persistent dissemination of false and unlawful insinuations.” The statement added that the bank intended to respect press freedom and act in in accordance with EU law.

A court rejected the bank’s complaint on the grounds that it was filed incorrectly, Gazeta Wyborcza reported. Following the court’s response and international outcry, the bank as of early January had not refiled its complaints.

A similar scenario of a harsh offensive followed by a quick retreat after international protests played out in another high-profile media case. Two days after Poland’s Internal Security Agency raided the home of TVN reporter Piotr Wacowski on November 23, on accusations that he spread Nazi ideology, the National Prosecutor’s Office cancelled the reporter’s hearing, saying that the charges were premature, TVN, a privately owned U.S. broadcaster, reported.

The accusations were related to Wacowski’s critical undercover report for TVN that exposed a neo-Nazi meeting. Evidence cited by the state prosecutor included video footage obtained and published by a pro-government news website, wPolityce, that showed Wacowski giving a Nazi salute.

TVN and the reporter declined to comment on the case to CPJ. But in a statement, the broadcaster said that Wacowski “acted in accordance with all standards of investigative journalism” and that “putting the one who discloses criminal activity on an equal footing with criminals is an attempt to intimidate journalists.”

Dozens of Polish editors and journalists expressed dismay at the authorities’ response. And Georgette Mosbacher, the U.S. Ambassador to Poland, intervened on behalf of the reporter. In a letter to the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, she wrote about her “deep concern” over the attacks against “journalists who were fulfilling the functions of an independent media in Poland’s vibrant democracy.”

The prosecution has since referred the case to the regional prosecutor’s office in the city of Katowice for further consideration.

Wojciech Cieśla, one of Poland’s best known investigative journalists who received a police summons late last year, described the current environment for journalists as tense. “In this climate, my case was also intimidating, my wife was scared that the police will knock on our door,” said Cieśla, a reporter for Newsweek and co-founder of the investigative reporters’ organization Fundacja Reporterów.

Cieśla said he received a summons on November 30 requesting that he appear at the police station within 24 hours to testify. The journalist was accused of breaching the privacy of Mariusz Muszyński, the vice-president of the Constitutional Court who is also a member of the governing party and a former domestic intelligence agent, in a profile in Newsweek article that described the neighborhood where Muszyński lived, but did not specify his address. Invasion of privacy can result in a fine or prison sentence, under Poland’s criminal code. The legal complaint also referred to a rarely used paragraph of the communist-time press law of 1984, which requires journalists to have a written consent from people they report on.

A spokesperson for Muszyński told the Polish news site TVN24 that the article infringed on the vice-president’s privacy.

“They are shooting with a cannon at mice,” is how Dominika Bychawska-Siniarska, a board member of the independent watchdog Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, described the situation. “What connects all these measures against the press is that they refer to clauses in the criminal code or the Press Law which are almost never used, they are disproportionate and are applied in a targeted way solely against journalists critical of the government.”

The communications department of the Prime Minister’s office did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment for this article.

Cieśla said that after the media coverage of his case in Poland, he was told he no longer needed to appear before police and that “the case is handled now by mail and by the lawyers.” The journalist added that while corrections and complaints are normal in journalism, “Bringing in the police and the prosecution, invoking criminal acts, however, is another level and part of intimidation.”

Bychawska-Siniarska said she believes that the gagging order by the NBP could “effectively paralyze the two newspapers’ ability to report on a high profile corruption case,” and that the raid on one reporter’s home and the summons sent to another were excessive. “I do not see any need for urgency to deliver summons personally or appear to testify within 24 hours,” she said, adding that the measures are not in line with the jurisprudence of the European Union Court of Human Rights.

The trade organization Towarzystwo Dziennikarskie (Society of Journalists), told CPJ, “The aim is to achieve a ‘chilling effect’ and get [the journalists] to drop critical reporting.” In an email, the society said that it was unacceptable that journalists are “pursued and treated by the state as potential criminals.”

Krzysztof Bobiński, a board member of Towarzystwo Dziennikarskie, told CPJ that despite its grip on public media and often on local press in cities, the ruling party failed to win any of the country’s large cities, including Warsaw in last year’s local elections. He added, “These recent attacks on the press only show the level of anxiety the ruling party has before the upcoming high-stakes political year of 2019.”

[Reporting from Berlin]