Ewa Siedlecka, a columnist for Polityka, was convicted of slandering and insulting two judges and was fined. In Poland, journalists can be charged with defamation in criminal court. (Krzysztof Osiński)

Polish court fines journalist Ewa Siedlecka for criminal defamation

Berlin, December 15, 2021 –Polish authorities should not contest journalist Ewa Siedlecka’s appeal of her criminal defamation conviction and should reform the country’s criminal defamation laws so they can no longer be used against journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On November 24, 2021, the District Court for Warsaw-Śródmieście convicted Siedlecka, a columnist for the weekly newsmagazine Polityka, of slander and insult and fined her 3,000 złotys (US$740) under Article 212 of the penal code as part of a private criminal defamation lawsuit brought against her by two judges, Maciej Nawacki, president of the District Court in Olsztyn, and Konrad Wytrykowski, of the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court, according to Siedlecka, who communicated with CPJ via email, and news articles by her employer and OKO.press. In addition to the fine, Siedlecka will have to cover the costs of the trial and compensate both plaintiffs a total of 5,600 zlotys (US$1,400), according to those sources.

The two judges filed a joint private indictment against Siedlecka following three Polytika opinion pieces, published in August, September, and October 2019. In the pieces, Siedlecka called the two judges “haters” for their alleged involvement in a government-orchestrated campaign against several judges who publicly opposed the government’s controversial judiciary reforms, which were revealed by Onet, an independent news site, in August 2019.

“Anyone in Poland can challenge news reports and journalists’ opinions in civil court. Poland should not be asking criminal courts to hand journalists prison sentences or fines,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director, in New York. “Poland’s criminal defamation laws are out of place in a liberal democracy and should be scrapped.” 

Although the judges initially requested Siedlecka spend eight months in prison, pay a 20,000 zlotys (US$4,900) fine, and participate in community service, the two judges told OKO.press that they were happy with the verdict and would not appeal it. Siedlecka told CPJ in an email that she would appeal the verdict, because her case is a “dangerous precedent.” “The court ruled that there is no difference between news and opinion, (… and) a journalist cannot express opinion about information which is in the public domain,” Siedlecka said.

In an email response to CPJ’s emailed questions about his lawsuit against the journalist, Wytrykowski denied involvement in the attacks against the judges and alleged that Siedlecka’s opinion pieces were “a massive defamation campaign,” with far-reaching consequences to his dignity and name.

Wytrykowski added that he also initiated civil proceedings against Siedlecka, but said such proceedings are not always sufficient. “A journalist who insults others, especially a person in a position of public trust who has no means of defending himself or herself at media level, must also expect to be held criminally liable,” Wytrykowski said.

CPJ also emailed Nawacki via the District Court in Olsztyn and the Poland’s Supreme Court’s press offices but did not receive a reply.