Poland’s Disgrace: How Legal Actions Threaten to “Put Free Journalism Under Lock and Key”

The International Federation of Journalists and its regional organisation the European Federation of Journalists today warned that a battery of legal actions against reporters and independent media in Poland amounted to an unacceptable attack on press freedom which “threatens to put free journalism under lock and key.”

The IFJ protest comes after a jail term against a journalist for libel was confirmed in Warsaw. With a further 18 different court actions alone pending against reporters working for the indpenedent newspaper Rzeczpospolita the IFJ says that the legal system is being cynically used by powerful political, business and society figures to stifle independent journalism.

“It is a desperately sad truth that twenty years after Poland led the struggle for democratic freedoms in the region the country is now setting a terrible example when it comes to free expression,” said Aidan White, General Secretary of the IFJ and EFJ. “This disgraceful abuse of power in a new member state of the European Union threatens to put free journalism under lock and key and is completely unacceptable.”

The IFJ and EFJ concern arises just days after the Warsaw Supreme Court decided to uphold a three-month prison sentence against Andrzej Marek, editor-in-chief of the weekly Wiesci Polickie (Police News), for libelling a local official.

The charges stem from articles that appeared in February 2001, which accused a spokesman of the Police City Council of corruption. The paper stands by the story, but the Editor will go to prison because he has refused to apologise.

“This case goes against the European Court of Human Rights which says libel should be dealt with under civil law. Poland must change its outdated, and dangerous, laws now,” said White. “No journalist should go to jail over issues of defamation which should be dealt with under civil law.”

In a letter to the Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski the IFJ says the use of criminal libel is a serious press freedom violation and he should act immediately over this case and prevent others that may arise.

This is the second time this year that a Polish journalist has received a jail sentence. In May, Beata Korzeniewska, a journalist for the daily, Gazeta Pomorska, received a suspended one-month prison sentence for libelling a judge.

The IFJ and other press freedom groups say that jail terms are never justified for news reporting or expressions of opinion, no matter how offensive they may seem to those involved. The crisis is sharply brought into focus by the long list of pending cases against journalists working for Rzeczpospolita. “Here we see some of the most powerful figures in Polish society using the law to prevent scrutiny of their dealings,” said White. “It is a chilling, dangerous and entirely unacceptable state of affairs.”

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The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 110 countries