Monday, October 03, 2005

Poland gags journos

Poland has the worst record in the EU for using the courts against journalists, says the International Press Institute (ITI).

The claim is made in two recent letters from the Director of the IPI, Johann P. Fritz, to Aleksander Kwasniewski, Poland’s outgoing president. The letters are in supprt of two national newspapers, Rzeczpospolita and Gazeta Wyborcza, and two weekly current affairs magazines, Wprost and Polityka.

The first correspondence is in support of Grzegorz Gauden, the Editor-in-Chief, of the upmarket Rzeczpospolita daily, who is being charged by Warsaw prosecutors of the ‘propagation without a permission [of] news about the preparatory proceedings’ – meaning, reporting evidence included in court proceedings that have yet to come to court.

An article in Rzeczpospolita on 18 March this year claimed that a former head of Poland’s largest insurance firm, PZU, Wladyslaw Jamrozy, had, in 1995, allegedly founded a secret trust fund on the UK island of Jersey and transferred company funds to the account.

The accusations follow several others made against PZU and it’s former president, who was suspended in 2000 for allegedly trying to illegally assist the takeover of a Polish bank by Deutsche Bank. Jamrozy has always denied the accusations.

The PZU affair has been one of many high profile corruption cases over the past few years in Poland.

Why use the courts to fight their battles?

The charge against the journalist – made on August 24 - is seen by many to be a gagging order against investigative journalism into the sleazy goings on between the outgoing ex-communist government and individuals in high positions in public companies.

The IPI states in the letter to President Kwasniewski: “The prosecutor's office is seriously impeding the work of an independent newspaper and it raises the possibility that Polish editors who find themselves in a similar position will practice self-censorship in order to escape criminal prosecution.”

In the second letter to the president, the IPI raises concerns over other recent cases of court harassment of other weekly and daily publications.

In light of the fact that Transparency International has found Poland to be the most corrupt country in the EU, it is vital, argues the IPI, that Kwasniewski removes, “…all criminal laws that hinder press freedom and freedom of expression and to ensure that the media's right to report in the public interest is fully protected.

I hate to disappoint the IPI, but President Kwasniewski certainly will not be removing any laws that hinder the press, or otherwise, as he will be no longer the head of state in a couple of weeks time, after the presidential elections. And he could not remove laws against press freedom anyway, as the Polish constitution does not give him any powers to do such a thing.

But the case does show that the courts are being used to strangle rights to free expression in Poland.

On January 25, Jerzy Urban, the editor of the savagely satirical Polish weekly NIE (No), was convicted and fined 5.000 euros for insulting John Paul II.

Urban broke an obscure law in the Polish penal code (article 136.3), whereby it is a criminal offence to insult a foreign head of state (the Pope is the head of Vatican City, a small but nevertheless independent state).

The verdict came just after two Polish journalists, editor of Wiesci Polckie Andrzej Marek, and Beata Korzenewska, a journalist working for Gazeta Pamorska, were jailed for libeling a public official.

It seems that Poles fought for decades for freedom of speech, only to see that freedom become contingent on not upsetting anybody.