Poland is a republic with a multiparty democracy. The bicameral parliament consists of an upper house (Senate) and a lower house (Sejm). The president and the Council of Ministers headed by the prime minister share executive power. In the parliamentary elections held on October 13, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party retained its majority in the Sejm but lost its majority in the Senate. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conducted elections observation. Finding there was overall confidence in the election administration, it admitted polls occurred amid “deep political polarization” and stated that “media bias and intolerant rhetoric in the campaign were of significant concern.”
The police force is a national law enforcement body with regional and municipal units overseen by the Ministry of Interior and Administration. The Border Guard is responsible for border security and combating irregular migration; it reports to the Ministry of Interior and Administration. The Internal Security Agency (ABW) has responsibility for investigating and combating organized crime, terrorist threats, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The Central Anticorruption Bureau (CBA) is responsible for combating government, business, and financial corruption and may investigate any matter involving public funds. The prime minister appoints and supervises the head and deputy heads of the CBA and ABW, which also report to parliament. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: criminal defamation penalties; violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of ethnic minorities.
The government took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses. There were no reports of security force impunity.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights.
Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits hate speech, including the dissemination of anti-Semitic literature and the public promotion of fascist, communist, or other totalitarian systems, and intentional offense of religious feelings.
Violence and Harassment: On February 14, the Katowice regional prosecutor’s office discontinued its investigation into Piotr Wacowski, a cameraman for private television news channel TVN, who was suspected of propagating fascism. The case was related to an investigative report by the journalist showing members of the Pride and Modernity Association dressed in Nazi uniforms and celebrating Hitler’s birthday in 2017. The prosecutor’s office stated it could find no evidence Wacowski had committed a crime.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The constitution prohibits censorship of the press or social communication. Nevertheless, laws regulating broadcasting and media prohibit, under penalty of fines, license revocation, or other authorized sanctions, the promotion of activities endangering health or safety, or the promotion of views contrary to law, morality, or the common good. The law also requires that all broadcasts “respect the religious feelings of the audiences and, in particular, respect the Christian system of values.”
Critics alleged persistent progovernment bias in state television news broadcasts.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation by print and broadcast journalists is a criminal offense and includes publicly insulting or slandering the president, members of parliament, government ministers and other public officials, the Polish nation, foreign heads of state and ambassadors, private entities and persons, as well as insult or destruction of the national emblem, the flag, and other state symbols. Defamation outside the media is punishable by a fine and community service. The courts rarely applied maximum penalties, and persons convicted of defamation generally faced only fines or imprisonment of less than one year. The maximum sentence for insulting the president is three years’ imprisonment.
The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and the Association of Polish Journalists reported that journalists convicted of defamation had never received the maximum penalty. According to the association, however, the criminal defamation law may have a chilling effect on journalists, especially in local media, since local authorities may use the law against journalists. Media owners, particularly of small local independent newspapers, were aware that potentially large fines could threaten the financial survival of their publications. According to Ministry of Justice statistics for 2018, the most recent data available, courts convicted one person of insulting the president and three persons for insulting constitutional organs of the government. In 2018 the courts fined two persons for public defamation through media using the public prosecution procedure, when a private person presses criminal charges against another person. In 2018 there were 116 convictions for criminal defamation through media using the private prosecution procedure.
On November 26, the Katowice District Prosecutor’s Office discontinued its prosecutorial investigation into a historian, stemming from a 2015 newspaper interview where the historian alleged that Poles killed more Jews than Nazis in occupied Poland during World War II. The Katowice District Prosecutor’s Office stated it was not its role to settle issues of an historical nature.
On February 12, the Lodz District Court fined investigative reporter Wojciech Biedron 3,000 zloty ($762) on charges of public insult of a judge for inaccurately reporting that a court had initiated disciplinary proceedings against the judge. Several journalists criticized the judgment as overly harsh and disproportionate to the offense.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications or email without appropriate legal authority. The 2016 antiterrorism law authorizes the ABW to block websites without a prior court order in cases relating to combating, preventing, and prosecuting terrorist crimes; shut down telecommunications networks when there is a terrorist threat; and conduct surveillance of foreign nationals for up to three months without a court order. During the year there were no reports by media or NGO sources that the ABW blocked websites.
The law against defamation applies to the internet as well.
There were no reports of government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. The 2015 antiterrorism law permits restrictions on public assemblies in situations of elevated terrorist threats. During the year there were no cases of the prohibition of a public assembly due to an elevated terrorist threat.
In December the Warsaw District Prosecutor’s Office decided to discontinue its investigation into an attack on counterdemonstrators during the November 2017 Independence March. The office stated that continuing the case was not in the public interest and that it was unable to identify the perpetrators of the attack. On February 13, the Warsaw Regional Court struck down an earlier decision by the Warsaw District Prosecutor’s Office to discontinue the investigation and ordered the office to reopen the case. The Prosecutor’s Office had previously asserted the attackers’ intention was to show dissatisfaction and not to physically harm the 14 counterdemonstrators they confronted.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution and the law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. In addition to guarded centers for foreigners, the government operated 11 open centers for asylum seekers with an aggregate capacity of approximately 2,000 persons in the Warsaw, Bialystok, and Lublin areas.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Some incidents of gender-based violence in the centers for asylum seekers occurred, but UNHCR reported that local response teams involving doctors, psychologists, police, and social workers addressed these cases. UNHCR reported no major or persistent problems with abuse in the centers.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.
On April 17, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, a Warsaw-based NGO, published a report criticizing the government for restricting access to the asylum procedure. The report covered the situation on the country’s eastern border between 2015 and 2019 and stated the Border Guard at times arbitrarily refused the right to submit an application for international protection at border crossing stations.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The EU’s Dublin III Regulation, to which the country is subject, recognizes all EU countries as safe countries of origin and transit. The regulation also authorizes the governments of EU member states to return asylum seekers to the countries where they first entered the EU. The law permits denial of refugee status based on safe country of origin or safe country of transit but includes provisions that allow authorities to consider the protection needs of individuals in exceptional cases.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities placed some asylum seekers in guarded centers for foreigners while they awaited deportation or decisions on their asylum applications. Border guards may place an individual in a guarded center only by court order. The law prohibits the placement of unaccompanied minors younger than 15 in guarded centers. Border guards typically sought to confine foreigners who attempted to cross the border illegally, lacked identity documents, or committed a crime during their stay in the country.
Employment: Asylum seekers are not allowed to work during the first six months of the asylum procedure. If the asylum procedure lasts longer than six months, they may work until the asylum decision is final.
Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers faced language and cultural barriers and had limited access to higher education. Children in centers for asylum seekers had free access to public education, but those placed with relatives in guarded centers for foreigners did not.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees.
The law affords the opportunity to obtain nationality. The UNHCR report noted, however, that the government’s lack of a formal procedure of identifying stateless persons led to protection gaps and exposed stateless persons to many negative consequences, including detention.
The UNHCR report noted several problems resulting from stateless status, including the inability to undertake legal employment or to access social welfare and health care. Stateless persons often lack identity documents, which limits their ability to perform many legal actions, such as opening a bank account or entering into a marriage. According to UNHCR, such problems made this group particularly vulnerable to poverty and marginalization.