a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, and the government generally respected these rights.
Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits hate speech, including the dissemination of anti-Semitic literature, the public promotion of fascism, communism, or other totalitarian systems, and the intentional offense of religious feelings.
In January the Warsaw district prosecutor’s office initiated an investigation into independent newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza for the potential offense of religious feelings. The investigation was based on complaints by conservative lawmakers concerning an image the newspaper published in December 2020 of the Virgin Mary wearing the symbols of All-Poland Women’s Strike (a feminist organization that opposes abortion restrictions). As of November the investigation continued. On February 16, the Warsaw-Mokotow regional court imposed a fine on Adam Darski, a heavy metal musician known as “Nergal,” for offending religious feelings. Darski had posted a photograph of a damaged painting of the Virgin Mary with a shoe on her face on his Facebook page. Darski appealed the verdict and on August 18, the Warsaw-Mokotow regional court dismissed the case, finding Darski did not intend to offend religious feelings. The district prosecutor appealed the decision to the district court. On December 8, the Warsaw District Court struck down the Warsaw-Mokotow regional court’s decision to dismiss the case.
On March 2, the Plock regional court acquitted three lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) rights activists charged with offending religious sentiment in 2019. The activists had created and posted on various sites in the city of Plock images of the Virgin Mary with her halo painted in the colors of the rainbow flag. Some posters were allegedly placed on trash cans and portable toilets. The court noted the activists’ actions were intended as a denunciation of a Catholic church in Plock for its Easter display describing “LGBT” as a sin. The court found the activists did not intend to offend religious sentiment and had exercised their freedom of expression. An appeal against the verdict was pending at year’s end.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: On March 1, state-controlled energy company PKN Orlen completed its purchase of regional publishing house Polska Press, which owns most of the country’s regional newspapers. On March 5, the human rights ombudsperson asked the Warsaw District Court to halt the takeover, asserting that a state-controlled company would unduly influence the editorial policies of regional media. The ombudsperson argued that “a company controlled by the State Treasury, and through it by politicians exercising power, can easily influence the overall activities of individual editorial offices. In this way, they can transform the free press, whose inherent feature is honest and factual criticism of public authorities and persons holding public office, into news and propaganda newsletters that depend on that authority.” On April 8, the Warsaw District Court suspended antitrust approval for PKN Orlen to purchase Polska Press. PKN Orlen said in response that its acquisition of Polska Press was effective before the court issued a decision and that the ruling did not restrict PKN Orlen in exercising its ownership rights from shares in Polska Press. By year’s end PKN Orlen had replaced editors at almost all of the newspapers owned by Polska Press.
On August 11, the lower house of parliament (Sejm) voted to approve a draft amendment to the country’s broadcasting law that would prohibit non-European Economic Area (EEA) companies from owning majority stakes in media, including through EEA holding companies. The government said the bill was intended to limit the malign influence of Russia and China. Media, opposition politicians, and civil society observers interpreted the legislation as targeting private television station TVN and its news channel TVN24, owned by U.S. company Discovery Inc. through its subsidiary registered in the Netherlands. TVN, the country’s largest independent broadcaster, is the only broadcaster with majority foreign ownership and is considered critical of the existing government. In response to the Sejm’s approval of the legislation, spontaneous demonstrations took place in cities and towns around the country. On September 9, the Senate rejected the bill and sent it back to the Sejm. On December 17, the Sejm overrode the Senate’s rejection and passed the legislation. Spontaneous demonstrations against the bill and supporting media freedom again took place in cities and towns around the country. President Duda vetoed the legislation on December 27, citing the consequences the legislation would have on the country’s media freedom, investment climate, and international image.
In October, TVN Discovery Group filed a complaint with the Warsaw Provincial Administrative Court regarding the excessive length of proceedings by the National Broadcasting Council to approve an extension of news channel TVN24’s broadcast license. The proceedings to extend the license lasted more than 19 months, with approval granted on September 22, four days before TVN24’s license was to expire. TVN officials said there was no legal or formal justification for the “unprecedented” delay. The Code of Administrative Procedure obliges the Council to issue a decision “immediately,” and within 60 days in particularly complicated cases. TVN officials and civil society organizations alleged the delay in approving the license was part of a government pressure campaign against TVN for its critical coverage of the governing party. The human rights ombudsperson said there was no legal rationale for the delay. At the same time it issued TVN24’s license, the National Broadcasting Council released a nonbinding resolution claiming the law barred licensing to entities whose non-EEA ownership exceeded 49 percent, including through subsidiaries registered in the EEA, and indirectly called for Discovery to reduce its share of TVN’s ownership. Media and civil society observers said the resolution was an attempt to bypass the legislative process and implement the provisions of the stalled broadcasting legislation.
On September 2, in response to an extraordinary increase of forced irregular border crossings by third-country migrants from Belarus, the government declared a 30-day state of emergency for 183 cities, towns, and villages in two provinces near the border with Belarus, which prohibited travel to the affected areas by nonresidents, including journalists. On October 1, the government extended the state of emergency for another 60 days. On September 13, Reporters Without Borders declared “a press freedom state of emergency” in the country and criticized “arbitrary” restrictions on press freedom imposed by the government as part of the state of emergency, as well as the legislation to amend the country’s broadcasting law. On December 1, the revised law on the protection of state borders, which allowed limited media access to the border zone, entered into force. Under the new rules, media representatives were permitted to visit the Poland-Belarus border with permits issued by the commander of the relevant border guard post. The visits took place in an organized format and under the care of border guard officers. Some journalists criticized the restricted nature of the visits. More than 100 journalists participated in the trips by year’s end, according to the Center for Monitoring Press Freedom at the Association of Polish Journalists.
Violence and Harassment: On January 19, the Warsaw District Court upheld a February 2020 ruling by the Warsaw regional court that fined Michal Majewski, a reporter for the weekly Wprost, for protecting sources of information. The conviction referred to a 2014 incident when Internal Security Agency officers tried to seize forcefully a laptop of one of the journalists who revealed a wiretapping scandal involving leading politicians. The Center for Monitoring Press Freedom at the Association of Polish Journalists criticized the conviction as a clear violation of freedom of speech. The ruling was final.
In mid-July prosecutors discontinued an investigation into a November 2020 incident in which police shot a photojournalist in the face with a rubber bullet while he was covering violent clashes between police and groups of hooligans during the annual Independence March in Warsaw. Prosecutors claimed the journalist was not intentionally targeted. The photojournalist filed a complaint against the prosecutor’s decision with the Warsaw regional court.
On September 28, police detained two reporters working for the French-German television station ARTE and a journalist working for Agence France-Presse, all of whom claimed they mistakenly entered the area covered by the state of emergency near the Poland-Belarus border. Police seized their computers and mobile phones and detained them overnight. The following day the Sokolka regional court ruled the journalists violated the state of emergency, but the court did not impose a fine. In an October 8 letter to the chief commander of the national police, the human rights ombudsperson noted the police actions might raise “doubts” from the perspective of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press and the principle of protecting journalist confidentiality.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), between November 14 and November 23, police detained at least seven journalists attempting to cover the situation at the border. For example, according to CPJ, on November 16, near the village of Wiejki (located outside of the emergency zone) a group of soldiers stopped a car carrying journalists Maciej Nabrdalik, Maciej Moskwa, and Martin Divisek. The soldiers forcibly pulled the journalists out of the car, handcuffed them, and held them for an hour while they searched the car, their mobile phones, and their cameras, and took notes related to the telephone numbers and other incoming information displayed on the lock screens of the journalists’ mobile phones. The government claimed the journalists’ vehicle did not have press markings, the journalists were taking photographs of a military installation without prior permission, and the journalists attempted to leave the scene when asked to cease taking pictures. The government also alleged that the journalists did not identify themselves as members of the press after being detained, but according to CPJ, audio recordings of the incident appeared to contradict this. In a November 20 interview, the minister of defense praised the soldiers’ behavior, saying “it is their duty to be firm.”
On October 2, police entered the apartment of a journalist from the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and seized his computer equipment over alleged criminal threats sent to a member of parliament from the governing party. Warsaw police said police data indicated the threats came from a specific internet protocol and physical address. Police claimed no advance knowledge that the apartment belonged to a journalist and said regulations permitted them to conduct searches and seize equipment without a warrant. According to Gazeta Wyborcza, the journalist was ordered to hand over his work laptop, which contained material protected by journalistic confidentiality. Police also seized the journalist’s other laptops and his mobile phone. On the same day, the newspaper’s editorial team issued a statement that criticized the police action against the journalist, claiming it was an attempt to intimidate free media. The human rights ombudsperson’s office has sought an official explanation from Warsaw police.
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.” In September the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) fined the private television channel Zoom TV for broadcasting a dating game show titled “Naked Attraction,” in which contestants compete naked. The spokesperson for KRRiT explained the Council decided the broadcasting of the show violated the standards specified in the law with respect to the prohibition on promoting attitudes and views contrary to morality and the social good. KRRiT cited the presentation of scenes and content depicting men and women as sexual objects, which it said violated the human dignity of both sexes.
Critics alleged persistent progovernment bias in state television news broadcasts.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation by print and broadcast journalists is a criminal offense punishable by up to a one-year prison term. Defamation outside media is punishable by a fine and community service. In addition to defamation laws, laws cover public insult or slander of the president, members of parliament, government ministers and other public officials, the Polish nation, foreign heads of state and ambassadors, and private entities and persons, as well as insult or destruction of the national emblem, the flag, other state symbols, monuments, and sites that commemorate historical events or persons. The law also criminalizes offending religious sentiment by publicly insulting an object of religious worship or a place dedicated to public observance of religious services. Penalties for public insult range from a fine and community service for insulting a monument to up to a three-year prison term for slandering the president, foreign heads of state, the Republic of Poland, and the Polish nation. The courts rarely applied maximum penalties, and persons convicted of defamation and public insult generally faced fines or community service. Even if a court case ended with a conviction without punishment or with a small penalty, the person convicted had an official criminal record, which limited the person’s ability to hold public positions or access public funds. According to the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, a growing number of defamation and public insult cases, especially with respect to offending religious sentiment, posed a real risk of limiting freedom of expression and could stifle free public debate.
On June 10, the Lublin District Court sentenced the pastor of a small evangelical church in the city of Lublin to eight months of community service and ordered him to cover court fees for publicly insulting the president and the Polish nation and for offending the religious feelings of Catholics. The conviction resulted from offensive statements the pastor made on his internet television channel.
On October 27, the Opole District Court ordered a former deputy agricultural minister and former politician with the Polish People’s Party to pay a fine for publicly insulting the president by posting offensive comments regarding him on social media during the 2020 presidential election campaign. The verdict was subject to appeal.
In January the Warsaw district prosecutor’s office discontinued an investigation against three persons charged with desecrating monuments and offending religious sentiment by placing rainbow flags on several monuments around Warsaw in July 2020, including on an historic religious statue in front of a Roman Catholic Church associated with Warsaw’s occupation. Prosecutors determined the charged persons were not responsible for placing the flags.
The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights reported that journalists convicted of defamation had never received the maximum penalty. According to the Helsinki Foundation, however, the criminal defamation law does have a chilling effect on journalists, especially in local media, because 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 the Helsinki Foundation, there was a considerable increase in the number of convictions under the criminal defamation law over the last several years. The foundation observed that those seeking to protect their reputations were more likely to pursue criminal defamation charges than civil litigation.
In March the Warsaw-Srodmiescie local prosecutor’s office indicted Jakub Zulczyk, a writer, for publicly insulting the president by posting a message on his Facebook account in which he referred to the president as a “moron.” If convicted, Zulczyk could face up to a three-year prison term. The trial began on November 16.
On June 29, the Kalisz regional court sentenced three men to two months of community work and a fine for publicly insulting the president by shouting offensive slogans against the president and trying to burn an election banner featuring the president at a high school graduation event.
According to the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and Court Watch Poland, there was an increasing problem with strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), which are used by public institutions and officials, media companies, politicians, and individuals to suppress opposing opinions. The civil society organizations claim the use of SLAPPs created an unfriendly environment for media to operate and had a “chilling effect” on journalists, who may be reluctant to tackle sensitive topics for fear of being prosecuted. According to the Journalism Society’s report published in May, the government or state-controlled institutions undertook 187 legal actions, both criminal and civil, against journalists over the last six years, of which the report categorized 66 as SLAPP litigation.
Nongovernmental Impact: On January 28, a reporter and a camera operator working for National Media (a right-wing outlet affiliated with the nationalist Independence March Association) reported they were attacked by demonstrators during an All-Poland’s Women’s Strike demonstration on January 27. According to National Media’s director, demonstrators physically attacked the camera operator and damaged his equipment, and the reporter was temporarily stunned. On January 28, another reporter working for public radio in the city of Poznan reported he was attacked by demonstrators during a similar demonstration in Poznan.
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 law authorizes the Internal Security Agency 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 Internal Security Agency blocked websites.
The law against defamation and all other public insult laws apply to the internet.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
On March 5, according to press and NGO reports, the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage suspended an online film festival called Herstorie for Women’s Day, which was scheduled to take place on the website of the government-run National Film Archive-Audiovisual Institute (FINA). Deputy Minister of Culture Jaroslaw Sellin reportedly ordered FINA director Dariusz Wieromiejczyk to remove the festival from the FINA website because it contained two films the ministry found objectionable – You are Overreacting, on domestic violence, and Vibrant Village, on a sex toy factory in Hungary. According to media reports, when Wieromiejczyk refused to comply, Culture Minister Piotr Glinski fired him. The film festival found a new partner and took place as scheduled. Both FINA and the Ministry of Culture made statements denying any connection between suspension of the festival and the content of the films. The Ministry of Culture stated that it fired Wieromiejczyk because he had allegedly violated labor law, the Public Finance Act, and other laws.
f. Protection of Refugees
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.
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. According to the Office of Foreigners, 7,235 individuals applied for international protection in the country from January 1 to December 7, compared to 2,616 in the same period of 2020. The main countries of origin of applicants were Belarus (2,096); Afghanistan (1,742); Iraq (1,302); Russia (937); and Ukraine (253). The government granted international protection between January 1 and November 30 to 979 persons given refugee status and 1,018 given subsidiary protection.
Due to the extraordinary increase in third-country migrants attempting to cross the border from Belarus into the country, the government issued a regulation on August 20 permitting the Border Guard to return migrants who crossed the border irregularly back to Belarus. In September the government declared a State of Emergency along the border. Government leaders, media outlets, and nongovernmental organizations referred to the increase as part of a Lukashenka regime effort at an orchestrated migrant-smuggling campaign against the EU. On September 15, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen stated, “the regime in Minsk has instrumentalized human beings. They have put people on planes and literally pushed them towards Europe’s borders.”
While EU leaders expressed support for the country’s handling of the crisis, human rights organizations stated that this regulation violated international obligations regarding protection of asylum seekers in the country’s territory. In September parliament adopted a revision of the law on foreigners which legalized this practice, and the president signed the bill into law on October 21. On October 22, UNHCR issued an appeal to the governments of Poland and Belarus to honor their international obligations and provide international protection to those migrants who request it. These protections include the possibility to seek asylum, access to legal aid, information, and appropriate accommodation.
On August 24, UNHCR urged Polish authorities to make an individual assessment of each case before expelling migrants or preventing them from entering the country. In response, the MFA issued a statement on August 24 assuring that the government met all international obligations related to the Convention on Refugees. The government and the EU stated the Belarusian government was orchestrating migrant smuggling and manufacturing the migration crisis as retaliation for EU sanctions against Belarus. Government officials claimed most of the migrants did not apply for asylum, did not want to remain in the country, and sought to transit to Germany.
On September 21, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) jointly called for immediate access to migrants on the border to provide medical assistance, food, water, and shelter. The statement said asylum seekers and migrants should never be used by states to pursue political goals. UNHCR and IOM also expressed concern on the alleged use of so-called pushbacks, i.e., pushing migrants back into Belarus, and called for the situation to “be managed in accordance with international legal obligations, and for [countries] to work collaboratively to resolve the situation, prioritizing human rights.”
In a November 24 report, Human Rights Watch reported that they had interviewed 15 individuals who described experiencing one or more pushbacks from the country to Belarus without due process. All stated that their pleas for protection and asylum were ignored by border guards and that when border guards apprehended them, they put them in vehicles, drove them to the border, and ordered them to return to Belarus. If an individual arrived in the country so ill that they required hospitalization, they were given treatment and documents permitting a six-month stay in the country but were often separated from family members who were returned to Belarus. Migrants described being subjected to “ping-pong” between the two countries, and Human Rights Watch reported that at least 13 migrants died from cold and hunger in the border zone.
On August 25, the ECHR issued interim measures and instructed the country to provide the group with food, water, and medical assistance. On September 27, the ECHR expanded the measures to instruct the country to provide the group with direct access to lawyers. On September 29, the government responded to the ECHR’s decision on interim measures, arguing the group of migrants was in Belarus and the government could not violate its territorial integrity.
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 from which 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.
Refoulement: There were allegations that the country expelled individuals seeking asylum from third countries back to Belarus, where they were likely to face abuse, including severe beatings (see Access to Asylum and EU regulations cited in Safe Country of Origin/Transit above and Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Belarus). There were no reports or allegations that Poland expelled Belarusian citizens seeking asylum back to Belarus or expelled individuals from third countries back to the countries from which they sought asylum.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: There was an allegation that authorities used disproportionate force against third-country migrants seeking to enter the country irregularly from Belarus. On November 16, several hundred irregular migrants attacked Polish police and border guards at the Kuznica-Bruzgi border crossing point with stones, metal pipes, wood sticks, and stun and teargas grenades provided by Belarusian services, according to the government. Media reported nine Polish personnel were hospitalized, including one with a probable fractured skull, in the incident. Human Rights Watch alleged the use of water cannons and tear gas by police and border guards in response to the migrant attack was disproportionate. There were no reports of serious injuries among the irregular migrants. The government stated Polish security services used these non-lethal measures under a state of emergency as a last resort, because the migrants were attacking at the instigation of Belarusian security services.
UNHCR reported no major or persistent problems with abuse in centers for asylum seekers. Some incidents of gender-based violence occurred in the centers, but UNHCR reported that local response teams involving doctors, psychologists, police, and social workers addressed these 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. According to the Legal Intervention Association, courts automatically approved the legal motions of the border guards, resulting in many vulnerable migrants, including families with children, being placed in guarded centers. According to the association, the courts also automatically extended detention beyond the initial three months, which in practice meant many migrants stayed in guarded detention centers for extended periods of time. Children placed in guarded centers did not have access to public education and could participate only in limited educational activities organized on site. 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: There were no restrictions on refugees’ ability to work. Nonetheless, employers generally preferred to hire persons with Polish, Russian, or Ukrainian language proficiency, which limited some refugees’ ability to find a job. In addition, a demanding system for recognizing qualifications limited refugees’ ability to work in their professions.
Temporary Protection: During the year, the government continued to provide temporary protection to some individuals who did not qualify as refugees. During the first seven months of the year, according to Ministry of Foreign Affairs statistics, 8,844 Belarusian citizens entered the country under special “humanitarian visas.”