Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and Poland’s de facto leader, has strongly criticised a court ruling banning a journalist and newspaper from writing about the head of the Polish football association.
Kaczyński argues that the judgement is worse than communist censorship, and demonstrates that courts require further reform, including removing certain judges from the profession.
“There is indeed a problem with the rule of law in Poland,” said Kaczyński. “It is our duty to ensure that rulings which violate the law are quickly overturned, and the judges who issued them brought to disciplinary responsibility and, consequently, removed from the profession.”
“Only such a firm attitude towards this pathology that is destroying the state can bring results [and] eliminate within a few years that which is harming many citizens,” he concluded, in quotes carried by the Polish Press Agency.
Kaczyński’s words had been prompted by a recent court ruling that forbids a journalist, Piotr Nisztor, from publishing content relating to Zbigniew Boniek, the head of Poland’s football association (PZPN), for a year.
Boniek had taken legal action against Nisztor after the latter wrote critical articles and social media posts about the PZPN chief, who in his playing days starred in the Polish national side that finished third at the 1982 World Cup as well as playing for Juventus and Roma in Italy.
These included claims that the football association had worked with a firm belonging to the brother and nephew of Boniek, and another that employs a former officer from the communist-era security services, reports Fakt.
Nisztor had also published social media posts (since deleted) saying that Boniek praised Poland’s former communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski and an article about an investigation into alleged unpaid taxes by the PZPN chief, according to TVP Info.
Boniek filed a lawsuit demanding an apology from Nisztor and donation to charity. He also requested that, while a final ruling is pending, Nisztor and his newspaper, the conservative Gazeta Polska, be barred from writing about Boniek. Last week, a Warsaw judge, Rafał Wagner, accepted the latter request.
Moje oświadczenie…. nie ma zgody na kłamstwa, manipulacje i pomówienia. Tyle w temacie….. pic.twitter.com/iR83y2VFJ8
— Zbigniew Boniek (@BoniekZibi) September 2, 2020
Kaczyński has hit out against Wagner’s ruling, saying that it is “in some respects worse than communist censorship”. Boniek has been treated “as a person enjoying unprecedented privileges, as if he were a citizen who deserves special rights and special treatment”.
“This decision is contrary to the constitution and to common sense,” added Kaczyński. “It is hard not to get the impression that the court is serving some interests.”
“This issue is another argument in favour of deep reform of the judiciary, not only in the institutional and organisation dimension, but also in personal terms,” he concluded, warning that judges were “striving to obtain legislative power” and create an “undemocratic, even oligarchic order”.
PiS and its leader have long argued that judges in Poland are a “caste” serving the interests of the “post-communist elites” that came to control political, business and media interests in Poland after 1989.
In Kaczyński’s view, Poland did not obtain independence and freedom in 1989. Rather there was an agreement between the ruling communists and some elements of the opposition that created a system that they could still dominate.
This narrative has been used to justify the radical overhaul of state institutions carried out by PiS since it returned to power in 2015, including attempts to purge certain judges from the courts.
Despite enjoying almost five years in power, the government and its allies claim that this is an unfinished process. Earlier this year, President Andrzej Duda said that the authorities are “still cleansing Poland of the dirt” left behind from the communist era. “Black sheep among judges must be eliminated,” he warned.
Following Duda’s recent re-election it is likely that, after an imminent cabinet reshuffle, the government will push forward with its judicial policies. The day after Duda’s victory, justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro said that “the most important thing” during the president’s second term was “to complete the reform of the judiciary”.
Earlier this year, the government introduced a strict new disciplinary system for judges, including the possibility to fire them. They argued that the tools were a necessary response “to actions by part of the judiciary community”.
Many judges and the opposition, however, saw the move as an attempt to further exert political influence over the courts. The new law prompted mass protests.
It also brought further conflict with the European Union. In January, the European Commission requested interim measures suspending the disciplinary system of Poland’s Supreme Court. This was approved by the European Court of Justice in April.
Later that month, the commission announced that it was launching another round of infringement proceedings against Warsaw. Vice President Věra Jourová warned that “there is a clear risk that…the disciplinary system for judges can be used for political control over the content of judicial decisions”.
In his latest remarks, Kaczyński once again dismissed the EU’s concerns over the rule of law in Poland. “The assessment of the situation in Poland formulated by various international bodies is counterfactual; it has nothing to do with reality,” he said
“[Our] reform of the judiciary is nothing more than an attempt to eliminate [its] pathology and restore the rule of law in Poland,” Kaczyński concluded.
As well as facing action from Brussels over violating the rule of law, the PiS government has also been accused of infringing media freedom. Under its rule, Poland has dropped 44 places in the World Press Freedom Index. This year it reached its lowest ever position of 62nd.
Reporters Without Borders, which compiles the ranking, notes that one of the ruling party’s methods of putting pressure on opposition media is through lawsuits.
In December, the International Press Institute noted that around 50 criminal and civil cases have been brought against Gazeta Wyborcza, a newspaper critical of the government, by state or state-controlled entities. Kaczyński himself has also personally sued the publication.
Main image credit: Patryk Ogorzalek / Agencja Gazeta
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.