Poland: Journalist’s criminal defamation conviction may impair freedom of expression
The undersigned partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) express deep concern over the recent judgement in the case brought by two judges in Poland in their private capacity against Polityka journalist Ewa Siedlecka, who was convicted of criminal defamation.
Amid the ongoing erosion of media freedom in Poland, we believe that this verdict sets a dangerous precedent which may further facilitate the attempts to muzzle critical media coverage on public officials in the country. The MFRR reiterates that the state should guarantee an enabling working environment for journalists in Poland in which they are able to report on vital, even controversial issues and raise difficult questions without a fear of legal harassment.
On 24 November 2021, the District Court for Warsaw-Śródmieście, convicted Siedlecka, a journalist of Polityka, a weekly news magazine, of criminal defamation in the case brought by two judges, Konrad Wytrykowski and Maciej Nawacki, acting in their private capacity. The court ordered the journalist to pay 5600 zł which consists of a fine, a compensation for both plaintiffs, a payment to the National Treasury and the cost of the trial. As the ruling was delivered by a court of first instance, the journalist may appeal the guilty verdict.
Siedlecka is one of the journalists who tackled in their reporting the issue of a so-called “hate campaign affair” that broke out in Poland in 2019. At that time, a journalistic investigation led by a digital media outlet Onet.pl revealed that the representatives of the Ministry of Justice, including deputy justice minister Lukasz Piebiak, orchestrated and coordinated a hate campaign aimed at several selected judges who openly opposed the controversial judiciary “reforms” pushed through by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS). The “reforms” – in particular, creation of the disciplinary chamber – form an essential part of plans to “overhaul the judiciary” and were found incompatible with EU law by the European Court of Justice. In response to the ruling, Poland indicated its intention to dismantle the disciplinary chamber in the foreseeable future.
Siedlecka referred to the details of the investigations carried out by journalists of Onet.pl in her Twitter and blog posts as well as in three articles published by Polityka. In one of the pieces, Ms. Siedlecka called Wytrykowski and Nawacki, two judges allegedly involved in the hate campaign – “haters”. As a result, Wyrzykowski, a member of the disciplinary chamber of the Supreme Court and Nawacki, of the National Council of the Judiciary, who were both promoted to their current positions due to personnel changes stemming from the controversial judiciary “reforms”, filed a defamation lawsuit against her with the initial demand for 20 thousand złoty compensation, 24 hours of community work, and imprisonment for four months. During the trial, the court dismissed the defence’s motions to find out whether the plaintiffs were members of the aforementioned “hate group” operating in the Ministry. The judge explained that “the trials under Art. 212 of the Penal Code regarding the journalists focus on assessing the credibility of a reporter, not investigating the truth”.
Siedlecka wasn’t present in the court while the judgement was delivered. She did, however, comment on the case and the decision online. “The verdict may be perceived as a restriction of freedom of speech”, she wrote in a short opinion piece published on her blog, noting that she “does not know the details of the justification” of the court’s decision. She calls herself “the first person convicted in the hate campaign affair”.
“I did not insult the plaintiffs, I did not mock them. I simply expressed my opinions. The plaintiffs are high officials, they must thus be prepared – which was repeatedly stated by, inter alia, The Court of Human Rights – to be a subject of criticism”, Ms. Siedlecka stressed in the comment.
The MFRR remains highly alarmed by the continuing deterioration of media freedom in Poland and multi-pronged attacks backed by the authorities aimed at stamping out critical voices. There is a justified fear that this verdict against Ewa Siedlecka might pave the way for a wider criminalisation of expressing an opinion based on information present in the public space. In addition, legal proceedings against a particular journalist may exert a major chilling effect on the journalistic community as a whole.
We have been observing the increasing use of defamation lawsuits targeting journalists that aim to dissuade them from reporting on a controversial story and drain them both psychologically and financially. We find the recent defamation conviction of Ewa Siedlecka deeply distressing, in particular given the fact that she mostly quoted the existing reporting and not formed accusations on her own. The MFRR stands in solidarity with the journalist and her inalienable right to express opinions, especially in regard to the activity of public officials.