Is freedom of speech in Poland in danger?

The fallout of a wiretapping scandal involving leading Polish politicians threatens freedom of speech.

On June 18 the office of Wprost magazine was raided by the Polish police [EPA]

On June 14, Polish weekly magazine Wprost, specialising in investigative journalism, revealed the content of an alleged conversation between the Minister of Internal Affairs, Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz, and the director of the Polish National Bank, Marek Belka. The recording was made in the VIP room of a Warsaw restaurant frequented by Polish politicians. The taped conversation revolved around the possibility of the Polish National Bank supporting the ruling party, Civic Platform, with policies that would boost their electoral performance. This leaked tape has put in question the independence of the central bank from the government, which in theory, is guaranteed by the Polish constitution.

The series of tapes released by Wprost provoked public outrage and immediately put pressure on the government. The ruling party was quick to invoke conspiracy theories, suggesting that Russian secret services were behind the wiretapping which was aimed at discrediting the government. The Russians were allegedly motivated by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s important role of backing the authorities in Kiev in the continuing conflict in Ukraine. The government immediately launched an investigation and the hunt for the shadowy agents who set up the wiretapping is ongoing.

For the Polish public, the wiretapping scandal has served not only to reveal what their politicians really thought but also to demonstrate how far the authorities in Warsaw were willing to infringe on freedom of speech and information.

For the Polish public, the wiretapping scandal has served not only to reveal what their politicians really thought but also demonstrated how far the authorities in Warsaw were willing to infringe on freedom of speech and information.

From June 14 onwards, Wprost successively released transcripts of other recorded conversations and has made the recordings accessible online. So far we, the Polish people, have heard about the politicians trying to put pressure so that tax authorities avoid visiting their family businesses. We have heard about alleged plans over the central bank getting involved in politics. And most interestingly, we listened to what Minister of Foreign Affairs Radoslaw Sikorski allegedly said, “Polish-American alliance is not worth anything”. He appeared to resent the fact that Poland had to unquestionably follow the will of its US ally (all expressed in rather crude language).

The conversations laid out for the Polish public show the shocking cynicism of our political elite, as well as the extent of corruption and moral erosion within the political life of the country. Knowing that all these conversations were held over expensive meals which cost half a month’s salary for the average Polish citizen has made these tapes particularly difficult to swallow. It is now apparent that not only were we deceived by a political rhetoric that did not reflect the reality of intentions and actions, but we also have been left with a miserable socio-economic situation that our politicians could not care less about.

Witness – Bartek s Getaway Bus

As political figures involved in the scandal struggled to find excuses for what they allegedly said in these tapes, the important question of “Who did this?” has occupied public debate.

Currently, there appear to be three hypotheses. The first puts the blame on a group affiliated with the manager of one of the restaurants, who wanted to make money selling tapes with recorded conversations to whoever would pay.

The second suggests the opposition is behind the wiretapping, or that it might be the result of internal struggles between interest groups within the interior ministry.

Finally, it has also been suggested that the Russian secret services organised the whole show and aimed their attack at their Ukraine opponent – Tusk and his government.

The Prosecutor General’s office was quickly tasked with finding the culprits and bringing them to justice. But as if the shock from the tapes was not enough, the Polish public was forced to watch live on TV the police forcefully raiding the Wprost‘s headquarters on June 18. Editor-in-chief Sylwester Latkowski resisted police officers who, using physical force, tried to take his laptop. Latkowski demanded a court order, but after such an order was not presented, the police had to depart the premises of his office. The prosecution later explained that they were “searching for evidence” after Wprost refused to hand in the tapes.

Although both the government and prosecutors tried to downplay the forceful raid, it did provoke us seriously to ask ourselves if there are really guarantees of freedom of speech in our democratic country. The raid evoked painful memories from the not-so-distant past when the state was omnipresent in the public and private sphere and had clear policies of social control, political censorship and restrictions on freedom of journalistic, scientific and artistic expression.

“We are not living in Putin’s country or in Belarus,” Wprost‘s lawyer was quoted as saying after the raid. But how far indeed are we from our authoritarian neighbours?

Poland’s ‘democratic’ censorship

While Central Europe has made a point to draw symbolic and physical lines of separation from their former overlords in Moscow, it is interesting to observe that policy-wise, they sometimes do swing eastward. Hungary is a good example of a country with authoritarian tendencies under the guise of democracy. One just has to mention Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s media law of 2010, which made many Hungarians reminisce about the communist era.

In Poland we have our own tools of censorship: laws on offending religious feelings and insulting the Polish nation. Both were introduced into the Criminal Code by right-wing governments in the 1990s and 2000s. They have been used on many occasions against critical artistic works, historical research on the ambiguous role of Poles in the Holocaust and against journalistic publications. The most famous victim of these laws was artist Dorota Nieznalska who was sentenced in 2003 by a court of first instance to six months imprisonment for her piece entitled “Passion”, depicting male genitals in the shape of a cross. In a trial which lasted seven years, she appealed and was eventually acquitted.

Conservative trends have emerged in many European countries in recent years, including Poland. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has created a rather militant atmosphere in the whole region, which promotes right-wing ideas. State authorities have also given in to these conservative currents and sometimes ignore the constitutional foundations of democracy laid out to protect personal and political freedoms, including freedom of speech.

The police raid on Wprost , which was condemned by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation, in Europe is an example of this tendency. Polish journalists and democracy activists unanimously stood in defence of Wprost. Subsequently, government officials and prosecutors withdrew their arrogant statements alleging that the release of the tapes was destabilising the Polish state.

In the context of extreme right-wing hooliganism acts, Minister of Internal Affairs Sienkiewicz once said that the state has a monopoly over violence and only the state can use it to provide social order. Against the backdrop of the recent events, these words sound strangely ominous.

Igor Stokfiszewski is a journalist and activist of Political Critique, an independent socio-political organisation operating within Poland and Ukraine.