Poland: Government should listen to the people and stop curbing civil liberties

HannaSzulczewskaIn February 2016, CIVICUS interviewed Ms. Hanna Szulczewska, Press Officer for the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a citizen movement that emerged on social media in late 2015 as a response to threats facing Poland’s democracy. Here, Ms. Szulczewska discusses how the movement came about, what it aims to achieve and what support KOD is calling for from international actors. 

1. What developments led to the formation of KOD in late 2015 and what does the movement hope to achieve?

Since the parliamentary elections on 25 October 2015, the initiatives of the new Polish government have given serious cause for public concern. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which won a majority in parliament following a populist electoral campaign based on a social policies programme, started to implement a series of changes with disregard for democratic principles and the rule of law. 

Our civic movement emerged spontaneously in reaction to these developments. KOD was actually inspired by an article published on 18 November 2015 on studioopinii.pl, an independent journalist web portal, by Krzysztof Łoziński, an active member of the anti-communist opposition and a journalist. In his text Łoziński said there was now a need to create a Committee for the Defence of Democracy, in view of “deliberate attempts made by the Law and Justice party to dismantle democracy”. The Committee should follow the tradition and ideals of the Committee for the Defence of Workers founded in communist Poland in 1976.

Łoziński's article was posted on Facebook by Mateusz Kijowski, now the leader of KOD. As the text was getting considerable interest, being shared by many people on their Facebook accounts, Kijowski decided to open a KOD group on Facebook, and so it started. The group reported rapid growth in membership, reaching over 30,000 in just a few days.

The main goal of the movement is to defend democracy in Poland and to prevent the authoritarian vision of the state promoted by the present government from coming true. KOD is monitoring and documenting all the movements of the Law and Justice government. The organization also responds to the open acts of violation of democratic order by organizing mass demonstrations in the streets of the Polish cities. Moreover, KOD is now developing its structures all over the country and preparing for a long-term activity, which involves, among others, civic education and building social networks.

2. Currently, what actions is the Polish government taking to undermine democratic space and free expression in Poland?

In December 2015 the government passed a number of amendments to the Act on Constitutional Court, which practically paralysed its proper functioning, removing the ultimate safety mechanism in the country’s legal system and important checks on the government’s power. 

At the end of 2015 the Polish parliament also passed an amendment to the civil service law, according to which higher posts in the civil service will be now filled by appointment and not through competitive processes. Practically, it means that the highest positions of the civil service will be now taken over by political appointees.

At the beginning of January 2016 the Polish parliament adopted a new media law, which subordinates public service broadcasting directly to the government.  According to the amended legislation, terms of office of the present heads of public TV and radio stations, as well as their board members, expired. The government directly appointed new heads of television and radio stations. These new appointees have already dismissed about 50 journalists, some who have worked for as long as 20 years for the public TV station. The public television station will now become National TV, promoting “Polish traditions and patriotic values”. 

On 28 January 2016 the Polish parliament passed a law, which merged the functions of the Justice Minister and the Public Prosecutor. This will allow the Minister of Justice to exert direct pressure on prosecutors and judges at every level of the judiciary, thus violating the fundamental principles of their independence and the principles of separation of powers.  

On 7 February a new surveillance law (amending the Police Act) entered into force. The legal changes it introduces will increase state surveillance of Polish citizens. The new provisions increase the government’s access to digital data and allow the country’s secret services – without prior permission of the court – to monitor communication over the phone, mail and electronic mail. Such operations may continue uninterrupted for up to 18 months. 

3. How have Polish citizens responded to recent attacks on democracy and what actions has KOD taken to mobilise support for the movement?

Many Polish citizens have expressed their opposition and have protested against government decisions, taking to the streets of towns and cities across the country. KOD has already organized a number of demonstrations in response to legislation pushed through parliament by the ruling party, which was usually done overnight, in a hasty way, giving no chance for public consultation or for the parliamentary opposition to contest it.

On 12 December 2015, the first demonstration on the streets of Warsaw gathered as many as 50,000 people who marched in defence of the Constitutional Court from the main building of the Court to the Presidential Palace. 

A week later another demonstration followed, with some well-known figures from Polish social, political and cultural life who publicly expressed their support for the KOD movement. Another two mass events in defence of free media and civic freedoms took place all over Poland and also abroad, reaching 36 towns and cities countrywide, and a total of 200,000 people protesting.  

4. How can external actors – including international solidarity movements and European Institutions –support calls to safeguard civic space in Poland?

European Institutions have already reacted to the recent changes in Polish legislation. The European Commission launched the first stage of the framework for addressing systemic threats to the rule of law in our country and held a debate on Poland in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 19 January 2016. 

In February 2016 a delegation of the Venice Commission visited Poland to hold discussions with the authorities – including the President of Poland, Ministry of Justice, the Supreme Court and parliament among others. These discussions addressed the amendments to the law on the Constitutional Court adopted by PiS in December 2015. 

The government’s actions have also provoked some economic reactions. Standard & Poor’s, the largest credit rating agency, downgraded Poland’s rating from A- to BBB+. This is the first such change for Poland since 2007 and the first downgrade in Polish history. 

The role of European Institutions is vital for Poland, where 80% of the population support our presence in the European Union, ten years after accession. It is very important that the EU monitors the situation in our country and makes this government aware that Poland – as an EU Member State – is obliged to comply with the European “rules of the game”. It is also important for us to build and maintain relations with other European bodies, NGOs and civic society organizations at different levels.  

5. What concrete actions should the Polish government take in the immediate term to safeguard democratic space and ensure that all citizens have an equal say in the running of the country?

First and foremost, the President of Poland should take the oath of office from the three judges of the Constitutional Court who were lawfully appointed by the previous parliament (before Law and Justice took over in October 2015). So far the President has not fulfilled his constitutional obligation in this respect. Consequently, the judges could not take office, which – followed by the other amendments passed by PiS – finally led to the constitutional crisis that remains unresolved.

Only the Constitutional Court (if it is able to function properly) could review the newly adopted laws to assess their compliance with the Constitution. Practically, most of the laws implemented by this government pose a threat to democracy and deny equal say to citizens, for instance by violating the principle of separation of powers, removing important checks on the government, supressing free media, filling civil service positions with political nominees and allowing the police and secret services to monitor our privacy in an uncontrolled manner. 

We should remember that the ruling Law and Justice party won the election with less than 6 million votes, which means that only 18% of all the people eligible to vote supported this party.  Therefore, the ruling Law and Justice should not ignore the voice of many Poles who have openly and repeatedly expressed their protest in mass demonstrations. The government should finally start listening to the people and deliver on the social promises from their electoral campaign, rather than curbing civil liberties.