Press freedom threatened by Poland’s new commission on Russian influence
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the European Commission and European Parliament to prevent Poland’s new commission of inquiry into Russian influence on internal security from being used to wage a witchhunt against journalists critical of the government in the run-up to next autumn’s parliamentary elections.
Update of 8/06/23: On 8 June 2023, the European Commission opened an infringement procedure against Poland for violation, inter alia, of the "principle of democracy" by the new law on Russian influence. Although the decision is not directly motivated by threats to press freedom, RSF welcomes the fast reaction of the European executive. Media freedom is essential for free elections to be held this autumn.
Tasked with investigating Russian influence on Poland’s domestic security from 2007 to 2022, this state commission will be set up under a law that was passed by Poland’s national assembly on 26 May and was signed by President Andrzej Duda three days later. Consisting of nine members appointed by parliamentarians and granted huge powers with no real judicial control, it will use the protection of national security as grounds to pose a major new threat to the right to information.
Unconstrained by safeguards protecting press freedom, the commission is authorised to investigate the “mass media.” It will be able to interrogate journalists and lift the professional secrecy, including the confidentiality of journalistic sources. It will also have the power to ask the judicial authorities to initiate criminal or disciplinary proceedings against those identified as being under Russian influence, and to impose a ten-year ineligibility sentence on them.
The new law has been dubbed the “Lex Tusk” because Polish opposition leader Donald Tusk thinks its goal is to prevent him running in the upcoming elections. Nonetheless, it clearly also poses a threat to press freedom in Poland. A member of the ruling party before becoming president, Duda has promised to submit the law to the Constitutional Council and has even talked of amendments. But, on his own, he lacks the power to enact amendments and the law is already in effect.
"The legitimate objective of protecting national security must not be used as grounds for intimidating journalists critical of the government. As long as the commission of inquiry into Russian influence is not clearly subject to the principle of confidentiality of sources and effective judicial control, the possibility of a witchhunt must be feared. This new law undermines press freedom, one of the democratic values dear to Poland, in the name of which it is at the forefront of European countries helping Ukraine against Russian aggression. We urge the European Commission and the European Parliament to examine the law in this light and to take a firm stand.
When contacted by RSF, a Polish government spokesperson said the commission was “democratic” and “all of the commission's activities shall be subject to a two-tiered judicial review.” However, the commission’s decisions can only be challenged in administrative courts on procedural issues. It is not clear whether the procedures inscribed in the law will provide effective protection of journalistic confidentiality.
Journalists are expected to receive summonses from the commission. “Many journalists, who are subject to a certain Russian influence in their activities, should appear [before the commission],” deputy defence minister Wojciech Skurkiewicz said.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), has hinted that the commission will target journalists with independent media outlets. When TVN24 news channel’s Mateusz Grzymkowski asked him on 27 May if he trusted the defence minister after his ministry took four months to identify the remains of a Russian missile that fell within Polish territory, Kaczynski accused Grzymkowski of being “a Kremlin representative because only the Kremlin wants this gentleman to stop being defence minister.”
The commission could serve as a new weapon for this type of attack, in which doubt is cast on journalists’ probity in an attempt to smear their reputation. Grzymkowski, who was just pointing out flaws in the Polish state’s security, is not the first journalist to be attacked in this way by the PiS and its allies. Legal proceedings are also used. Despite having covered Kremlin propaganda in Poland, investigative reporter Tomasz Piatek continues to be subjected to arbitrary prosecutions and verdicts that violate his rights.
If the Polish government wants to do more to combat Russian propaganda in the media, it should support the RSF-proposed system for protecting democratic information spaces, which has recently been endorsed in two European Parliament reports. While respecting the rule of law, this system would help to prevent the security threats to press freedom in Europe that are greater than ever since Russia’s launched its war in Ukraine.
Poland is ranked 57th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index