ARTICLE 19 strongly condemns the ongoing crackdown on protests against the abortion ban in Poland, and police brutality against protesters and journalists. We call for the immediate cessation of persecution and violence against those exercising their right to protest and to report on protest related issues. The protests concern a matter of crucial public interest for women’s reproductive rights, and participation in public life, and the right to protest on this issue must be protected.
For more than a month, hundreds of thousands of people have gathered and protested across the country against the decision of the Constitutional Court to ban abortions in cases of foetal abnormality. The Constitutional Court has been criticised for its lack of independence in recent years. The protests, led by women and organised by the Women’s Strike initiative, have reached an unprecedented scale including in small towns and communities.
Since the beginning of the protests, ARTICLE 19 has been concerned about a number of violations of the right to protest in Poland:
- Use of excessive force against protesters and journalists by law enforcement: Police have used tear gas to disperse protests, dragging protesters from the crowd to detain them. On 18 November, in the center of Warsaw, in a practice known as kettling, police units cordoned off several hundred participants in a protest, mainly women and young people, blocking their ability to move or leave the protest. No reason was given for the use of containment strategies.
- Arbitrary detentions: Protesters are being detained, often following violent arrests by law enforcement. In many cases, protesters detained in Warsaw are brought to neighbouring towns outside Warsaw to impede supporters gathering and protesting outside police stations. Detained protesters are being denied access to a lawyer or contact with family members, in violation of human rights standards.
- Persecution of and retaliatory actions against protesters: According to Women’s Strike, protesters are being targeted by the police and visited at home by law enforcement in an effort to intimidate them. A 14-year old student from Krapkowice, Maciej Rahut, was visited by the local police that threatened him with criminal charges for re-posting information on Facebook about the upcoming local Women’s Strike protest that he planned to participate in. The police accused him of calling for and organising an illegal protest. They indicated to his mother that he could get eight years in juvenile detention and then prison for co-organising such protests. Police officers also went to the boy’s school to falsely inform the head teacher that he was the organiser of the protest, resulting in the boy receiving a warning at school. In another case, a 17-year old from a small town in the south of Poland has been accused by the sanitary-epidemiological station of violating sanitary COVID-19 restrictions and faces a fine for organising a local protest during the pandemic. Additionally, according to media reports, especially in small towns, policemen are requesting the local sanitary-epidemiological stations to fine protesters for participating in “mass gatherings” which are banned under the temporary COVID-19 response restrictions. Activists have also reported cases where policemen ask protesters to take off their masks and then take pictures of them which are later shown as evidence for breaking the rules of not wearing a mask.
- Attacks, violence, detentions and criminal charges against journalists reporting on protests: On 23 November, photojournalist Agata Grzybowska was detained, forced into a police van and taken to a police station. She was released later that day after protesters gathered in front of the police station where she was kept, however, she is facing charges of assaulting an officer. Angelika Pitoń, a journalist for Gazeta Wyborcza is facing charges of using “indecent” words and not wearing a mask during the protest in Zakopane. The journalist stated that she had her face covered. On 18 November, Onet.pl journalists Krzysztof Sójka and Bartosz Rumieńczyk, photojournalist of Gazeta Wyborcza Jędrzej Nowicki, photojournalist of Gazeta Polska Codziennie Konrad Falęcki, citizen journalist Włodzimierz Ciejka and OKO.press reporter Maciej Piasecki were teared gassed. During the 11 November Independence March in Warsaw organised by right-wing groups, journalists were also beaten with batons by the police, including Renata Kim from Newsweek who was hit in the kidneys, Adam Tuchliński from Newsweek, Jakub Kamiński of East News Agency and Dominik Łowicki from Gazeta Wyborcza. A photojournalist, 74-year-old Tomasz Gutry from Tygodnik Solidarność, was injured by a rubber bullet in the face and had to undergo surgery.
- Use of force by unidentified plain-clothed officers: On 18 November in Warsaw, masked plainclothes police officers appeared in a protest, beating people and pulling individuals out of the crowd. They used tear gas against protesters, telescopic batons and stun guns to disperse, contain and attack individuals. They were also carrying firearms. These police officers were initially working as groups, threatening the safety of the protesters and seeking to provoke violence. Those that tried to disarm them in order to prevent the escalation of violent incidents are now facing charges of assaulting police officers. Inhabitants of neighbouring houses helped the protesters to escape through their backyards after they were targeted by these officers. As reported by the media, these were officers from the Central Counterterrorist Subdepartment of the Police “BOA”. The authorities have not provided the basis and necessity assessment of the law enforcement decision to use such excessive force and exceptional measures against protesters.
The Polish authorities claim that the use of force against protesters is necessary for the purposes of fighting COVID-19 and is in response to protesters breaking the temporary movement restrictions. Prosecutor General and Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro announced that activists will be prosecuted for organising and instigating ‘illegal gatherings’ “on the basis of causing danger to the health and life of people by spreading the virus”. He also ordered the Regional Prosecutor’s Office in Warsaw to initiate criminal proceedings against all persons who made public the names and faces of the police officers that practiced brutal and violent tactics against protesters and journalists.
The criminalisation of protesters and those monitoring and reporting on protests in Poland is aggravated by two factors, on one hand, the lack of legal certainty on the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions related to public gatherings, and by an ongoing campaign to undermine the independence of the judiciary.
ARTICLE 19 urgently calls on Polish authorities to protect protesters, journalists and protest monitors, and respect and guarantee the right to protest in compliance with their international and regional human rights obligations, including during a health emergency. The right to monitor protests is of utmost importance and does not cease if a protest is dispersed or declared unlawful, and it applies to independent reporters and citizen journalists as well as traditional journalists and media workers. Mandatory identification of journalists’ in the context of protests goes against international human rights standards, and journalists as well as citizen journalists have a right to report on abuses by police in the context of protests.
We call on the Deputy Prime Minister for Security and head of the ruling Law and Justice party Jarosław Kaczyński, Prosecutor General and Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro, as well as the Minister of Interior and Administration Mariusz Kamiński to:
- Immediately stop violence against protesters and journalists covering the protests and ensure the protection of the right to protest.
- Stop arbitrary detention and retaliatory criminal proceedings initiated against protesters. Authorities should drop all the charges against protesters and journalists where there is no evidence of nor participation in actual and serious acts of violence;
- Refrain from criminalising the participation, organisation, promotion and monitoring of protests, particularly in the context of the COVID pandemic.
- Limit the use of containment measures against protesters that unnecessarily and disproportionately deprive them of their freedom of movement.
- Ensure accountability for the actions of law enforcement officials during protests.
- Effectively investigate the use of excessive force against protesters and journalists, and other abuses and human rights violations by law enforcement officials.
- Respect and protect the right of protesters and journalists to record law enforcement officials in the context of protests.
- Refrain from imposing mandatory accreditation requirements on media and journalists to cover manifestations.
- Comply with authorities’ transparency obligations regarding the use of special police units, and stop intimidating protesters with groups of plainclothes policemen aiming to provoke the crowd;
- Ensure that the police engage in de-escalation of tensions and effective communication with protesters instead of engaging in provocation and excessive use of force.
This statement by ARTICLE 19 is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.