Poland: How do people fight for their right to protest? Event wrap-up

Poland: How do people fight for their right to protest? Event wrap-up - Civic Space

Since Law and Justice came to power in Poland in 2015, it has waged a campaign to restrict civic space and systematically undermined democratic institutions. The politicisation of the judiciary, and its transformation into an illiberal institution, combined with an intensified crackdown on women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights, has sparked a great resistance evolving into the biggest civil society awakening in Poland’s recent history.

To mark the launch of a report on the right to protest in Poland, ARTICLE 19 organised an online panel discussion on the mobilisation of Polish society and increasing attempts to quash it.  The panellists were: Anna Wójcik, expert on the rule of law, Karolina Gierdal, human rights lawyer, Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar, human rights activist, and Quinn McKew, Executive Director at ARTICLE 19. The discussion was facilitated by Joanna Szymańska, Senior Program Officer at ARTICLE 19. Consult key takeaways from the webinar below. 

The report on the situation in Poland forms part of ARTICLE 19’s global campaign on the right to protest. Over the past decade, we have seen an increase in protests worldwide. This is directly tied to an increasing sense of inequality and a crackdown on democratic processes. Quinn McKew pronounced that the main goal at the roots of the campaign is to protect the right to protest and keep it from being eroded. 


‘When people go to the streets or organise themselves online it’s because there are no sufficient avenues elsewhere for them to feel they can get their complaints addressed. Protest is a way to push for global change. But power doesn’t give up. Power pushes back. Authorities across the globe seek to limit the abilities of people to challenge inequality.’ – Quinn McKew, Executive Director, ARTICLE 19


Anna Wójcik, co-author of the report, underscored that its release comes in the crucial context of the upcoming parliamentary elections. The ruling political camp and the state-controlled media depict civil defiance against the crackdown on fundamental rights and constitutional order as an act against national interests. In this regard, in order to discredit the powerful social movement, the ruling party attempts to minimise it to a solely anti-government subversive initiative. 


‘While examining different demonstrations, we were astonished how the approach of the authorities and law enforcement differed depending on who was behind a demonstration. Vulnerable groups have been treated worse, with more suspicion than participants of marches, demonstrations that suit the ruling party’s interest. Illiberal governments tend to instrumentalise anti-government protests to convince the international community that since there are protests, the rights are respected. However, the right to protest is not a guarantee that protesters will be safe. Acceptance of protest is an improtant hallmark of a democracy. In Poland there have been attempts to restrict the right to protest by introducing the changes to the law on assemblies. During pro-LGBTQIA+ and women’s rights protests, it was shocking to see the excessive use of force by the police, who are generally not violent. People were randomly singled out, detained, pepper-sprayed, even beaten up,’ said Anna Wójcik.


Read more about smear campaigns against the LGBTQIA+ community and activists for reproductive rights


Anna Wójcik noted that there has been a shift in the state response to protests, with an increase in police brutality against peaceful protesters who were part of a legal spontaneous demonstration.


‘Their major crime was that they were opponents of the ideological identity line of the authorities. Poland has a problem with the selective and arbitrary application of restrictive rules against people who are expressing minority views and interests,’ said Wójcik. 


Joanna Gzyra-Oskandar is an activist who has been engaged in multiple initiatives to protect human rights and the rule of law in Poland. She has faced dozens of court proceedings as a reprisal for her vital work. One of the most emblematic examples was a criminal lawsuit for ‘insulting religious feelings’ after distributing pamphlets with an image of Our Lady of Czestochowa (Holy Mary) depicted with a rainbow halo. 


‘Being an activist in Poland is a constant multi-tasking. Many of us have been working on numerous fronts, trying to protect independent courts, democratic institutions, women’s rights, against hatred targeting the LGBTQIA+ community, against fascists, police violence. At the same time we need to be specialised in reporting, organising assemblies, producing communications outputs, contact with media,’ said Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar.


Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar stressed that police brutality contributes to the growing chilling effect and may dissuade people from getting involved. Joanna also describes the constant feeling of being on ‘standby’ while police confront protesters, and says people can expect a case to be initiated against them at any moment. 


‘Merely joining a protest can result in being apprehended by police who run a make on you, take you to the police station, or even present charges. In case of trial, you need to go to hearings and hire a lawyer. This all costs energy and money and completely disorganises your life. Now we expect aggression from the police when we encounter police during protests.’ 


An increasingly violent response from law enforcement prompted activists to put in place certain safety protocols to follow during demonstrations. These include: shouting out one’s name while being apprehended, recording everything, asking policemen to show their badge, leaving assemblies in groups, and requesting MPs to intervene on their behalf. 

Attorney at law Karolina Gierdal provides legal aid to people detained during protests and to activists facing criminal charges for their work in the human rights field. Karolina joined the webinar while on the field, supporting people who were at risk of being evicted from a squat by the police. 


‘Police obey the orders. Decisions come from the top. Somebody decides when is the moment when law enforcement comes and intends to suppress a protest. In the case of the protest on 7 August 2020 against a homophobic political campaign, we know now from one of the policemen that there was an order to escalate the protest and to arrest people who had some rainbow emblems. During women’s strikes, the randomness in police response was even more visible. There was no difference in the behaviour of people who were detained and those who were not – either in terms of any form of confrontation with the police or the way they were protesting. These were mainly very peaceful protests; the participants did nothing besides chanting, dancing or singing. And it was impossible for us to predict whether or not there were to be any detentions, because this depended on the police tactics on a given day,’ said Karolina Gierdal. 


ARTICLE 19 put together recommendations to governments, the judiciary, law enforcement and civil society to improve the protection of the right to protest. 


Our main calls revolve around the following issues:

  • combatting stigmatisation and dehumanising of protesters; 
  • combatting police brutality and providing training for police to seek de-escalation and bringing down the temperature during protests, and to increase sensitivity and make officers accountable for excessive use of violence; 
  • Reforming laws and immediately ending criminal proceedings against people charged solely for exercising their right to protest;
  • Ensuring that victims of police abuse have access to the mechanism of justice;
  • Ensuring that sanctions on protesters are proportionate and restrictions on protests are necessary;
  • lawmakers’ recognition that failure to notify the authorities about organising an assembly should not be a reason to make a protest unlawful. 


Learn more about our global campaign #FreeToProtest