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Journalist sentenced to six months' imprisonment, fined for defaming judge

(IPI/IFEX) - The following is a 23 July 2007 IPI letter to Polish President Lech Kaczynski:

H.E. Lech Kaczynski
President of Poland
Kancelaria Prezydenta RP
ul. Wiejska 10
00-902 Warsaw
Poland
Fax: (+ 48 22) 695 12 53

Vienna, 23 July 2007

Your Excellency,

The International Press Institute (IPI), the global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists in over 120 countries, is writing to condemn the July sentencing of Jacek Brzuszkiewicz, a journalist of the Lublin regional editorial office of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, to six months' imprisonment, suspended for three years.

According to information provided to IPI, on 12 July, Brzuszkiewicz was found guilty of criminal defamation pursuant to Article 212 § 2 of the Polish Criminal Code and sentenced to six months' imprisonment, suspended for three years. Brzuszkiewicz was also fined approximately 1,327 euros and ordered to publish apologies to the judge in Gazeta Wyborcza, Dziennik Wschodni and Kurier Lubelski (two prominent local newspapers in the Lublin region). He was also obliged to pay approximately 1,619 euros to the private prosecutor as a refund for his legal expenses. The sentence is not yet legally binding, and there are plans to appeal.

The conviction relates to a series of articles published between 27 December 2003 and 14 May 2004 concerning a laundry housed in a block of flats. Complaints were made about the laundry, but on its closure by the local authorities, the owner successfully appealed to an administrative court. One of the articles published in the Gazeta Wyborcza revealed that the owner and the presiding judge in the administrative court were allegedly acquaintances.

In September 2004, the judge brought a private prosecution of criminal defamation against Brzuszkiewicz. The legal team defending Brzuszkiewicz has consistently argued that the articles were prepared according to the highest professional standards.

While IPI does not comment on the information contained in the articles, which were the basis for the conviction of Brzuszkiewicz, nor does it comment on the proceedings before the court, it regards the decision to bring criminal defamation charges against Brzuszkiewicz as a serious press freedom violation.

A suspended prison term and fines are never justified for the dissemination of news and information, or for expression of opinion, no matter how unsettling or offensive they may seem to those involved. Moreover, public officials need to be afforded less, not more protection from defamation than ordinary citizens, if there is to be free and vigorous public debate, which is the hallmark of a democratic society. This sentence and fine will have a chilling effect on press freedom in Poland by encouraging self-censorship among journalists. This is also not the first case of a Polish journalist being handed down such a sentence for their work.

The view that the criminalisation of defamation is unnecessary in a democratic society is shared by the world's leading courts, including the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The clear trend in these opinions is that defamation should be treated under civil law, not as a criminal offence subject to state punishments.

Therefore, we call on Your Excellency to do everything possible to ensure that the relevant authorities repeal the sentence against Brzuszkiewicz and to initiate the process of removing laws that criminalise libel or slander. Legal remedies already exist in civil libel legislation to provide recourse for perceived defamation.

We thank you for your attention.

Yours sincerely,
Johann P. Fritz
Director
International Press Institute (IPI)

IPI, the global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists, is dedicated to the furtherance and safeguarding of press freedom, the protection of freedom of opinion and expression, the promotion of the free flow of news and information, and the improvement of the practices of journalism.

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