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Government ministers try to intimidate Polish media

Reporters Without Borders is very disturbed by attempts by Polish government ministers to intimidate the media during the past few days.

The media freedom organization condemns the utterly disproportionate and exorbitant damages that transport minister Slawomir Nowak is demanding from the magazine Wprost in a libel suit over an April 2013 story about his friendship with businessmen who often win government contracts and his presence at private parties paid for by wealthy corporate executives.

Nowak's lawyer, Roman Giertych (who was deputy prime minister from 2005 to 2007), says Nowak is demanding 30 million zlotys (7 million euros) in damages, together with a public apology and correction. He is also asking the court to forbid Wprost's sale to another publisher before the end of the case in order to ensure that it remains solvent.

Giertych said: “We want to be sure that the defendant is able to comply with the court's ruling if we win and that it will not be able to get out of it by claiming a lack of financial resources.” The court has not yet decided when it will start hearing the case.

“We are particularly worried by the size of the damages sought by Nowak,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Suing for this amount of money is clearly intended to intimidate. He is using the law to impose censorship by threatening the magazine's financial survival. No publisher in Poland or anywhere else in Europe would be able to pay such a disproportionate amount.

“It is very disturbing to see the minister of a European government put this kind of pressure on a news outlet over a story of public interest. If he thinks he was libelled, he can use his right of response.

“And he is obviously free to bring a lawsuit, but he should ensure that the damages are proportionate to the harm suffered and to the news outlet's financial resources. Otherwise he is liable to encourage self-censorship, which has already increased considerably among journalists as regards certain sensitive subjects.

“We also condemn the minister's attempt to meddle in the financial affairs of Wprost's publisher. We remind Nowak that companies are completely free to merge and be traded within the European Union, which was founded on this principle. Seeking damages is one thing. Interfering in a company's management is quite another, and could alarm certain European Commission bodies.”

The climate of intimidation has been reinforced by the statements that deputy prime minister and economy minister Janusz Piechocinski made to a TV24 journalist when asked about a possible cabinet reshuffle on 17th of May.

“Your behaviour is outrageous, idiotic and unacceptable,” Piechocinski told the journalist on the air. “I am going to request a meeting this week with representatives of your management.”

Piechocinski continued in the same vein in a later post on his Facebook page. “I am going see the management of TVN and TVN 24 next week in order to ask them to consider a change of attitude,” he wrote.

“We are stunned by the deputy prime minister's statements,” Reporters Without Borders said. “If merely asking about the composition of the next cabinet is deemed to be outrageous, what will happen when journalists start commenting on the choice of the new ministers?

“We urge the deputy prime minister to retract his remarks. Neither government officials nor representatives of any political parties should take it upon themselves to demand meetings with TV channel executives to 'explain' how journalists should behave.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “This interference in media editorial policies is completely incompatible with European standards on freedom of information. Doing it in public makes it even more serious.”

Poland is ranked 22nd out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

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