Polish government: Watchdogs are not welcome

By EDRi · December 14, 2016

Governments do not like being watched. Nevertheless, it has become common in developed democracies to support independent media and watchdog organisations, sometimes even with dedicated public funds. Wise governments know that listening to justified and neutral criticism is a way to survive past the next elections. The Polish government has clearly decided to follow another path, less inclusive and less democratic. In recent weeks Poland has witnessed concerted, political effort targeting civil society. This new fight started by Law and Justice (PiS), a right of centre political party in Poland, is about trust, sources of funding, access to public information , and – last but not least – freedom of assembly.

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The attack on civil society organisations started on national (no longer public) television. Evening news devoted a big part of their prime time to “prove” “unclear” connections between public figures associated with former government, such as the president of the Constitutional Tribunal or former President of Poland, and members or employees of civil society organisations. Needless to say, the facts were manipulated to suggest fraudulent transactions. No matter how ridiculous the media story was, watchdog organisations and think tanks turned out to be an easy target for such propaganda. Due to the nature of their work, they spend most of their funds on salaries and engage in the debate on public matters. For national media, that very fact was sufficient to undermine their legitimacy, as if the only legitimate form of civic activity was charity: voluntary work and “giving out money to the needy”. In the “civil society bubble” the differences between charitable and watchdog organisations is obvious, this is not a common knowledge among typical TV audience. Therefore, the risk of government’s campaign having negative impact on the credibility of watchdogs is real.

The media attack on particular individuals from the civil society turned out to be just a prelude before the government went on a war against the whole sector. Shortly after the campaign the Polish Prime Minister announced creating a new institution that will manage all public grants in a centralised way. Not surprisingly, this new institution will also determine the goals for the publicly funded civic activity in Poland. Before they were defined by particular ministries, which pursued various goals depending on their scope of activity. While public funding in Poland has never been independent from short-term political goals, its centralisation will certainly decrease the chances of any independent civic activity being supported by the state. This shift will most likely affect those organisations that used public money to help vulnerable or excluded groups that are now presented as “public enemies”, such as LGBTQ persons, women seeking legal abortion or refugees.

Sounds worrying? Well, this is just the beginning of bad news from Poland. At the beginning of December 2016 the Polish Parliament adopted a new law on public gatherings. In the opinion of Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, it may significantly restrict individuals’ ability to hold counter-demonstrations and spontaneous gatherings. This attack on freedom of assembly happens just before the 35th anniversary of the introducion martial law in Poland (13 December 1981 – 22 July 1983) – a dark period in Polish history, bringing back memories such as tanks on the street, opposition under arrest and the army shooting at protesting citizens.

As of 13 December, almost 200 civil society organisations signed an appeal to the Senate, the upper chamber of the Polish Parliament, demanding that it reject the law. However, only cosmetic amendments were introduced. There is not much hope that the President will listen to the voice of concerned citizens. At the same time, we suspect that controversial changes in the law on public gatherings can be used as a distraction from other initiatives pushed through the Parliament.

Watchdog organisations in Poland face a really hard time. Persistent media attacks on their credibility and government-lead propaganda campaign create challenging conditions for fundraising; legal changes – such as the one limiting freedom of assembly – impose additional constraints on their activity, while the political situation requires fast and more spontaneous responses. Now everything is in the hands of citizens: Polish watchdogs need their support – also in financial terms – more than ever.

Polish PM angers human rights campaigners with plans to shake up NGOs (28.11.2016)

Amendments to the law governing public assemblies (02.12.2016)

Citizens Observatory of Democracy

(Contribution by Anna Obem and Katarzyna Szymielewicz, EDRi member Panoptykon Foundation, Poland)