Poland downgraded in global human rights report as civic freedoms rapidly deteriorate8 December, 2021
- Poland downgraded from ‘narrowed’ to ‘obstructed’
- Concerns about women’s rights and threats to women activists
- Rights of LGBTQI+ people undermined; media independence threatened
Poland has been downgraded from ‘narrowed’ to ‘obstructed’ in a new report by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration that rates and tracks fundamental freedoms in 197 countries and territories. According to the report, People Power Under Attack 2021, ongoing assaults on women’s rights, threats to women human rights defenders (WHRDs), the marginalisation of LGBTQI+ people, and threats to media independence, have all led to the downgrade.
Poland’s ‘obstructed’ rating means civic freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, assembly and association, are continuously violated in the country. The only other country in the European Union with this rating is Hungary.
Poland has been a ‘country of concern’ for the CIVICUS Monitor since 2020, and in February 2021 it was added to the CIVICUS Monitor ‘Watchlist’, a roundup of countries where there has been a recent and rapid deterioration in civic freedoms. Poland’s persistent failure to address these civic rights violations prompted the downgrade.
Last year, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortions were only legal when the mother’s life is at risk, or if she is pregnant as a result of rape or incest. Thousands of women across Poland have taken to the streets to protest this violation of reproductive rights, and in November 2021, massive protests erupted after a 30-year old woman, known only as ‘Izabela’, was denied a life-saving termination. Last week, anti-women’s rights groups proposed an absolute prohibition on abortion which will jail women for having an abortion and criminalise anyone who helps them, sparking protests.
The CIVICUS Monitor is particularly concerned about the safety of women’s rights groups and activists that organised these protests. Several organisations have been threatened with bomb scares or death threats sent via email, including messages such as, “Do you support abortion? Wait, you are about to die!” to, “You have five days left.” Due to escalating threats, in October 2021 Marta Lempart, co-founder of the Polish Women's Strike, was assigned police protection in public. Obstructing the work of women’s rights activists and undermining their safety is a direct assault on their civic right to freely associate.
“The E.U. must stand with Polish citizens and stop the violation of women’s and reproductive rights in Poland. Polish women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and citizens need more than statements from E.U. leaders, they need protection, resources, continuous pressure, and urgent action. As long as the rule of law situation does not improve, the E.U. cannot back down,” said Aarti Narsee, Europe Civic Space Researcher at CIVICUS.
The rights of the Polish LGBTQI+ community to peacefully assemble continue to be under threat. The discriminatory “Stop LGBT” bill currently under consideration aims to ban Pride events and any other public gatherings that “promote” non-heterosexual orientations. The proposal is part of a broader assault on LGBTQI+ rights in Poland - municipalities had to revoke plans to create so-called “LGBT free-zones'' earlier this year after the E.U. threatened to withdraw funding.
“The E.U. must put more pressure on Poland to clean up its human rights record. It must continue to withhold the COVID Recovery Fund and immediately trigger the conditionality mechanism for E.U. funds going to Poland. These funds should bypass the government and be redirected to Polish organisations that uphold and respect E.U. values. Lastly, the E.U. must urgently increase its financial support for civil society and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) on the ground,” said Narsee.
Media freedoms are further deteriorating in Poland. One of the country’s largest publishers, Polska Press, has been taken over by state-owned oil company PKN Orlen, which has close ties to the ruling right-wing PiS party. Although the takeover has been suspended, eight editors-in-chief have already been dismissed, with others resigning due to “ownership changes”.
In August, the government passed a controversial media bill that limits foreign ownership of broadcasters. Although the government says it aims to prevent Chinese and Russian firms from getting a foothold in the Polish media industry, it is believed the bill is actually an attempt to get U.S. company Discovery to give up its stake in Poland’s biggest TV network, TVN. Additionally, this month the government-controlled Constitutional Tribunal will examine the constitutionality of Poland’s access to public information law, sparking major concerns that this will further limit freedom of information.
The deterioration of human rights at the Polish/Belarusian border is also concerning. Poland has continued to violate the rights of migrants and refugees through illegal pushbacks, resulting in the death of seven migrants, although numbers are estimated to be higher. There have also been several cases of journalists being arbitrarily detained while reporting on developments unfolding at the border.
The erosion of fundamental rights in Poland is mirrored across Europe, where even established democracies like the United Kingdom and France have seen a dramatic decline in civic rights this year. Within the E.U., Belgium and the Czech Republic have also been downgraded by the global rights index.
Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor, providing evidence and research that help us target countries where civic freedoms are at risk. The Monitor has posted more than 550 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in the global report, People Power Under Attack 2021.
Civic freedoms in 197 countries and territories are categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology that combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
Poland is now rated ‘obstructed’ on the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 43 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is given to countries where civic space is monopolised by those in power, and where excessive force is commonly used by law enforcement agencies. Visit Poland’s homepage on the CIVICUS Monitor for more information and check back regularly for the latest updates.
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