WARSAW, Poland -- A leading Polish newspaper on Monday welcomed a ruling in favor of one its journalists, who was taken to court by the populist ruling party over an ironic tweet that referred to “mafia” elements within the party.
But Bartosz Wielinski, deputy editor of the Gazeta Wyborcza daily, said it was still extremely worrisome that the ruling party is attempting to intimidate journalists with lawsuits. There are more than 50 pending cases brought by the party or its loyalists against his liberal publication alone.
“The fact that Law and Justice sued us for a joke means that this party despises the free press and tries to limit its freedom whenever it can,” Wielinski told The Associated Press. “You never know what you will be sued for next. They want to have a chilling effect on us and make us think that we can't start a confrontation with them."
Wojciech Czuchnowski, a leading investigative journalist, was accused of defamation by Law and Justice for jokingly using the term “mafia” in a November 2018 tweet to described alleged high-level corruption in the financial system under Law and Justice. That came in reaction to the head of the central bank accusing him of destabilizing the nation's financial system with his investigative work.
Czuchnowski tweeted that he had just learned that he and another journalist “have shaken the financial system in Poland. If so, then I apologize. I will no longer write about the mafia" in the party.
At that point, he was still going through the courts with another case in which he called Poland under Law and Justice a “mafia state.” Though he lost in one court, the case ultimately made it to the Supreme Court, where Czuchnowski won.
“Although the defendant's entry was a joke, this joke was based in reality and was justified,” Judge Jacek Tyszka said said in his Friday ruling.
Friday's ruling came as Law and Justice pushes new legislation that would give it the power to dismiss judges or punish them with fines and other measures if they criticize changes to the judicial system or appointments made by the government.
Wielinski said any erosion of judicial independence will strike a blow to media freedom as well.
“There is no freedom without free judges, and there is no free media without free judges,” Wielinski said.
A spokesman for the European Commission said Monday the commission would analyze the legislation.
"The commission has a very clear position on protecting the judiciary from political interference,” Christian Wigand said.
Poland's ruling authorities defend the legislation by arguing that allowing judges to question its changes and appointments would introduce chaos into the judicial system. They say they need to have a way to discipline judges who have become too outspoken politically after some judges have criticized the changes and joined street protests. Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski says “anarchy has already taken over the justice system.”
In another prominent free speech case, a law professor, Wojciech Sadurski, is being sued by Law and Justice for calling the party “an organized criminal group.” A verdict was expected Friday but was postponed until March 23.
Also Friday, the Council of Europe, the continent's top human rights body, voiced concern about increased power by the executive over the judicial system, saying the system now "leaves judges increasingly vulnerable to political control, thereby undermining judicial independence."
A 49-member group of states against corruption within the body urged Polish authorities to amend the disciplinary procedures “to exclude any potential undue influence from the executive powers.”