Poland: Responding to ‘hate speech’

This report examines both legislation and practices related to ‘hate speech’ in Poland, with a particular focus on the media. It examines the compliance of the respective legislation with international freedom of expression standards and offers recommendations for its improvement.

Since 2015, instances of ‘hate speech’ against migrants, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBTQI people have been on the increase in Poland, often promoted by Polish politicians in the mainstream media and on social media. According to public surveys, public opinion has decisively shifted on the issue of migration and the movement of refugees: the pervasive anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Polish government has contributed to entrenching xenophobic attitudes in the country.

Despite the significance of this problem, Polish public authorities have strongly resisted addressing the issue in full compliance with international human rights law. Although Polish legislation guarantees both the right to freedom of expression and the right to equality, it does not fully comply with international freedom of expression standards applicable in this area. The primary shortfalls include the limited scope of protection against incitement in the criminal law, in particular the failure to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability among the protected grounds; as well as the continued existence of provisions prohibiting blasphemy/defamation of religion and a problematic application of these provisions.

Besides seeking protection from ‘hate speech’ through provisions of the criminal law, victims of ‘hate speech’ can alternatively pursue civil or administrative remedies. Available civil remedies offer targets of ‘hate speech’ the opportunity of seeking compensation for the violation of their personal rights; however, available civil and administrative provisions seem to be ineffective, and are rarely used. Further, the Law on Equal Treatment, which, amongst other things addresses the issue of harassment and could be used by victims of ‘hate speech’, is one of the least effective and poorly implemented laws in Poland.

On a positive side, under the Law on Equal Treatment, two national equality bodies are responsible for actively seeking to combat discrimination, including ‘hate speech’: the Commissioner for Human Rights (Ombudsperson) and the Government Plenipotentiary for Equal Treatment (the Government Plenipotentiary). The Ombudsperson is one of the most active actors in this area in Poland. At the same time, the current office holder is under constant attack for both his strong commitment to human rights and for the independent exercise of his mandate. Conversely, the Government Plenipotentiary, in spite of the potential influence over shaping the government’s anti-discrimination policies, is largely silent, avoiding involvement in public debates related to ‘hate speech’.

With regards to the efforts of the media in combating ‘hate speech’, the only responsible body is the National Broadcasting Council (the Broadcasting Council), which is mandated to apply sanctions against broadcasters who have disseminated discriminatory expression. However, the Broadcasting Council’s effectiveness is undermined by the political influence exercised over the composition of its members. As for the print press, the Press Law does not address directly the issue of ‘hate speech’; however, its provisions are sometimes relied upon by victims of ‘hate speech’ in conjunction with civil law provisions.

Media self-regulation concerning ‘hate speech’ is largely ineffectual in Poland. The relevant Codes of Ethics are rarely applied in media organisations. As such, the public do not consider media self-regulatory bodies to be capable of remedying rights violations. One potentially positive example of self-regulation can, however, be found in the Committee of Advertising Ethics. The committee issues decisions on a regular basis, and these are usually followed by advertising companies found in breach of the Ethics Code.

Summary of recommendations:

  • All relevant Polish legislation – in particular the criminal law provisions – should be revised for their compliance with international human rights standards applicable to ‘hate speech’;
  • The provisions of the criminal law that could be indirectly applied to ‘hate speech’, in particular defamation, insult, insult of the Polish nation and state, insult of religious beliefs or offending religious feelings, and the crimes against the Polish nation should be decriminalised as they fail to meet international freedom of expression standards;
  • The advocacy of discriminatory hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility, discrimination, or violence should be prohibited in line with Articles 19(3) and 20(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), establishing a high threshold for limitations on free expression as set out in the Rabat Plan of Action, as well as prohibitions on direct and public incitement to genocide and incitement to crimes against humanity;
  • The protective scope of any measures to address ‘hate speech’ should encompass all protected characteristics recognised under international human rights law and not be limited to the present protected characteristics of race, ethnic origin, national, or religion. In particular, the list of protected characteristics should be revised in light of the right to non-discrimination as provided under Article 2(1) and Article 26 of the ICCPR. The protected characteristics should explicitly include sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability;
  • The government should develop a comprehensive plan on the implementation of the Rabat Plan of Action. In particular, it should adopt and implement a comprehensive plan for training law enforcement authorities, the judiciary, and those involved in the administration of justice on issues concerning the prohibition of incitement to hatred and ‘hate speech’;
  • The government should improve the existing system for collecting data and producing statistics in order to provide a coherent, integrated view of cases of incitement to hatred reported to law enforcement authorities and processed through the courts, as well as ‘hate speech’ in civil and administrative law proceedings. Such a system should also include indicators for monitoring the effectiveness of the judicial system in dealing with ‘hate speech’ cases; The Law on Equal Treatment should be strengthened to provide stronger remedies for victims of ‘hate speech’. In particular, the compensation claims under the Law should be widened to include non-material damages. The government should also remove practical obstacles in the implementation of the Law on Equal Treatment to ensure that victims of ‘hate speech’ and discrimination can rely on this law to seek protection of their rights;
  • The institutional equality framework should be enhanced and equipped with effective instruments towards ‘hate speech’. The government and public authorities should strengthen the role of the equality institutions, and, in general, make equality a priority agenda;
  • Provisions of media legislation should be brought to full compliance with international freedom of expression standards. In particular, the government should repeal the 2016 law on the National Media Council, which allows undue political interference with public service media, and should implement the December 2016 Constitutional Tribunal ruling by adopting necessary legislative changes to restore the competences of the National Broadcasting Council to oversee public service media;
  • The National Broadcasting Council should improve its activities aimed at promoting good practices and standards in broadcast media and improve cooperation with media outlets to respond to ‘hate speech’;
  • Public officials, including politicians, should realise that they play a leading role in recognising and promptly speaking out against intolerance and discrimination, including instances of ‘hate speech’. This requires recognising and rejecting the conduct itself, as well as the prejudices of which it is symptomatic, expressing sympathy and support to the targeted individuals or groups, and framing such incidents as harmful to the whole of society. These interventions are particularly important when inter-communal tensions are high, or are susceptible to being escalated, and when political stakes are also high, e.g. in the run-up to elections; and
  • Media organisations should recognise that they play an important role in this area and intensify their efforts to provide adequate responses. They should ensure that their ethical codes address ‘hate speech’ as well as equality and tolerance, and that these codes are effectively implemented. The codes should be widely publicised and internalised by journalists and media organisations in order to ensure full compliance with them. Effective measures should be taken to address violation of the codes. Media organisations should also organise regular training courses and updates for professional and trainee journalists on the internationally binding human rights standards on ‘hate speech’ and freedom of expression and on relevant ethical codes of conduct.

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