Ruling party leader: Defamation qualifies for criminal action

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jarosław Kaczyński has accused the pro-opposition liberal “Gazeta Wyborcza” and the opposition Civic Platform (PO) of defaming him. In Poland defamation is, according to art 212 of the Penal Code, a criminal act.

Mr Kaczyński has filed his complaint with the public prosecution office. He is accusing the paper and the PO of a concerted campaign of character assassination. Both the paper and the PO have claimed that Mr Kaczyński has broken the law and acted dishonestly over “Towergate”.

Over the past month “Gazeta Wyborcza” has published a series of revelations claiming that Mr Kaczyński failed to pay for the services of an Austrian developer and that he was mixing politics with business by pushing for a real estate project on land owned by a company and a foundation run by his aides. Last week the paper also published an allegation coming from the Austrian developer that Mr Kaczyński asked him to pay 100,000 PLN for the signature of a foundation board member in support of the project. The project failed to go ahead due to the lack of planning permission and Mr Kaczyński’s concern over being associated with it. The Austrian developer, who is the husband of Mr Kaczyński’s niece, has now accused the ruling party leader of having deceived him.

Mr Kaczyński asked both the paper and the PO for an apology and the payment of a sum to charity. They have refused. Now Jarosław Kaczyński has decided to report a crime.

The crime reported is of defamation, which is covered by article 212 of Poland’s penal code. It protects the reputation of public figures from baseless allegations and smears. Those found guilty of such defamation may be fined or jailed. This law has been in place since communist times.

Article 212 has been criticized for decades by Polish journalists and media outlets. They claim that it puts the media at a disadvantage. Indeed, there was a case recently of a conservative journalist taken to court by a judge for having made a mistake in describing the status of a case involving the judge. The action was brought under Article 212 and the journalist fined.

The Ministry of Justice is currently reviewing the penal code. It is considering making penalties harsher for offences such as corruption and to reduce sanctions for offences such as defamation.

Obviously Mr Kaczyński’s move will intensify the debate over defamation being a criminal act. Mr Kaczyński is angry about the way the paper and the opposition have attempted to suggest he has done something illegal or unethical. Such allegations strike at his reputation.

However, there will be those who will point out that civil actions demanding high sums of money for unfounded allegations can be more of a deterrent against both media and individuals without bringing criminality into the proceedings. There will always be a fear that those in power could use the criminal law to imprison or fine troublesome journalists, thereby restricting free speech.