Jerzy Owsiak, founder and head of the “Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity” (WOŚP) reveals that his organisation has filed a private prosecution against public TV employees for defaming him with an unfavourable image of a foam latex puppet. The private prosecution is being brought under the penal code which makes defamation a criminal offence.
According to the website Wp.pl Mr Owsiak’s organization is filing charges against three people involved in the making of a programme, hosted by journalist Michał Rachoń. The programme included a short foam latex puppet sketch, for which its creator Barbara Piela is being charged in the same legal suit.
The puppet sketch shown in January of last year showed an image of a figure who used Mr Owsiak’s catchphrase “Siema” while collecting cash, which he then handed to a figure of a woman who was interpreted as being the then Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. Mr Owsiak’s organization argues that this was defamatory as it was showing that charity money is being used inappropriately.
The prosecution being brought by WOŚP comes under the provision in Poland’s penal code which makes defamation a criminal offence. If found guilty the journalists and creators of the programme could be sent to jail.
One of the most popular satirical programmes on British television was “Spitting Image”, which featured biting satire aimed at politicians and celebrities carried out by animated foam latex puppets. The satire rarely showed those it mocked in a good light. No British celebrity or politician ever bothered bringing court action against them. Under Poland’s legal system the creators of the programme would have gone to jail a long time ago!
The puppet show mocking Mr Owsiak and Ms Gronkiewicz-Waltz may have been in poor taste. It may not have even been particularly funny. But is it cause enough to bring a criminal prosecution?
Polish journalists for years have argued for the repeal of the criminalisation of defamation. If someone feels their good name has been besmirched they have the full recourse of civil law to draw on, through which they can get legal and financial satisfaction.
Keeping defamation as a criminal offence is dangerous for free speech and media freedom. It could be used in future by governments and political leaders to silence journalists or others who criticise them. Its use, when there are civil avenues open to those who feel offended, cannot be described in any other way than vindictive.
Meanwhile, a court case may now be held in which journalists are dragged through the courts for a foam latex puppet sketch. Maybe Polish politicians and celebrities need to develop thicker skin.