The event titled “The Politics of Hate and Harassment in the Public Sphere – How to Counter Them?” was held on 8 May this year at the Wilcza Conference Centre in Warsaw. The debate, which was organised and hosted by the Open Dialogue Foundation, attracted a sizable turnout, including about 90 people in the audience, as well as media representatives from seven editorial offices, including PAP, TVP Info, East News, and Dziennik Trybuna. The broadcast for viewers on the Internet was carried out by Video-KOD and ORD TV.
In the opening statement, which was preceded by a minute of silence in memory of Karol Modzelewski, Bartosz Kramek (Chair of ODF’s Supervisory Board) said: “(…) we were going to talk about hate speech, but – as Mr. Jacek Szymanderski rightly pointed out – in our country it has not only a large scale, but also an institutional dimension and component, hence it seems more correct to refer to it as hate politics. Politics that are conscious, cynical, based on proven historical patterns”. He then cited several examples of the effects of hate politics in recent years, including:
– symbolic gallows for six opposition MEPs;
– an attack on the so-called “Women from the Bridge”, who were attacked by participants of the Independence March on the Poniatowski Bridge in Warsaw in November 2017;
– Barbara Piela’s animations entitled “Plastusie“, which contain anti-Semitic content and portray in an extremely dehumanising manner the profiles of, among others, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, Jurek Owsiak, and Mateusz Kijowski;
– disclosure of the personal data, places of employment, and images of individuals who allegedly attacked TVP journalist Magdalena Ogórek outside the TVP building in Warsaw on Jasna Street.
“(…) Hatred not only poisons public life, hatred kills. What is its source, what is its fuel?”, asked Bartosz Kramek. The invited guests tried to answer these questions.
The event was divided into two blocks. The first, moderated by Jacek Szymanderski, anti-communist opposition activist and member of the ODF’s Board, was attended by:
– Beata Geppert – street activist, one of the 14 women of the Poniatowski Bridge;
– Kornelia Wróblewska – Member of the Polish Parliament, candidate in the elections to the EP from the Lublin region;
– Piotr Owczarski – a former TVP employee who, after the assassination of the President of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, spoke at the European Parliament on the topic of propaganda and bullying in the public media.
In the second panel, the guests of Joanna Cuper, an activist of the Polish street opposition and an activist of the Open Dialogue Foundation, were:
– Jarosław Kaczyński – a lawyer involved in the defence of activist-participants in peaceful protests, and councilman of the City of Warsaw;
– Agata Stacewicz – a lawyer associated with ObyPomoc (legal aid program of Citizens of Poland);
– Magdalena Klim – a street opposition activist known as “Ruda”.
Hate speech vs. hate politics
Opening the first panel, Mr. Jacek Szymanderski said: “Hate speech is at best an instrument of hate politics. Hate politics, on the other hand, as we know, serves to mobilise a specific group of haters (…), it is meant to serve a fundamental division. Hatred prevents the flow of the electorate between groups”.
Regarding the very phenomenon of the hate politics currently practiced in Poland, Beata Geppert was the first to speak out: “To a lesser extent, other political groups have also practiced this kind of thing. Of course, this is multiplied at present, there is no doubt about it; this hate politics on the part of the present administration is many times greater than the one that occurred before, but there was also indecent behaviour on our side”.
Attorney Jarosław Kaczyński noted: “Hate speech and especially hate politics are there to make it easier to justify one’s actions because if we exclude someone, and we previously hated them, it’s justified because after all, those people who were hated are worthless. If we want to stifle someone, we act against the ‘inferior sort’, since, after all, it is the ‘inferior sort’. This is the dehumanisation of those people who are being hated. This is probably more important to any administration than dividing alone”.
He also pointed out several aspects of hate politics that he observes in his work with politically persecuted street opposition activists. He listed:
– repressive actions of state bodies (e.g., detaining activists or direct violence against participants in social protests);
– acquiescence to hatred (a lack of a firm reaction of the wider public and, above all, of the authorities to hatred, for example, from radical right-wing groups).
Lawyer Agata Stacewicz also alluded to the issue of hate politics and the repressions used as part of hate politics in response to peaceful protests, including in response to efforts to stop hateful marches by radical right circles, stating: “Innocent people who want to defend their values, such as freedom or their beliefs, need the protection of the law and are completely vulnerable to the inadequate actions of the state machinery”.
Where does hate speech come from?
Participants in the debate saw many reasons for the presence and development of hate speech in public life. “We are not able to stop the spiral of hatred”, Beata Geppert said.
Kornelia Wróblewska approached the problem from the media side, demonstrating the tabloidisation of language in the public media – language that shocks, carries a big emotional message, and uses a lot of adjectives and graphic messages. Media information is written in plain language and contains words that are meant to immediately guide how readers/viewers perceive the topic (e.g., “stupid”, “incompetent”, “racist”, etc.). According to a report by the Council for the Polish Language cited by Kornelia Wróblewska, only one in four news ticker strips on television is informative. “Public television baits, manipulates, accuses the opposition, uses unethical language tricks, and uses words such as shocking, scandalous, provocation, blackmail, embarrassing, aggression, manipulated, destabilisation of the state, profanity”, as quoted by the Polish MP from the report.
Further on, Kornelia Wróblewska spoke about the reach of public television, which is often the only media to reach people in smaller towns, serving viewers with cut-up statements from members of the opposition, the context of which is adapted to the propaganda message pushed by the authorities. These people, who are often less educated, living in gated communities, unable to find their way in the current civilization of progress, and facing different problems than the residents of large cities, usually repeat verbatim the words of propaganda heard on public television, such as: Tusk is selling out the nation, filing complaints against Poland, etc.
Piotr Owczarski stated that “we are tolerant of intolerance and say that we have the right to freedom of expression”. That is why he expressed his belief that many politicians in Poland are comfortable with hate speech at the campaign stage: “If you can identify the enemy and divide the people, there is a high probability that you will win the election”.
In addition, Piotr Owczarski spoke about four types of hate speech:
– addressing someone using words that define membership in some discriminated group, such as: “you Jew”;
– talking about exterminating/killing political opponents;
– creating a certain image of reality of a specific story about the world, skillfully generalising and dividing people into “us” and “them”.
MP Wróblewska also alluded to this division. “Why do we use hate speech? To create a sense of threat. If we create a sense of threat, it’s easy to pinpoint the enemy and set people against that particular enemy. A simple example – “us” and “them”. This was the method used by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s – he divided people into “us” and “them”. “Us”, first: white, true Poles, patriots, and “them”: the enemy, they don’t respect tradition, it’s not clear who they are in contact with, they prefer Europe to us, Poland. Jarosław Kaczyński uses such methods”.
Attorney Kaczyński pointed out that hate speech does not flow from one side. “For many years, we have condoned words against Law and Justice and against this political camp that should be called hate speech. And they are now responding to us in the same manner, but not with one baseball, but with two, three, five”.
The moderator of the second panel referred to the report Hate speech, contempt speech: “What is commonly referred to as hate speech stems from contempt rather than hatred, for it is built on this demeaning emotion that blocks any empathetic response and prejudices another person”. Beata Geppert also alluded to contempt, quoting Karol Modzelewski: “I prefer that my sister disdain stay away from me”.
Magdalena Klim undertook to define the mechanism of hate politics that results in hate speech. She spoke of two groups of people: “One group, it’s a group of calculating, perfidious people who try to influence and manipulate the rest, and the rest is the other group that somehow succumbs to it because they want to believe in something, they have the need to trust someone, and then the spiral winds itself in those people who have been manipulated. What was sown at the beginning, this seed of contempt, hatred, is being continuously wound up, and then the avalanche comes down on us. (…) This aforementioned group seeks to destroy, to annihilate the rest of society”.
When did it start?
The participants in the meeting recalled many moments that, in their view, marked the start of hate politics in Poland. These included:
– the crash of the presidential plane in Smolensk on 10 April 2010;
– the decision to bury the late Lech Kaczyński at Wawel Castle;
– the appearance of the first tabloids – Fakt and Super Express;
– the burning of Lech Wałęsa in effigy by Jarosław Kaczyński in 1993;
– Teresa Torańska’s interview with Jarosław Kaczyński in 1994;
– the murder of PiS MP Marek Rosiak’s office worker in Łódź in 2010;
– the Szkło Kontaktowe TV show, which first aired on TVN24 on 25 January 2005.
Is it possible to stop hate speech?
“(…) The problem in Poland is that hate speech regulations are half-baked”, Beata Geppert replied. “Because on the one hand, when skinheads soar through the streets chanting ‘White Europe or desert Europe’ it is freedom of speech, and when Ela Podleśna shows up with her ‘Our Lady of the Rainbow’, it’s an insult to religious feelings. Unfortunately, the state is very double-minded in this regard. Knowingly, of course”.
Kornelia Wróblewska began her answer to this question with the words: “The law that is already in place must be respected. And especially the government needs to start doing that”.
Piotr Owczarski hopes that hate speech may be curbed through foreign intervention: “It is necessary to speak out about this issue to various international institutions, ones that have the tools of pressure”. As an example, he cited the United States, which could apply leverage in the form of withdrawing arms sales that the current Polish government cares deeply about. He also suggested another way to observe what hate politics may lead to. “Erdogan is probably the teacher of the head of the ruling party in Poland. (…) It’s worth taking an interest in what’s happening in the world, because these patterns are already being implemented, and it’s worth watching it, reading about it, talking about it, because it’s a very short road from democracy to totalitarianism”.
Attorney Kaczyński referred to the situation in which someone threw a jar of faecal matter at a plaque in front of the Presidential Palace. “This is hatred. These types of actions on either side should be stigmatised, because stigmatising it verbally, but also legally, is the starting point for us to begin to move away from hate speech”.
“You have to talk to people so that they know that words can hurt”, Agata Stacewicz advised. “And here, too, there is a huge role for women, because we raise children (…). It is necessary to teach children languages so that they feel like citizens of the European community, so that they are smart, educated, so that they know what basic values are”.
Edyta Gheribi, the first special guest of the event, said that “it’s too late to curb hate speech, because no one really wants that – neither the media nor the public. It’s not speech, it’s a language that permeates the minds of people of all ages”.
Magdalena Klim answered this question by citing her own experience. “I have been to fifteen rallies against the Smolensk remembrance marches and I saw the faces of the people who walked in the procession. And these were indeed faces emanating hatred: angry mimics, tense muscles – the kind of body language that shows feelings, emotions. So, out of our own selfishness, let’s try not to hate in order to be nicer people. Simply that. Let’s get rid of these emotions so they don’t show on our faces”.
In connection with the candidacies of Law and Justice (PiS) deputies to the European Parliament, is it possible that Polish hate speech will be planted on European soil?
“We have other countries which will also delegate a few nice MPs. (…) It all depends on how much of this company gets into the Parliament”, Beata Geppert commented.
Will the EU help stop hate speech in Poland?
Beata Geppert expressed the opinion that only a financial factor applied by the European Union in the form of “halting subsidies, subventions, and funding” will stop hate speech. “It is good that reports are being produced, that all this is being monitored and controlled. But is PiS afraid of the European Union?”, wondered Kornelia Wróblewska.
Piotr Owczarski spoke about more concrete solutions. He mentioned the Media Directive, the adoption of which will be mandatory for EU member states by September 2020. “And this is not being discussed in Poland, since it is an uneasy subject”, he stressed. He also presented the content of the directive: “Member State must ensure that the national regulatory authorities exercise their powers impartially and transparently and in accordance with the objectives of this Directive, in particular: media pluralism, the procedures for the appointment and removal of the heads of the national regulatory authorities or their members must be transparent, non-discriminatory, and guarantee the required degree of independence”. He called the provision a “good omen” and an action against the “pathologies” observed in Poland, in response to which the EU is “quickly responding, that is, creating new regulations to eliminate all black holes”.
Hate politics/speech under the current law
Asked whether the inscription “Death to the enemies of the fatherland” could become grounds for a lawsuit, and whether anyone could feel threatened by such an ostentatious form of response by radical right-wing circles to the hate politics practised by the current government, which repeatedly calls its political opponents, or those who criticise it, “enemies”, attorney Kaczyński responded: “This is not possible in practice, because the group of people who would be offended has been offended in such a way that it would be difficult to prove in court that it was about those specific people. And in this regard, our regulations are quite archaic, dead. What we have in the law is insulting a specific person or a specific group of people. (…) If a person talks about us, points specifically to us and incites to commit a crime against us – it doesn’t have to be a word, sometimes a gesture, a chant is enough – it must be specifically directed at us. And, of course, we must have irrefutable evidence of this”. Regarding potentially violent slogans of the nationalist milieu, Jarosław Kaczyński said: “In many situations, politicians and people from the extreme right have already learned how to express themselves and how to offend us so as not to break the law. This is scary. How to use hate speech so that it is not hate speech under the Criminal Code”.
What does the Criminal Code say to this? Where are these impassable boundaries to avoid being held accountable for using hate speech? “It’s hard to say who will be offended by what, what will make us feel threatened. It is certainly easier in relation to bodily integrity. (…) Silence is gold. Let’s try not to say too much and not to offend anyone”, Agata Stacewicz advised.
How difficult is it in the current political situation to defend in court the people against whom the spiral of hatred is being wound? “A great deal depends on the person of the judge”, Jarosław Kaczyński replied. “In several cases we had such a situation with protesters that the judge in his oral reasons said: ‘You can’t hide behind the Constitution, because you are breaking the law.’ The judge doesn’t seem to notice that the evidence shows that these people were not breaking the law and were just participating in a peaceful protest”. In addition, the attorney noted that hate politics used against political opponents does not make the task any easier. “Creating an image of a person and thus influencing public opinion makes it difficult to act. (…) It’s not easy to explain why ‘Ruda from the Committee for the Defence of Democracy’ is not a ‘child of the establishment’”. The attorney concluded his speech by saying that despite all socio-political adversities, the task of lawyers in these cases is, de facto, “comfortable”. “My task is to demonstrate the actual circumstances. (…) It is necessary to pursue the truth”.
Hate speech in practice
The event also included personal confessions and reflections from people who have experienced hate speech directed at them in various forms. “Arek called me with the information that he saw my home address on a skinhead website with a reach of 60,000 people. And this kind of moment is a wake-up call. (…) Your child is at home, your dogs are there, and you don’t know what’s coming for you. This was probably the worst moment, when I actually felt strongly threatened. Fortunately, it ended with one card pinned to the fence”, Magdalena Klim recounted. However, contrary to the expectations of those who use hate speech, it does not have to have an intimidating or depressing effect on people. “I don’t like saying I’m a victim, because I don’t feel I’m a victim [of hate politics – editorial note]. I don’t meet the conditions of victimology, I don’t have the potential to be a victim”, Magdalena Klim continued. “We will prove that the person who hit me did not have the right to do so, and that he will suffer the consequences”.
The second special guest, Ilona Felicjańska-Montana, who faced unbelievable hate due to the alcohol problems she faced, demonstrated how to deal with hate speech. “Hate can kill, but I built myself on hate. (…) Hate doesn’t necessarily have to be only bad”, she said, showing how one can use critical or negative feedback to learn about one’s weaknesses, work on them, and strengthen oneself. In addition, she gave an example of how to talk about hate speech with children: “The words of a hater speak volumes about who the hater is and the fact that he himself needs help. The person who hates has no right to define us”.
The event can be summed up in the words of Marek Edelman, as recalled by Jacek Szymanderski: “Hate is easy. Love is difficult and requires sacrifices”.
We saw the debate as a kind of continuation of the discussion on the conflict between the government and civil society from September 2017, which we held at the National Stadium as part of the OSCE International Conference.
The meeting was attended by about 120 people. Among them were civil society activists, people associated with the protest of people with disabilities, victims of hate speech, politicians, experts, and the representatives of public and civic media mentioned in the introduction.
We would like to give special thanks to:
Civic Guards and Capital Police Headquarters for securing the event
Wilcza Conference Centre
Hanna Roguska, for handling the participant registration
Accounts from participants in the debate: