Onet: Law and Justice Party targets assaults on NGOs. NGOs say Enough: time to strike back

  • 22.09.2017
  • Author: Marcin Wyrwał

A women’s organisation has lost about 80 to 90 percent of its funding. Seven hundred court cases have been instituted against participants in protests organised by civil society associations. Another organisation is facing extensive custom and tax inspections. Yet another has to defend itself against public prosecutors. NGOs seem to be facing ever more challenges under the Law and Justice’s regime. Yet they are not planning to surrender. “In a day or two we will definitely strike back with our acts of civil disobedience,” says one of their representatives. The frontline of the war being waged by the Polish Government against the so-called 3rd sector is going to be quite fiery this autumn.

  • The Polish Government is principally targeting women’s, civil society, LGBT, human rights and anti-violence organisations
  • The Government deprives NGOs of their funding and introduces extensive tax inspections, thus undermining the mutual dialogue
  • The so-called 3rd sector claims that it is going to respond to the Government’s attacks – that they will strike back with civil disobedience and defend their rights at the European Parliament

The atmosphere during the panel entitled: "The assault on the rule of law and civil society in Poland" during the OSCE conference held at the National Stadium in Warsaw perfectly reflected the gravity of the situation. For an hour and a half, representatives of NGOs discussed various kinds of assaults perpetrated by the government wondering how they should be responded to. After they had been asked out of the hall at the end of the 90-minute discussion panel, they continued their discussion behind the scenes. Even when the cloakroom attendants asked them to collect their coats at the end of their working shift, they moved to a nearby coffee shop.

Indeed, there are a lot of things to be discussed. Law and Justice has just inflicted another, and perhaps even final, blow on NGOs: on 15th September the Polish Sejm adopted the Act on the National Freedom Institute – Centre for the Development of Civil Society in Poland. This highly promising name denotes, as a matter of fact, a state-controlled entity which is going to distribute funds across NGOs solely at its own discretion.

The Act was adopted despite protests lodged by the Polish National Federation of Non-Governmental Organisations. Requests for a public hearing were ignored and amendments tabled by the opposition were rejected. For many NGOs representing women, civil society, human and LGBT rights which have already been facing huge problems since the Law and Justice Party came to power, establishment of the National Freedom Institute seems like a death sentence.

“We have lost about 80 to 90 percent of our funds since Law and Justice came to power,” says Anna Karaszewska of the Women Congress Association. “Our Association used to benefit greatly from EU funds administered by the Polish Ministry of Labour. Currently the Ministry no longer provides us with this support. We were also sponsored by a number of state enterprises. Now all of them have ceased to support us too and we have to rely on private donors and member fees only,” she explains.

Obstacles to financing are commonly faced during the Law and Justice regime by organisations focusing on women’s issues, such as, primarily, domestic violence. The “Blue Line”, a helpline for victims of domestic violence, lost its financing as a result of a decision issued by Zbigniew Ziobro, the Minister of Justice. For some time, the “Blue Line” suspended its operations altogether.

Thanks to an online crowdfunding campaign and "AVON Speak Out Against Domestic Violence” initiative, the helpline was reinstated in April. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Justice denied financial support to Women’s Rights Centres in Gdańsk and Łódz, despite the fact that the centres have provided assistance to the victims of domestic violence. The reason: “Providing support to female victims only results in narrowing down the group of beneficiaries of such support." However, considering the fact that 95 percent of perpetrators are men and 91 percent of victims are women and children, there is virtually no “narrowing down” of support.

“The Centres are still working, but they find it hard to make ends meet,” says Karaszewska. “Until recently, they obtained their financing under the law adopted by the previous government. Although the current government has not withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention, because they are afraid to do so, its provisions are not respected. During the previous session of the Women Congress, Wojciech Kaczmarczyk, the Government Plenipotentiary for Equal Treatment argued that women in Poland fared well, and even better than those in Sweden, for instance. According to the Polish Government supporting female victims of domestic abuse may put the traditional family model at stake. This absurd vision has led to restrictions on the financial support provided to anti-violence organisations.

According to Anna Karaszewska, the strategy adopted by the government consists of evading all types of dialogue with women’s organisations. “We have asked the Prime Minister Beata Szydło to meet us many times but we have never received any reply. We have invited the First Lady Agata Duda to Women Congresses twice. To no effect. The Congress has been attended by other First Ladies of Poland, i.e. Ms Kwaśniewska, Ms Komorowska. Ms Wałęsa was expected too but had to excuse herself due to some unexpected family obstacles,” she explains.

Dealing in women’s rights or violence prevention is not a good strategy for an NGO during the rule of Law and Justice, as illustrated by the fate of the Kraków-based Autonomy Foundation. The Foundation launched its "ZERO Violence" project in Polish schools, aimed at preventing violence against women and girls. However, while the project was in progress, the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy terminated its co-operation with the Foundation.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office, Police and Inspections

Similar obstacles are faced by organisations protecting human rights such as the Polish Society for Anti-Discrimination Law which engages in court proceedings in favour of victims of discriminatory practices.

“For two years now we have been facing some challenges which have never occurred before,” admits Krzysztof Śmiszek, PhD, a PSADL lawyer. “Whenever we institute any court proceeding for compensation in the case of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or religious beliefs, the state nominates public prosecutors to intervene in the proceedings. Of course, if the national interest is at stake, a public prosecutor might be appointed. Yet, in these situations we are dealing for instance with a printing shop worker in Łódź who refused to print posters for an LGBT organisation and was fined based on the applicable legislation, or a teacher in Krapkowice who took a crucifix down from a school wall and was awarded compensation for harassment at work. In both these cases the Polish Ministry of Justice decided to appoint a public prosecutor. In the former case, the prosecutor defended the printer, and in the latter one, it laid charges against the teachers. And there are many more similar examples. Interestingly, the state often interferes in proceedings which concern human rights, but not in order to defend such rights.

The Committee for the Defence of Democracy and the Citizens of Poland movement have been retaliated against for organising street demonstrations in defence of the Constitutional Tribunal and Polish Courts in many aspects. Both these organisations were put under Police surveillance during the protests. But even though Ryszard Petru, the leader of ModernPL notified the Public Prosecutor’s Office about such measures instituted against himself on 27th July, they have not yet issued their decision concerning an investigation of the case.

At the same time Ryszard Petru requested the District Court in Warsaw to secure police radio recordings (evidencing such surveillance according to Petru). However, the judge dismissed such request by recognising that the police actions “were not incidental and served to improve the security of a public gathering".

Mass detentions of protest participants by the police are even more concerning. “Since March there have been more than 700 such court cases instituted by the police in Warsaw alone,” recalls Wojciech Kinasiewicz, who supports the Citizens of Poland. “Only a few such cases fall under the Penal Code and the majority of them are covered by the Code of Misdemeanours. The majority of charges have been filed under Article 52 concerning disruption of a lawful gathering. Yet, some of them have been based on Article 90 concerning obstruction of road traffic or the use of inappropriate language. Evidently, the point is to make the life of protesters harder, by hook or by crook. The judgements are passed and we appeal against them, but so far no court trial has been held.”

At the end of July, a letter addressed by the Polish Ministry of Interior and Administration to the Citizens of Poland contained the following warning: “either the Foundation’s Board stops violating the commonly applicable laws and its Statutes, or the Ministry appoints a state manager and suspends the Board in its rights”.

The Government is not in favour of Open Dialog

The Open Dialog Foundation faces direct interference by the state as well. When, during the street protest in defence of the Polish Courts, Bartosz Kramek announced its 16-point programme to switch off the Government, which he himself interpreted as an act of civil disobedience, the Ministry of Interior and Administration announced that the ODF would be subjected to comprehensive scrutiny, and kept its word.

At present, the ODF is undergoing an in-depth customs and tax inspection, even though in December 2016 Minister Błaszaczak conducted its custom audit (concerning vests and helmets which could be sent by the ODF as aid to Ukraine based on the Ministry’s permit) and found no irregularities.

“I fully agree that the tax authorities reserve the right to inspect our organisation but the thing is that we have been inspected by them many times already,” says Bartosz Kramek, the ODF leader. “Moreover, before receiving the permit for ‘trade in weapons’ in order to be capable of providing Ukrainians with bulletproof vests and helmets, we had been scrutinised by the police, military counterintelligence, Internal Security Agency and Ministry of Economy. All these institutions rated us favourably. What we are dealing with right now are neither standard, nor random inspections, but the effect of a phone call by Minister Kamiński, who asked Minister Waszczykowski to ‘Do something with them’. Minister Waszczykowski replied that even though he himself could not do much, he could nonetheless order tax authorities to carry out a tax inspection. These are politically-motivated moves and they do not even try to conceal it at all. For us it is clearly a smear campaign. We have been visited by seven auditors who have seized almost all our documents and keep on asking for more and more explanations. They ask us for some records which we have never been obliged to keep. Our accountants say that they have never experienced anything like it.”

The ongoing audit creates obstacles not only for the ODF itself, but also to anyone who has had contact with the Foundation. The ODF’s partners are served with summons to appear at the Customs and Tax Office as witnesses. This also applies to those who ceased to co-operated with us many years ago. Onet has come across a number of summons served to persons who have had nothing to do with the ODF during the past three years. “People are scared,” says Kramek. “We find co-operating with our partners much harder, as they all feel intimidated.”

This applies, for instance, to one of the ODF’s partners who prefers to remain anonymous when talking to Onet for fear of repression. “All contractors who have issued more than two or three invoices to the ODF are summoned to testify as witnesses at the Customs and Tax Office,” he says. “As far as I know, the Office is supposed to prove that the taxes paid by the ODF have been underestimated, so that it could be announced on TVP channels that the ODF is cheats the Polish people.”

According to this source, apart from the intimidating atmosphere, the core problem faced by ODF contractors carrying out their daily business is the loss of time. Apart from providing time-consuming testimony, one ODF contractor was asked by the tax authorities to present all invoices issued to the ODF in 2015–2016 including descriptions of the equipment used, project managers and a full list of participating individuals. The company had to devote one full business day to describing its ten invoices. “And if any company had issued 50 invoices, it would have taken them a whole week to go over them,” he says.

The members of the Law and Justice Party openly admit that they are going to act to the detriment of the Open Dialog Foundation. The most spectacular example of this strategy is the letter issued by Anna Fotyga, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and serving MEP which was discovered by Onet. In this letter she openly claims: "(...) please rest assured that I will boycott all events and initiatives which have been supported, even to a minor extent, by the ODF. I will also encourage representatives of all political factions and our international partners to do the same thing."

Such a statement is highly problematic for the Foundation which seeks international advocacy with the aim of freeing political prisoners in Russia.

Krzysztof Łoziński: This encourages violence

According to Krzysztof Łoziński, the leader of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy, members of Law and Justice are also likely to legitimise violent acts such as, for example, the physical assault of a CDD member by a group of the All Polish Youths activists. “If Beata Mazurek, the Government’s Spokesperson says that assaults are bad, but she understands their motives, this just encourages more violence,” he says. “Just like when Jarosław Kaczyński refers to the neo-fascists as young and buxom patriots.”

All NGOs fully agree: we have to react to the actions by the Polish government. The majority of them also agree that sometimes we need to resort to some actions interfering with the privacy of specific politicians – as in the case of protests organised in front of Jarosław Kaczyński’s house.

“This is an infringement of one’s domestic privacy, that is true,” admits Kramek. “But if they do violate our Constitution and the gravity of their wrongdoings is much greater, such methods are fully legitimised in my view.”

Wojciech Kinasiewicz, who represents Citizens of Poland declares that the party intends to encourage people to engage in acts of civil disobedience in defence of the Polish courts after the summer holiday season. “We demand that the Act on Common Courts be reconsidered by the Polish Sejm,” he says. “Minister Ziobro has already started dismissing judges based on its provisions. We will start acting soon.”

NGOs also intend to launch protests at the European Parliament. “Our public hearing at the EP has been scheduled for 18th October 2018,” explains Kramek. “Ms Rebecca Harms, a German MEP agreed to host it. Now we are making all possible efforts to engage MEPs from other countries as well.”

By presenting their complaints to the European Union, NGOs again tend to be labelled as traitors to their homeland, as they already have been on many other occasions. “I love my Polish homeland but I do not regard the European Union as a foreign institution,” says Kramek. “We joined the EU of our own free will: we get money from them, and if we take this money, we should respect its values and treaties. By joining the EU we undertook to respect the tripartite division of power and independence of NGOs. Yet, if we do not, there are some legal measures that the EU may take in order to intervene.”

Kramek and others declare that they are not going to yield before the government. However, it seems that the government has not yet used all its available powers against NGOs. For instance, Antonii Macierewicz, the Minister of National Defence has suggested that foundations should be surveyed by special services. Apparently, the controversy between the Polish government and NGOs is likely to heat up considerably this autumn.

Source: onet.pl

Read also:

See also:

  1. Open Dialog Foundation’s statement of 21 July 2017 on the dismantling of the rule of law in Poland
  2. Open Dialog Foundation’s statement of 23 July 2017
  3. The statement of the decision of the President of the Republic of Poland of 24 July 2017 regarding the judiciary reform
  4. The Open Dialog Foundation’s statement of 31 July 2017 (funding and donors, or a few words about ‘soroses’)