Poland’s press grow warier after white nationalist rally

A journalist could face legal action after reporting slurs hurled by fascist and neo-Nazi attendees.

Demonstrators burn flares and wave Polish flags during the annual march to commemorate Poland's National Independence Day in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
Demonstrators burn flares and wave Polish flags during the annual march to commemorate Poland's National Independence Day in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

A leading Polish politician is threatening legal action against a journalist who detailed slurs used at a white nationalist march over the weekend, sparking more fears of media repression throughout the country.

Gazeta Wyborcza deputy editor Piotr Stasinski appeared on Polish channel TVN24 to discuss an independence day march on Saturday. The march is held annually in Warsaw as a counter option to traditional independence day celebrations. Begun by All-Polish Youth — which takes its name from a 1920s-era anti-Semitic group — the march has grown in size over the years, traditionally attracting a few thousand attendees.

But the rise of Poland’s far-right Law and Justice Party (PiS) coupled with aggressive anti-refugee sentiment and growing support for white nationalism spurred comparatively massive turnout this year. Around 60,000 marchers from all across Europe moved through the city’s streets, carrying signs with slogans like “White Europe,” “Pray for an Islamic Holocaust,” and “Poland Catholic, not secular.”

This year’s rally, Stasinski observed, was “dominated by neo-fascist and racist symbols and slogans.” Women were reportedly beaten and called “whores,” he said, while refugees were also targeted. In giving his account, Stasinski repeated swear words used by rally attendees to antagonize counter-protesters. That gave Stanisław Karczewski, Marshal of the Senate, an opening.

“Stop vulgarisms in the public sphere,” tweeted Karczewski, who is now threatening legal action against Stasinski and has said he will file a formal complaint against the journalist.

Stasinski fired back, saying he would not accept a fine for quoting “nationalist, neo-fascist, vulgar insults.”

“The public should know what this nationalistic march was consistent with and what it was proud of,” Stasinski wrote in a statement published by Wyborcza.

Stasinski’s rally observations are easily corroborated. Images and video footage of nationalists and fascists employing anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and anti-refugee chants shocked many international observers.

Many Poles have since expressed concern over their government’s seeming apathy following the rally. Polish President Andrzej Duda condemned “xenophobia…pathological nationalism…[and] anti-Semitism” on Monday but indicated he was unhappy with critics labeling the marchers “Nazis.” Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak, meanwhile, called the march “a beautiful sight” and accused a reporter who asked about anti-Semitic slogans of coming armed with a pre-formed “thesis” about the march, seemingly because of his affiliation with a progressive publication.

Poland’s foreign ministry also released a statement defending many of the marchers while downplaying accusations of bigotry.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs believes that imputing that the march was dominated by elements whose nature was purely incidental is unwarranted,” the statement read. “At the same time, the ministry reiterates that the Polish authorities strongly condemn views springing from racist, anti-Semitic or xenophobic convictions.”

These platitudes have done little to sway progressive Poles. The government has increasingly moved toward embracing the far right, alarming international observers and human rights organizations. Poles themselves have mass-protested a number of national efforts to roll back their rights. Thousands of protesters, many of them women, rallied against a proposed near-total abortion ban last year, ultimately halting the effort. In July, tens of thousands of Poles marched in opposition to PiS-led efforts to gut Poland’s judiciary.

“There is a question mark over Poland’s European future today,” European Council head Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister himself, said at the time. With the European Union (EU) eyeing Article 7 — which would lead officials to strip Poland of its voting rights within the body — Tusk advised the government to choose its next steps carefully.

“There are plenty of issues where the Polish government’s actions seem very controversial from the point of view of the whole EU,” he said.

The EU’s concern extends to Poland’s media freedoms. EU officials and other observers have expressed alarm over anti-media efforts by PiS since the party came to power. The backlash to Stasinski’s comments, experts say, has only generated more alarm.

“This is not the first time that the Polish governing party threatens journalists with prosecution and is unfortunately reflective of the party’s approach toward critical voices,” said Zselyke Csaky, a senior researcher at Freedom House.

Csaky, who works with Nations in Transit, the organization’s annual survey of democracy from Central Europe to Central Asia, told ThinkProgress that the incident is further proof that Poland’s free media is facing a crisis.

“Investigative journalist Tomasz Piatek has also been threatened with prosecution over his book on the defense minister’s alleged links to Russia,” Csaky said, citing a reporter whose work focuses on Polish governmental officials. “The Law and Justice party aims to delegitimize the work of journalists and quash criticism of its policies by targeting the press and undermining independent institutions.”

Karczewski’s threats against Stasinski are disconcerting for other reasons, Csaky explained. The government’s disinterest in tackling the realities raised by Saturday’s march and its rush to criticize the press don’t bode well for Poland’s democracy.

“The response of the speaker of the senate in this case of course is particularly hypocritical,” Csaky said. “Instead of condemning the march, he decided to lash out against a journalist, shifting the focus away from the extremists and targeting critical and independent voices.”

Poland isn’t alone in its struggles. White nationalist movements across Europe and elsewhere have sparked alarm this year. A rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in the United States turned deadly this past August when a suspected white supremacist killed a female counter-protester with his car.

Media freedoms across the globe are also in a precarious position, with little help from the United States. President Donald Trump recently made headlines after agreeing to Chinese limitations on press questions and laughing as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte referred to journalists as “spies” during a 12-day trip to Asia.

Trump also previously drew condemnation for vowing to fight “fake news” in Poland, comments that drew praise and smiles from Polish President Duda.