The confirmation of Donald Tusk as Poland’s new prime minister, ending the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party’s eight year spell in power, offers cautious optimism that freedom of expression for the country’s minority groups will be better protected. Tusk’s appointment follows October’s parliamentary election, in which a broad coalition of opposition parties secured the majority of votes needed to form a government, which was officially voted in by MPs in December.
Throughout the eight years the PiS spent in power, freedom of expression in the country was continually eroded. Minority groups were targeted through strict legislation and judicial reform, while the party also tightened their grip on the media and encouraged far-right extremism.
Spokesperson for the Love Does Not Exclude Association, a national non-governmental organisation fighting for marriage equality in Poland, Hubert Sobecki told Index that the organisation views the new government with “a mixture of hope and anxiety”.
They are hoping that the new Tusk-led coalition will pass laws legalising same-sex marriage, a concept that Sobecki explained is still seen as “radical” in the state, as well as addressing other issues such as same-sex parenthood and rising hate crimes, although he accused the polish leader of “slaloming” around these issues in the past.
“I do expect some actual specific concrete changes being made, legislative changes,” Sobecki said. “The current prime minister, Mr Tusk, we know him, we have a history, let’s call it that. He was quite reluctant to be remotely close to an allied position.”
It is clear that change won’t happen overnight. Eight years of the PiS in power has seen anti-LGBT+ sentiment rise throughout the country, with pride parades being targeted by violent counter-protesters and some regional governments passing resolutions to effectively make areas of the state an ‘LGBT-free zone’.
Sobecki’s descriptions of life in Poland in recent years paint a shocking portrait of the lived reality of LGBT+ people, who faced near constant abuse and discrimination in the state. He told of the increasing wave of people within the LGBT+ community who are struggling with mental illness, and those who have even had to migrate as a result of their treatment. During one incident, Sobecki recalled activists being targeted by police during a peaceful protest in Warsaw. “They were basically attacked, they were dragged on the pavement. Some people needed medical attention, some of them were molested after they got arrested. It’s mind-numbing,” he said.
However, Sobecki suggested that while the situation is bad, such incidents have also served to show just how much things needed to change. “It created a huge wave of support from people who thought ‘it’s too much’”, he explained. “After several years of this hate campaign being run, they can’t really shut it out anymore, they can’t remain blind to it.”
When asked whether he believed legislation would be enough to secure equality for LGBT+ people, Sobecki agreed that changed attitudes were as important as changed laws.
“What you need on the social level is visibility, storytelling techniques, constant campaigning, presence, representation, from the micro level of having dinner with your grandparents to the macro level of securing proper coverage on the main news channels,” he said.
However, there was still confidence that the government would make a difference. “What they can do is stop the hate in the public media. That is going to be a huge game changer,” he said. “You have millions of people who only watch one or two channels, who are effectively brainwashed. This change will be massive if it happens.”
Sobecki also pointed to moments, such as the recent ruling made by the European Court of Human Rights that Poland’s lack of legal recognition and protection for same-sex marriages breaches the European Convention on Human Rights, as evidence that progress is being made, albeit slowly.
“It was something that we’ve been working on for eight years, because those guys do take their time!” he said. “We knew that this was a message for the new government because the courts are savvy like that. We managed to get some responses from members of the new government who said ‘yes, this is a clear sign that we need to make a change’”.
The election results are also likely to be welcomed by proponents of women’s rights. During their years in power the PiS clamped down on reproductive rights in Poland, ending state funding for IVF and enforcing a prescription requirement for emergency contraception. Most significantly, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, an institution which critics say is heavily politicised by the PiS, implemented a near-total ban on abortion in the country in 2021, with the only exceptions being instances of rape, incest or a threat to health. As a result of this ruling, doctors and others who help women terminate pregnancies may face up to three years in prison, rising to eight if it occurs after the point of viability. These actions, which the PiS say have been made in an attempt to boost fertility rates and promote Catholic values, have had a disturbing effect on women’s freedoms in the state. Just this year, Polish activist Justyna Wydrzyńska was sentenced to 8 months’ community service for helping a pregnant woman to access abortion pills in what Amnesty International described as a “depressing low in the repression of reproductive rights in Poland” which serves as a “chilling snapshot of the consequences of such restrictive laws”.
Sobecki spoke about the need for change across all areas of society, as he argued that the PiS “weaponised the state” against a variety of social groups. “They basically attacked women’s rights openly as part of their agenda,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure and expectation from the public for change, for something new, for something that is progressive.”
However, there are still concerns that even without PiS in power, the new Tusk-led government will not do enough to protect these rights. One feminist activist, Jana Shostak, was dropped by the opposition alliance after voicing support for wider abortion rights. She told the Guardian that her trust in Tusk to fight for women’s rights is “limited”.
There are concerns that the new government will resist calls for more progressive protections on rights and freedoms in an attempt to placate conservative voters. These worries extend beyond women and LGBT+ rights to immigration; Tusk warned of the “danger” of migrants and called for stricter border controls during a campaign speech which was denounced as racist and xenophobic by human rights NGOs.
The PiS being ousted from power sparked hope, but action from the new government to prevent women and minority groups from being silenced and threatened is much-needed. Sobecki vows to keep fighting: “At some point you just think it’s such a mess, what can you do? You just keep on doing what you’ve been doing, showing actual faces, actual people, telling their stories, trying to be hopeful that somehow it manages to get through.”
The President of the European Council
General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union
Rue de la Loi/Wetstraat 175
Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
Stavros Lambrinidis, EU Special Representative for Human Rights
Elmar Brok, Chair of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs
Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations
Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament
Dear President Tusk,
We, the undersigned press freedom and media organisations, are writing ahead of the upcoming meeting between EU leaders and Ahmet Davutoğlu, Prime Minister of Turkey, to express our concern over the collapse of media freedom in Turkey.
In the past six months, we have recorded 50 incidents in clear breach of international standards with regards to media freedom and pluralism in the country. These violations include the recent government takeovers of the Feza media group and the Koza İpek Group; the prosecution and jailing of daily Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Can Dündar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül on politically motivated charges of terrorism, espionage and revealing classified information; the police raids of Bugün TV; the assault of journalist Ahmet Hakan; and the blocking of Dicle News Agency’s website.
Many of these violations took place against the backdrop of the migration and refugee crisis or are related to reporting on sensitive issues such as the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or Turkey’s security operations in the south. Hence we believe the Council has the mandate to address these violations during the specific working session on EU-Turkey cooperation.
This mandate stems from the Council’s commitment to the rights to freedom of expression including freedom of the press, which was reaffirmed when adopting the EU Human Rights Guidelines on “freedom of expression online and offline” on 12 May 2014. By doing so, the Council pledged that “through its external policy instruments, the EU intends to help address and prevent violations of these rights in a timely, consistent and coherent manner.”
The guidelines also state that “all appropriate EU external financial instruments should be used to further protect and promote freedom of opinion and expression online as well as offline.”
While we welcome the fact that you discussed the situation of the media in Turkey with Prime Minister Davutoğlu last week, we believe the EU must not reach a deal without a specific conditionality clause that requires Turkey to improve the environment for freedom of expression and freedom of the media.
When meeting Prime Minister Davutoğlu on 18 March 2016, you have the unique opportunity to not only discuss the press freedom situation in Turkey, but to bring forth concrete measures that Turkey ought to take in order to start reversing its unrelenting crackdown on the media. Without taking these measures Ankara cannot and must not be considered a trustful strategic partner for the European Union. Specifically, we ask that you make any EU-Turkey agreement conditional on the release of the more than dozen journalists currently jailed for their work; the immediate return of the media outlets belonging to the Feza and Koza İpek groups to their rightful owners and editorial boards; and the abandonment of Turkey’s official practice of using vague anti-terror laws to equate press coverage with criminal activity.
At a time when the very essence of the European Union is questioned, it is critical to show unity and coherence over one of its core foundations: human rights, and in particular freedom of opinion and expression, which are fundamental elements of democracy.
Jodie Ginsberg, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship
David Diaz-Jogeix, Director of Programmes, Article 19
William Horsley, Vice President and Media Freedom Representative, Association of European Journalists
Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists
Jo Glanville, Director, English Pen
Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, President, European Federation of Journalists
Barbara Trionfi, Executive Director, International Press Institute
Carles Torner, Executive Director, PEN International
Christophe Deloire, Executive Director, Reporters Without Borders
Deborah Bonetti, President, Foreign Press Association in London
On Friday night, security forces stormed Zaman, the widest-circulating Turkish newspaper. Though many Turkish news outlets studiously avoided covering the raids, the screens of international news channels were full of images of Turkish police using tear gas and water cannon against protestors trying to protect their paper. Particularly striking were the injuries to young women wearing Islamic headgear, the very segment of the community, which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) once vowed to defend.
The seizure of a news organisation by placing it into court-appointed administration is not trivial. The Zaman group employs some two thousand people, runs a nationwide network of correspondents and puts out an English language daily, Today’s Zaman, which has an international following on the web. It is impossible to imagine a court in any country with the slightest pretension of being democratic acting with such impunity.
The final headline of the independent version of Zaman was that there could be no legal basis for the takeover. Indeed, Article 30 of the Turkish Constitution reads: “A printing house and its annexes, duly established as a press enterprise under law, and press equipment shall not be seized, confiscated, or barred from operation on the grounds of having been used in a crime.” (As amended on May 7, 2004; Act No. 5170)”
It is no secret that Zaman demonstrated fidelity to the movement associated with the exiled cleric, Fethullah Gülen. The paper once supported the rise of AKP but in recent years has been a bitter critic. The legal document, which placed Zaman’s parent company into court-appointed administration, relies on the testimony of an anonymous witness who maintains that the editorial policy was dictated by what it calls the Fethullah Terror Organisation (FETÖ in its Turkish acronym). This in turn is guilty of conspiring with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). It is enough to point out that the existence of FETÖ is at best hearsay, at worst the invention of subeditors in the pro-government press – never mind that Zaman itself once took a more hawkish line towards the PKK than the government itself.
According to reports reaching P24, the prosecutor struggled to find a court which would accede to his request. The Zaman building is in the Bakırköy province of Istanbul and comes under its jurisdiction. However, the request in the Bakırköy court was refused. Finally another, more friendly court acceded to the prosecutor’s demand, even though it is dubious whether it had the competence to do so.
The paper may not be guilty of treason but is has been guilty of apostasy – of having turned its back on AKP and President Tayyip Erdoğan in particular. Since then the two have been in mortal combat. Loyalists to the Gülen movement and the Zaman group in particular pursued corruption allegations against leading government officials in December 2013.
“The timing is a slap in the face,” according to a diplomat quoted in The Financial Times. “The seizure came during a visit to Istanbul by Donald Tusk, the European Council president, and two days before Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is to see Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Turkish premier,” the paper points out. Turkey now calibrates its place in the world not as a democratic standard bearer in a troubled part of the globe but as a buffer zone between Fortress Europe and a tide of Syrian refugees. This, it believes, gives it licence to get away with the murder of a newspaper.
In Turkey all eyes, government and opposition, are on the EU to see if Brussels is prepared to put expediency above principle and if European pubic opinion is prepared to see Ankara give up all pretence of democratic governance in exchange for grudging cooperation on Syria.
It is not just the timing of the EU summit, which is significant. The Constitutional Court recently gave the presidential office a swift kick in the shins with the release from pre-trial detention of the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper along with his Ankara bureau chief. The high court ruled that the charges against them – that printing stories in a newspaper could correspond to treason – were essentially absurd. Since then, newspapers and ministers loyal to the president have been braying for the judges’ blood. The president himself has said he would neither respect nor abide by the high court’s decision and now appears even more determined to draft a new constitution which would allow him to do exactly that.
Not everyone in AKP supports this autocratic trend. There is a small wave of discontent from the old guard who believe a constitution that concentrates even greater powers in presidential hands is a dangerous step. These homegrown dissidents took quiet satisfaction in the court’s defence of Cumhuriyet. So one can see the raid against Zaman as the president re-asserting his authority against these pockets of resistance to one-man rule.
Turkey’s 1982 Constitution was prepared under conditions of martial law. It attempted to dictate a society in which the rights of citizen were subservient to the needs of the state. This rendered it anachronistic before the ink on the Official Gazette was dry. It has constantly been rewritten and there have been consistent demands that it be replaced.
Yet no one, not even in their wildest babblings, ever claimed the current Constitution was insufficiently authoritarian, or that it ceded too little power to the arbitrary whim of government, or that it failed to enshrine the Machiavellian principle that “might makes right”.
No one, that is, until now. As the ink on the printing presses of Turkey’s independent media run dry so too do hopes for the country’s future.