Over the past six months, the Polish government’s propaganda machine has repeatedly denounced me as an enemy and traitor. But it hasn’t left it at that. Various authorities and institutions have also sued and prosecuted me. Some of the cases have since been dropped, though mostly on formal grounds. But three remain pending against me and will go to court.
The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) is suing me for civil defamation. State-run TV is also suing me for civil defamation as well as indicting me for criminal defamation. If I lose these cases, I could face huge civil and criminal fines and hefty legal costs. Court decisions could also potentially force me to take out expensive advertisements containing apologies. All of this vastly exceeds my means. I could also be compelled by the court to abstain from commenting publicly and critically about the ruling party. And a guilty verdict in the TVP criminal case theoretically carries a sentence of up to one year in jail, though that is unlikely in practice.
I have, in short, become the target of autocrats who have weaponized the law against their opponents. Political scientists call this “discriminatory legalism.” In this respect, Polish strongman and PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has joined the company of Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. One might also include former Peruvian president Oscar Benavides, author of the immortal maxim: “For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.”
And while the legal troubles of one individual might not be of great significance, they reveal a sinister truth about what the Polish state has become since the ruling party’s electoral victory in 2015. The Law and Justice Party has attacked me because I stated in a tweet that it operates like an organized criminal group. But this is the truth. The PiS is not an ordinary political party in an ordinary democratic country; it now owns the state. It has colonized virtually all state institutions: the presidency, Parliament, the constitutional court, the civil service, state-run companies, public media — and it has dismantled nearly all major constitutional checks and balances in the process. Since the PiS only follows the will of its leader, all-important state decisions are concentrated in a single pair of hands.
It has used its control of these institutions to subordinate the judiciary to the ministry of justice, which also obeys the party. In this sense the system of government constitutes an organized group, and it is criminal in nature since its aims are anti-constitutional.
To enlist public support for its actions, the party uses state media that have far greater reach than their commercial competitors. The state-controlled television channel TVP has become an active instrument of PiS propaganda, engaging in grotesque glorification of the party and vilification of its opponents. Its recent coverage of a lecture by Donald Tusk, who is currently president of the European Council and a longtime member of the Polish opposition, included footage of Hitler and Stalin. To call its style of propaganda “Goebbelsian” would not be too much of an exaggeration.
There is a delicious irony in the TV channel’s civil and criminal lawsuits against me. Poland does not have its own equivalent of the First Amendment, but Europe does. This is Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, enforced by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Three years ago, the Strasbourg court vindicated a Polish politician who had harshly criticized a newspaper by ruling that “journalists and publicists, like other persons actively involved in public life, should display a greater degree of tolerance for criticism against them.” The winner in that case was Jacek Kurski — the current chairman of TVP, which is suing me for the very actions for which he was exonerated by the Strasbourg court, and which are protected by European standards of free expression.
But the irony turns to tragedy when we realize that Poland — once rightly hailed as a path-breaking example of democratic consolidation after communism — is now a pariah within the European Union and NATO, both staunch defenders of democracy and the rule of law. The only hope for the nation is that elections later this year will bring an end to this unhappy episode. And the only hope for an individual harassed by an overweening state is that he or she must come before judges with the independence and strength to do what courts must crucially do: curb the excesses of political power.