Freedom in the World

Freedom in the World 2017

Poland

Profile

Freedom Status: 
Free

Freedom in the World Scores

(1=Most Free, 7=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Population: 
38,400,000
Capital: 
Warsaw
GDP/capita: 
$12,555
Press Freedom Status: 
Free

Ratings Change, Trend Arrow:

Poland’s civil liberties rating declined from 1 to 2, and it received a downward trend arrow, due to sustained attempts by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, through hastily drafted legislation and other measures, to increase government influence over the country’s media, judiciary, civil service, and education system.

Overview: 

Poland’s democratic institutions took root at the start of its postcommunist transition in 1989. Rapid economic growth and other societal changes have benefited some segments of the population more than others, contributing to a deep divide between liberal, pro-European parties and those purporting to defend national interests and “traditional” Polish Catholic values. Since taking power in late 2015, the conservative PiS party has enacted measures that increase political influence over state institutions, raising serious concerns about Poland’s democratic trajectory.

Key Developments in 2016: 
  • In January, the European Commission (EC) initiated its first-ever probe into a European Union (EU) member state’s commitment to the rule of law, focusing on the PiS government’s moves to curb the powers of the Constitutional Tribunal (TK) and alter its composition.
  • Several key pieces of legislation, including one that increased government influence over public broadcasters, were enacted through fast-tracked procedures that did not allow for significant consultation or debate.
  • In December, attempts to limit media access to the parliament triggered protests by opposition lawmakers on the lower chamber’s floor, as well as mass demonstrations outside the building. PiS deputies then passed the 2017 budget in a separate room with only a few opposition deputies present; journalists were barred from entering.
  • Throughout the year, the government attempted to silence or discredit academics, journalists, and others whose work challenged PiS’s preferred historical narrative.
Executive Summary: 

During its first full year in power, PiS worked to increase its influence over state institutions and discredit the previous coalition government and its perceived allies in the media and the courts. Throughout 2016, controversial PiS initiatives prompted mass demonstrations and denunciations from domestic and international human rights groups.

In response to PiS’s attempts to alter TK procedures and interfere with the appointment of its judges, the EC in January initiated an official review of Poland’s commitment to EU standards for adherence to the rule of law. A standoff between PiS and the TK continued over the course of the year and appeared to draw to a close with the December expiration of the term of TK president Andrzej Rzepliński, who was appointed in 2007 by the previous government and had resisted PiS’s legislative attempts to curb the TK’s authority. The PiS government subsequently approved a measure granting the state president greater influence over the appointment of a new TK president. Julia Przyłębska, a PiS ally, was tapped for the job, clearing the way for PiS-appointed judges to form a majority on the tribunal. A day after Przyłębska’s appointment, EC vice president Frans Timmermans declared that there were “persistent problems with the rule of law” in Poland, and gave the government two months to address EC criticism, but declined to specify consequences for failure to do so.

In October, tens of thousands of women and many men took to the streets to protest a citizen-backed initiative that would have eliminated most of the exceptions to Poland’s ban on abortion. Lawmakers, under public pressure, ultimately voted down the initiative. A major opposition-led protest in December followed the government’s decision to limit journalists’ access to the parliament. The protest movement continued in the wake of PiS’s contentious approval of the 2017 budget, which was conducted by a show of hands in a side chamber that media representatives were barred from entering. Many critics called the procedure illegal.

Citing a need to “depoliticize the airwaves,” PiS moved rapidly after taking power in late 2015 to pass a controversial amendment to Poland’s media law, which took effect in January. The measure ended the mandates of the heads of Poland’s public television and radio broadcasters and empowered the treasury minister to appoint their successors. A series of dismissals at public media channels followed, while a number of managers who expected to be sacked chose to resign.

A new civil service law that lowered the standards for recruitment to senior posts and allowed for arbitrary dismissal also took effect in January, raising concerns about politicization.

Separately, PiS worked throughout the year to suppress the dissemination of information detailing the involvement of Polish people in World War II–era atrocities, both by putting pressure on Holocaust historians and by creating avenues for greater government involvement at national institutions that focus on Polish history. The efforts prompted sharp criticism from the academic community.

Aggregate Score: 
89
Freedom Rating: 
1.5
Political Rights: 
1
Civil Liberties: 
2

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