Professor Wojciech Sadurski, the Challis Chair of Jurisprudence at the University of Sydney, was found not guilty of criminally defaming Polish state television (TVP) in a Warsaw district court on Friday night (AEDT).
TVP will appeal the verdict. Two other civil defamation charges, one brought by TVP and the other by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), remain ongoing. In the PiS case, Professor Sadurski received a final judgment in his favour in November last year, but PiS has since applied for ‘cassation’ — an extraordinary appeal to the Supreme Court.
Sadurski was charged with criminal defamation, which carries a maximum sentence of one year’s imprisonment, after he described Polish state media as “Goebbelsian,” and linked the assassination of a prominent opposition politician to continued inflammatory state media coverage.
In a statement to Honi, Professor Sadurski praised the judge’s “courageous and impartial decision” and said that — given the judgment’s extensive reference to the Polish Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights — the case would “go down in the legal history of Poland.”
In a statement, TVP described the verdict as “scandalous” and “constituting a manifestation of statutory lawlessness.” A spokesperson continued: “the elites…in a fight to maintain their influence, are doing everything possible to discredit TVP…the voice of the overlooked, silent majority.”
Simon Bronnit, the Dean of Sydney Law School, told Honi that “Professor Sadurski’s case will likely be long-running, notwithstanding the first victory at the criminal trial. The importance of upholding free speech knows no bounds, and the Law School ‘Stands with Woj’ as this legal marathon to uphold human rights continues through the Polish courts, and possibly onto the European Court of Human Rights.”
The defamation suits come against a background of attacks on the free press and judiciary under the increasingly authoritarian PiS government. In January 2016, the Polish Sejm legislated to take control of TVP and fired all 118 of its senior management staff, replacing them with direct political appointees. Many journalists critical of the government have since been removed from their positions at public broadcasts or subject to legal harassment by PiS. In 2020, Poland fell to its lowest ever ranking of 62nd in the Press Freedom Index. In 2016, the year in which PiS was elected, it ranked 18th. Professor Sadurski told Honi that “the fact the media is suing its opponents for defamation is either ironic or perverted.”
Continued attacks have been also made against the independence of the Polish judiciary. In December 2019, legislation was passed to establish a new Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court, with powers to fine or sack judges that engage in “political activity” or question the independence of the politically appointed Chamber. Furthermore, the National Council of the Judiciary, which oversees judges’ appointments, has been overhauled to allow for political appointments to the Council, effectively granting the government control over judicial appointments. These sustained attacks on the rule of law prompted the EU, for the first time in its history, to invoke Article 7 proceedings against a member state for persistent breaches of “EU values,” which can result in the suspension of that country’s EU voting rights. The proceedings are ongoing.