In the latest decision in a long-running legal saga, Professor Wojciech Sadurski, the Challis Chair of Jurisprudence at the University of Sydney, has been acquitted of criminal defamation charges in the Polish Appeals Court. The charges related to criticisms Sadurski made of Polish state broadcaster TVP in 2019, linking the tone of their coverage to the politically-charged assassination of the Mayor of Gdansk. If convicted, Sadurski would have faced up to one year of imprisonment. TVP is expected to seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Two further civil defamation cases remain pending. The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) is appealing a final verdict in Sadurski’s favour to the Supreme Court, while another TVP civil defamation case remains in the lower courts.
The cases come against a background of democratic decline in Poland, with independent media and the judiciary subject to increasing political interference. Sadurski told Honi that he was the beneficiary of an independent judge in his recent acquittal, but expressed little confidence in his prospects of a fair trial on appeal: “the outcome will depend on who hears my case.” With approximately 40% of Supreme Court judges recent PiS appointees, and the Chief Justice a close friend of the Minister of Justice, the prospects for a balanced bench seem remote. Even the prospect of TVP’s appeal raises questions, “if it was merely a matter of law rather than politics, there would be little reason for cassation,” says Sadurski.
Despite the trials and tribulations of the legal battles which look set to extend beyond next year, Sadurski says he feels vindicated by the latest judgment: “I’ve been vindicated in my claims about what my right to public criticism means…You can give expression to your emotions, even if the object or the target of critique doesn’t like it.”
In an era of strong anti-EU sentiment in Poland, and amidst degradation of the judiciary’s independence, Judge Piotr Kluz’s citation of European precedent was unusual, especially in such a “politically-sensitive” case. Sadurski told Honi that the judgment sends the message that “Polish law must meet European standards of freedom of speech and judicial independence.” European law provides “very real constraints upon authoritarian actors, such as PiS or TVP. The only thing which separates us from full authoritarianism is independent judges.”
While the criminal acquittal has no binding impact on his concurrent civil cases, Sadurski predicts that the Court of Appeal verdict will have a positive effect on his civil cases.
TVP described a previous verdict in Sadurski’s favour as “scandalous” and “constituting a manifestation of statutory lawlessness.” They have 30 days to apply to the Supreme Court for cassation.