POLAND: “I am not safe here”: Women’s Rights Activists Under Attack for Work on Abortion Rights

– Update by CIVICUS monitor, published on 09 April 2021, available here.


As reported previously, protests have been ongoing since October 2020 when the Constitutional Tribunal (CT) ruled to impose a near-total ban on abortion. The ruling of the CT has yet again highlighted how the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has compromised judicial independence and the rule of law in Poland. This ongoing erosion of the rule of law and judicial independence has had a rippling effect on civic space.

On 17th March 2021, a statement published and signed by 65 active and former Supreme Court judges opposed the Prosecutor’s Office’s request for three former judges of the Supreme Court to be stripped of their immunity. The prosecutor’s office “intends to charge them with the inadvertent failure to settle cases in accordance with the applicable laws”. The concerned judges have in the past criticised the PiS government. In the statement, the judges said:

“The practice of requesting for waiver of judicial immunity shows how law can be exploited to discredit judges who express their criticism over changes in the justice system. At the same time, it is an attempt to create a ‘chilling effect’ on other judges by discouraging them from issuing rulings that can be perceived by the authorities as unpleasant, and from defending the rule of law.

Related to this, on 31st March 2021, the European Commission referred Poland to the European Court of Justice due to ongoing concerns about the rule of law and judicial independence.

In another concerning development, the battle for the position of the independent human rights ombudsman continues. The five-year term of the current ombudsman, Adam Bodnar, expired in September 2020. However, he remains in office until a new ombudsman is elected. Although the ombudsman position is supposed to be non-partisan, one of the proposed candidates, Piotr Wawrzyk, joined the ruling Peace and Justice (PiS) party in March 2021. However, the Senate failed to back him as the new ombudsman.The ombudsman, which serves as a watchdog, is the last independent institution which has not been staffed by a politically dependent person with ties to the ruling majority. During ongoing protests, the ombudsman’s office has played a key role in documenting the violations of protesters’ rights (see previous update).

Related to the near-total abortion ban which came into effect during January 2021, in February 2021, Polish authorities asked hospitals to disclose details of women who have terminated pregnancies after the Constitutional Tribunal decision in October 2020 (which came into effect in January 2021). This came after an anti-abortion group questioned the legality of abortions taking place between the court’s decision and the actual date the ban came into effect. Activists are concerned about the chilling effect of the investigation on medical professionals who provide abortion care. In another concerning developing, the Pro-Life Foundation is lobbying for the criminalisation of abortion in Poland, through a bill which seeks to criminally sanction women who have abortions.


Activists face rape threats, death threats and bomb threats

During March 2021, women’s rights activists and organisations advocating for the right to abortion have been facing violent threats. Humans Rights Watch, IPPF-EN and CIVICUS documented in a statement that several organisations were threatened due to their work on women’s rights issues. They include the Polish Women’s Strike, the Abortion Dream Team, Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa), Feminoteka, FundacjaFOR, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and the Women’s Rights Centre (Centrum Praw Kobiet). Threats ranged from bomb threats to death threats sent via email. Messages include “Do you support abortion? Wait, you are about to die!” or “You have five days left”. The senders are alleged to be religious fundamentalists defending “true Catholic values”.

Leaders of the Polish Women’s Strike – Marta Lempart and Klementnya Suchanow – have been subjected to death threats for months, via social media platforms like Facebook and via email. During the most recent attacks, an edited bloody picture of Lempart was sent to her, with a bullet hole in her forehead and with the image of a baby’s hand holding a cross in the corner of the photo.

Activists from the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa) also faced online abuse and death threats. Federa received dozens of emails, some including bomb threats or images of their faces covered in blood, between 12th and 23rd March 2021. They are insulted as “child murderer” and warned that they only have a few days left to live.

The Centrum Praw Kobiet (CPK), the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) and other organisations from the Grand Coalition for Equality and Choice regularly receive threats via email. Some activists reported these threats to the police. While police arrived swiftly in relation to bomb threats, in some cases officers said that the investigation was unlikely to be prosecuted, leaving activists feeling like their reports had fallen on deaf ears or were not given priority. In relation to this, a staff member from Federa said:

“I feel like I am not safe here and that they [the government] make choices about who deserves protection and respect. For me this is very serious, because it is not just some freaks who send us a message [saying] ‘you are a murderer.’ It is in the whole context of what is going on in Poland, where what we are doing is really perceived as something evil.”

Two members of the Women’s Strike’s Consultative Council went to the police and decided to go public with the threats they received. Nadia Oleszczuk posted about the rape and death threats she received on her Facebook page. She wrote:

Since February 28 I regularly receive emails with death threats against me and my loved ones relating to my activities in Women’s Strike and Rada Konsultacyjna przy OSK. The emails author uses hateful phrases to me: ′′ You f****** bugger, you’re going to die soon if you don’t stop supporting the Women’s Strike,”, “We are absolutely not interested in your worthless life, the fate of your family “, ′′Only God decides the fate of the child!”

Dorota Łoboda, a Warsaw councillor who has actively supported the Polish Women’s Strike, explains in detail the content of the hate emails and threats she receives on a regular basis.

On 20th March 2021, a collective of artists rented flats in a large building near the house of Jarosław Kaczyński, the Leader of the PiS party, to perform an interpretation of “The Snow Queen”. The performance was intended to “defrost” hearts and show support to the women’s rights protesters. A few hours before the event, Marta Lempart received an email that the building would be bombed. Lempart asked her friend to contact the police and report the threat because she knew that the police wouldn’t respond to her, or if they did “they would drag their feet.” The police immediately arrived and searched the building but did not find any bombs.

The above threats are encouraged by the violent rhetoric of the government and state-owned media against women’s rights activists. The public broadcaster TVP regularly calls demonstrators “supporters of killing unborn children”. Non-profit organisation Oko.press analysed the effect TVP’s narrative on women’s rights and LGBTI activists has on its viewers. It documented some of the most appalling threats.

Further concerns for women’s rights

As reported previously on the Monitor, in July 2020 Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro announced that Poland would begin the process of withdrawing its ratification from the Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (known as the Istanbul Convention). However, the decision to withdraw was paused after the ruling PiS party referred the matter to the PiS controlled Constitutional Tribunal, which is yet to rule on this. The move to withdraw was introduced via the “Yes to family, no to gender” citizens’ initiative bill by the far-right Ordo Iuris. On 30th March 2021, the Sejm voted to send the bill to the parliamentary committee on justice, human rights and foreign affairs for further review.

A Balkans Insight investigation revealed leaked government documents which expose the government’s plans to replace the Istanbul Convention with an alternative convention which bans abortion and homosexual marriage, with the plan extending to the “protection of the life of a conceived child”, and the concept of marriage remains reserved exclusively for the relationship of a woman and a man.

Women’s rights activists have raised concerns about the far-reaching consequences that the withdrawal will have on organisations working on domestic violence. This move seeks to further erode women’s and LGBTI rights in Poland.

Peaceful Assembly

Demonstrations took place on International Women’s Day on 8th March 2021. Activists marched to advocate for abortion rights, as well as greater state support for in vitro procedures and sexual education. They also campaigned for a new bill legalising abortion on demand through the 12th week of pregnancy.

The police called the protests illegal because they defied health restrictions, which limit gatherings to five people. The protest was relatively small, but the police presence was large. Activists reported being kettled for hours.

During a separate protest on 10th March 2021, images show police officers intimidating protestors who were pinned to a fence in front of the Constitutional Tribunal.

Ban on protests

Due to the COVID-19 situation, the government issued several restrictions, which include not only banning the organising of protests but also participation in them. The ban goes further by prohibiting organising or participating in “events, meetings and meetings of any kind”.

In a concerning related development, several Polish municipalities have announced their intention to take legal action against a group of activists who created a map of municipalities which have been declared as “LGBT free zones”. According to the “Atlas of Hate” map, almost 100 Polish municipalities have adopted resolutions that are anti-LGBTI. The extreme conservative group Ordo Iuris, which is also behind the abortion ban, has offered its legal assistance to the municipalities.

The polish government’s anti-LGBTI agenda remains a concern. In the beginning of March 2021, French European Affairs Minister Clément Beaune said he was denied access to the town of Kraśnik, one of Poland’s ‘LGBT-free’ zones. A few days later, the European Parliament declared the whole of the European Union an “LGBTQI Freedom Zone”.

Journalist targeted for covering pro-abortion protests

At the beginning of March 2021, the journalist Marcin Terlik from the newswire Onet was charged with misdemeanor. On 18th November 2020, he was covering large pro-abortion protests in Warsaw. The journalist tweeted videos of police brutality. Three months after the incident, he was summoned to a police station in Mińsk Mazowiecki (about 40km outside Warsaw) to testify. The police accused Terlik of violating the ban on peaceful assembly. According to attorney Mateusz Ostrowski, these accusations are baseless as the ban at the time only concerned organisers of protests and not participants or journalists. Terlik said that while the charge he was presented with carries a maximum penalty of 500 zł (109 Euros), the police have sent his case to the sanitary administration (sanepid) where, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fines of up to 30 000 zł (6,556 Euros) can be issued for breaching sanitary restrictions.

Speaking to the CIVCUS Monitor about his case, Terlik said:

“I was reporting on a demonstration of Strajk Kobiet in the centre of Warsaw. This time it was particularly tense as the police sent dozens of undercover agents to the spot, who were entering the crowd and arresting participants of the protest. Often they didn’t wear any signs identifying them as policemen, which was inciting fear among protesters who thought they are being attacked by nationalists and neo-nazis. On the square in front of public television police encircled the protesters and did not allow them to leave the spot for about two hours. I was inside the circle all the time.”

“While leaving the encirclement I clearly showed my journalist ID to policemen and said multiple times that I am a journalist at work. Nevertheless, police had noted down my personal data.”

On media freedom in Poland, Terlik said that while there is still independent media in Poland, the rhetoric of the ruling PiS party is often “hostile” towards independent journalists, which creates an intimidating atmosphere.

“Moreover, public media in Poland has been transformed into tools of blatant propaganda, which undermines the credibility of media in general and creates deep divisions not only in the society, but also among people working in media. Knowing what has happened to public media (most notably public TV) in the last few years, raises fears about the faith of independent outlets being purchased by state-owned companies, which was the expressed aim of the ruling party and which has already begun.”

Tax on advertising revenues

As reported previously on the CIVICUS Monitor, in February 2021 the government announced plans to impose a media tax on advertising revenues. Civil rights groups, independent media and the political opposition see the tax as an effort by the PiS party to control the media sector. The proposed tax would range between 2-15% depending on the size of the company. The government said that the money would be allocated to healthcare, culture and other sectors affected by the pandemic.

In response to the criticism, the government said it would amend the proposal. “We are reviewing all the suggestions made by various media groups and other interested parties,” government spokesman Piotr Mueller said. “And based on that a draft will be submitted that includes some of these remarks.”

PKN Orlen acquires media group

As previously reportedon the CIVICUS Monitor, the state-owned oil company PKN Orlen purchased the media group Polska Press from the German Verlagsgruppe Passau. The Polska Press group owns hundreds of newspapers, magazines and online portals, including 20 out of 24 regional newspapers. On 5th February 2021, the Polish competition watchdog (UOKiK) approved the takeover. The contract was signed on 1st March 2021. The next day, CEO of Polska Press Dorota Stanek submitted her resignation.

The national human rights ombudsman Adam Bodnar voiced his concerns about the acquisition and appealed to a Warsaw consumer court. According to Adam Bodnar, UOKiK failed to sufficiently assess the impact on the freedom of press. He asked the court for a waiver of UOKiK’s permit and the suspension of the takeover until the case is resolved.

“A company controlled by the State Treasury – and through it by politicians – could easily gain influence over editorial boards, and thus transform a free press, which is tasked with producing honest and fact-based criticism of the public administration and the people who man it, into pro-government information and propaganda bulletins,” Bodnar wrote.

Meanwhile, the CEO of PKN Orlen, Daniel Obajtek, a close ally of Jarosław Kaczyński, has been mired in a series of scandals. The newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza published tapes that reveal inter alia that Obajtek illegally managed a private company while he was mayor of Pcim, a small town in southern Poland. It was also revealed that he legally threatened the media outlet over its publication of an investigation about him.

Radio station ordered to pay compensation to journalist

In March 2021, the regional court in Rzeszów ruled that a radio station violated the principle of equal treatment towards editor Grażyna Bochenek. In September 2018, Bochenek did not intervene when a radio listener called Poland’s President Andrzej Duda an “acting president” and a “figurehead”. After this incident, the radio station gradually limited her hours until they terminated her employment contract under a disciplinary procedure. Bochenek filed a suit against the president of the radio station in May 2019. The regional court ordered Radio Rzeszów to pay Bochenek 7,444 Polish złoty (about 1,611 Euros) in compensation and 7,750 złoty (about 1,678 Euros) to the Polish Anti-Discrimination Society.

Legal action against Gazeta Wyborcza

On 2nd March 2021 the Prosecutor-General of Poland (who is also the Minister of Justice and member of the Polish Parliament), Zbigniew Ziobro, filed a lawsuit against Adam Michnik, the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza – the biggest daily newspaper in Poland. The action relates to an article published in March 2020, titled “The salary of Ziobro is against the law” which revealed that Ziobro’s combined positions as Prosecutor General, where his salary supplement is 200 000 PLN (50 000 euros), and that of a Member of Parliament is unconstitutional. Currently, Poland is the only EU Member State that combines the positions of Minister of Justice and Prosecutor-General, going against international standards. Ziobro is requesting that the article be corrected and that he be reimbursed the costs of legal proceedings. As reported previously, Gazeta Wyborcza has faced numerous lawsuits from the PiS government, which amount to 60, including this most recent case.