POLAND: Unprecedented attacks on the Open Dialog Foundation in Poland

(Open Dialogue Foundation)

1. Civic protests in defence of the independence of the Constitution and their aftermath

In the light of the recent developments in Poland, one of the most urgent problems is the attack on civil society by governmental administration bodies. Non-governmental organisations, critical of the state authorities (including Obywatele RP [Citizens of Poland], Fundacja Otwarty Dialog [Open Dialog Foundation], Komitet Obrony Demokracji[Committee for the Protection of Democracy] and Akcja Demokracja [Action Democracy]) have been subjected to unprecedented pressure due to their objection to the government’s plan of the judicial reform and involvement in peaceful civil society protests in the second half of July 2017.

As broadly covered by international media, anti-government protests were aimed at defending the rule of law and the Constitution. Demonstrators objected to the attacks on the independence of the judiciary and the impartiality of judges as they were seriously endangered by non-constitutional draft laws. Such draft laws presented by the current parliamentary majority (created by the Law and Justice party) in cooperation with the government, essentially violated the separation of powers principle. The representatives of the Open Dialog Foundation were amongst the participants of the protests.

On 21 July 2017, Bartosz Kramek, Head of the Foundation Board of the Open Dialog Foundation published a note on his personal Facebook page, containing a wide list of suggested civil disobedience actions. The same day, the Foundation issued its official statement with regard to the inadmissibility of violation of the Constitution, and endorsing the protests. The Foundation shared Bartosz Kramek’s note on its Facebook page as well.

Significant mobilisation of society led to the vetoing of two of the three laws by President Andrzej Duda, which has contributed to halting the process partially but significantly. The independence of the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary was maintained temporarily, but the law on the system of common courts was passed, subjecting the courts to the actual control of the Minister of Justice.

2. Defamation and slander media campaign against civil society as hostile foreign agents

Controlled by the ruling party, Polish public television TVP has launched a massive defamation and slander campaign against the aforementioned organisations and, more broadly, all citizen-led independent initiatives. The campaign is based on manipulations, half-truths, and facts which do not correspond to reality. The organisations critical of the government, are accused of artificially provoking protests in defence of courts and the Constitution, and manipulating public opinion the money from abroad. The image of the external enemy is created, and the key activists are portrayed as foreign agents (inc. President of the Open Dialog Foundation Lyudmyla Kozlovska, a citizen of Ukraine), traitors of the homeland (inc. Head of the Foundation Board of the Open Dialog Foundation Bartosz Kramek), or puppets in the hands of foreign powers and governments (e.g. George Soros, Russia, and even Germany and the Brussels elites). Projects aimed at subjecting NGOs to special supervision, including their inspection by the special services and limiting their access to foreign funding, are issued and discussed publicly, also by key ministers of the Polish government. The organisations are accused of having an intent of provoking a bloody revolution (so-called Maidan) and the overthrow of the government in order to achieve the interests of foreign states and other foreign actors.

Previously, the Foundation had been sending non-lethal and protective equipment, such as bulletproof vests and helmets, to Ukraine, and, in order to do so, it obtained a legally required special licence from the state authorities. For this reason, the foundation was accused of arms trade, which should, allegedly, serve  to provoke a Polish Maidan [1], [2].

More recently, the smear campaign reached also the European Parliament in Brussels, where an event aiming at delegitimizing the Foundation’s work and reputation was held on 9 November 2017.

The critical voices from the EU, including the European Commission are held in open contempt by the Polish authorities which not only dismiss them but also make attempts to turn the public opinion against them, thus enhancing radical anti-European and xenophobic sentiment.

3. Enhancement of xenophobia and anti-Ukrainian sentiment in society

This campaign is also carried out by extreme right-wing and nationalist organisations, and these attacks lead to a massive wave of hate speech and threats, punishable by law, in the Internet; there are also incidents in public spaces, which are often carried out with the tacit consent of and reluctant response from the law enforcement agencies. An important aspect of hateful or spiteful comments is its frequent xenophobic dimension: victims of the attacks are denied the right to Polish nationality, and aggression is also directed against a large population of Ukrainians in Poland. It is connected, among others, with participation of Ukrainian citizens living in Poland in the protests and previous high-profile humanitarian aid actions, organised for Ukraine by the Open Dialog Foundation. he result of these activities is strong polarisation in the society and development of a climate in which the aversion to citizens’ initiatives, refugees and immigrants is growing.

One of the current effects of the aggressive media campaign is attacks on the Open Dialog Foundation team members (including former collaborators), their family members as well as the Foundation’s official supporters and donors (due to these circumstances, the NGO has temporarily removed its financial statements which were openly available on its website earlier).

An online petition which calls for the initiation of criminal proceedings against the Open Dialog Foundation has been published as well.

4. The Government’s aggressive voices

Media attacks are a prelude to harassment by governmental administration, which brings to mind the methods used in Poland in the communist era and now, in numerous non-democratic post-Soviet states. Members of the Polish government, such as Minister of Interior Mariusz Błaszczak and his deputy Jarosław Zieliński, Minister Coordinator of Poland’s Special Services, Mariusz Kamiński, Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski and Minister of National Defence, Antoni Macierewicz publicly discuss actions which should be taken against particular NGOs. In the case of the Open Dialog Foundation, Jarosław Zieliński and Antoni Macierewicz expressed their opinion that the organisation is a work for the Internal Security Agency or, simply, the special services. Open Dialog Foundation appears to be the most publicly attacked NGO amongst all the targeted organisations.

On 30 August, 2017, Prime Minister Beata Szydło (Law and Justice) in a press interview for Gazeta Polska claimed that the latest social protests were not spontaneous but well directed and paid. She stressed that particular foundations work for the influential foreign interests groups and would not give in easily. Responding to a journalist’s question implying the need of reaction in the cases of the Free Citizens of Poland and the Open Dialog Foundation, Prime Minister Szydło added that the Minister of Foreign Affairs had informed the prosecutor’s office on the matter of the unlawful actions of the Open Dialog Foundation.

5. The dispute with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the risk of suspension of the Foundation’s Management Board

On 27 July, 2017, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded an explanation from the Open Dialog Foundation, alleging that it was calling for illegal activities and unspecified personal attacks. In spite of an extensive explanation provided by the Foundation, on 7 August, 2017, MFA, citing its supervisory powers, demanded that the Foundation remove the illegal content from the Foundation’s websites and social media accounts within three days. The Foundation clearly identifies it as an attack on freedom of speech and independence of NGOs. It also assumes that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may take steps leading to the suspension of the Foundation’s Management Board. According to the law on foundations should the Foundation fail to fulfil the demands, the Ministry of Interior can file a motion with the court, demanding the suspension of the Foundation’s Management Board and appointment of the board of trustees.

On 3 October, 2017, the Open Dialog Foundation was informed by the Regional Court of Warsaw that the Minister of Foreign Affairs had filed a motion demanding the appointment of a so-called forceful trustee replacing the current Management Board. The court set a 7-day deadline for the provision of the Foundation’s official statement on the matter. At the request of the court, the Foundation has already submitted its official position on the matter, indicating numerous faults of the Minister’s motion. On December 7 2017, the court rejected the Minister’s motion due to its formal faults. The Minister appealed the decision.

6. Fiscal and customs inspection

At the request of the Minister Coordinator of the Special Services to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, on 7 August, 2017, the fiscal authorities have launched a special fiscal and customs inspection of the Open Dialog Foundation on the basis of the direct demand of the MFA (despite the fact that different inspections have already been carried out in previous years). According to the Foundation’s accountants, the inspection is being carried out in an unprecedented manner, given the number of the fiscal officers involved, its intensity and the depth of the information required. Almost every week, different associates of the Foundation are being interrogated in the office of the Fiscal Administration in Warsaw. It creates substantial difficulties for the daily work of the organisation.

7. Lyudmyla Kozlovska’s right to stay in Poland and the risk of deportation

Foreigners associated with the organisation are concerned about their residence documents and their right to stay and work in Poland. The particular concern relates to Lyudmyla Kozlovska, President of the Open Dialog Foundation who, as a Ukrainian citizen, could be quite easily expelled from the country as an alleged threat to national security and public order according to the law on foreigners. Such a decision could be made by the relevant voivode (regional government’s administration head). It could be justified by a confidential report of the Internal Security Agency and make the decision immediately enforceable (which practically means the order to leave the country).

In such a scenario, a foreigner could appeal the decision before the Head of the Office for Foreigners although, given the current political circumstances and the fact that the Head of the Office is a subordinate to the Prime Minister, it is rather unlikely that the decision would be reversed. Only then is the said foreigner entitled to appeal the earlier decisions to the administrative court but such a right could be practically executed when the foreigner is already abroad.

An important factor pertaining to the matter is the fact that the aforementioned report on a foreign citizen in Poland could result in reporting them to the Schengen Information System by the Polish authorities and, thus, prevent them from entering and staying on the territory of all the Schengen Member States.

Currently, these mechanisms and their use against Lyudmyla Kozlovska are widely discussed online by right-wing journalistsbloggers, politicians and their supporters.

8. The demands of the radical right-wing MPs

Hostile actions against the NGO and critical civil society as a whole, are being carried out by right-wing MPs and government officials in Poland:

  • On 31 July, 2017, Stanisław Pięta, MP from the Law and Justice, Vice Chair of the Polish-Ukrainian Parliamentary Group publicly announced, in a very impolite manner, that the Open Dialog Foundation should immediately leave (get out of) Poland as it allegedly interferes with Polish affairs and destroys Polish-Ukrainian relations.
  • The same day, Adam Andruszkiewicz, MP from the Kukiz’15 political party and the leader of Endecja nationalistic organisation filed a motion with the relevant [special]services in which he requested that an inspection be carried out in the Open Dialog Foundation as it allegedly represents a foreign and leftist threat to the Polish state. He declared that he would submit a parliamentary written inquiry with regard to the Foundation’s activities.
  • On 1 August, 2017, Tomasz Rzymkowski, MP from the Kukiz’15 party gave an interview in which he described the Open Dialog Foundation as an international predatory groupallegedly financed by Soros and Russia aiming at provoking a rebellion in Poland and urged a ban on foreign funding for NGOs.
  • On 23 August, 2017, Dominik Tarczyński, MP from the Law and Justice, reported an alleged crime made by the Open Dialog Foundation of attempting to overthrow a constitutional body by force to the prosecutor’s office. MP Tarczyński declared he would discuss the matter with the Prosecutor General/Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro as well.
  • On 7 September 2017, a group of MPs from the Kukiz’15 party (Marek Jakubiak, Adam Andruszkiewicz, Barbara Chrobak, Wojciech Bakun, Paweł Skutecki, Paweł Szramka, Jarosław Sachajko) submitted a written inquiry to the Minister of Interior demanding information on the actions undertaken in relation to the Open Dialog Foundation.

9. The statements of international NGOs and Members of the PACE

International NGOs, such as Global Ukraine and Centre for Civil Liberties as well asMembers of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe issued several statements, in which they called on the Polish government to tackle this situation and urged it to ‘restore the constitutional order and cease the harassment of the civil society‘.

For more detailed information, please contact:
Lyudmyla Kozlovska: lyudmylakozlovska@odfoundation.eu

Article by the Open Dialogue Foundation, download the statement here