State hate on judges

Anna Gielewska (VSquare) 2019-09-19
Anna Gielewska (VSquare) 2019-09-19

To mark 30th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, Politico.eu asked the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to share his thoughts on whether the promise of 1989 had been fulfilled in Central Europe.

“I would say that the glass is half-full. (…) Certain mistakes could have been avoided – mistakes that have been slowing us down for too long – for example, that we would have had the chance to start our judiciary reforms not 25 years, but 25 minutes after the transition,” Poland’s PM wrote.

Just a few hours earlier, onet.pl news website published a story based on text messages exchanged between the deputy minister of justice Łukasz Piebiak, who was responsible for the judiciary, and a pro-government activist called Emilia (wife of one of the judges who was promoted after the judiciary changes implemented by PiS government). The exchange revealed that one of the highest-ranking officials in the Ministry of Justice launched a hate campaign against the head of the Polish judges’ association Iustitia. He also disclosed personal information about the judges, which Emilia forwarded to pro-government media and posted in her troll tweets.

Former Deputy of Justice Łukasz Piebiak; photo: Sejm RP fot. Krzysztof Białoskórski

Although Piebiak was forced to resign the following day, subsequent episodes of the scandal – reported by the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, among others – revealed a large-scale clandestine operation aimed at discrediting judges who opposed changes implemented by PiS government, which they consider unconstitutional.

Prominent ministry officials inspired social media posts that discussed the private lives of judges who remained critical of the ruling party. As a result, in late 2016, a closed group was created in WhatsApp. Labelled “Kasta” (the Caste), it shared ideas and instructions on how to discredit and attack those judges online. One of the actions involved postcards sent to the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Małgorzata Gersdorf that contained a vulgar message that read “get the fuck off”. The group’s members included, among others, Emilia’s husband, several judges who were recently appointed by the National Council of the Judiciary (short: KRS), as well as judges at the Disciplinary Chamber of Poland’s Supreme Court, taken over by PiS.

“They expected me to spread dirt on rebellious judges. I got ready documents from the ministry of justice (…) Such documents are not available to just any individual. This information came from the so-called green folders at the ministry of justice that contain detailed personal data about judges,” Emilia told onet.pl (She has recently filed divorce papers and her actions against judges are being investigated by the prosecutor’s office).

Her principals were pleased with her efforts. 

“Little Emi, you did the right thing,” such an inscription (a reference to a heroic WWII nurse called Inka, who was murdered by the UB – Ministry of Public Security, a secret police in communist Poland) was engraved on a statuette of a golden hussar, which she received as a gift “from the Kingpin and his soldiers.” A gift for what exactly? When deputy justice minister Piebiak praised Emi, he used the jargon of state services and the prosecutor’s office. He said he was grateful for “undertaking activities that were both unique and extensive” (a quote from their social media exchange).

Organised disinformation and hate campaigns have become a popular tool of political struggle, also in Poland. The country’s political parties spend millions of zlotys on troll farms and online activities. Onet.pl news website reported that the hate campaign against judges who opposed the process of taking over Poland’s judiciary was controlled by government representatives. According to the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, “those actions fail to comply with standards adopted by a democratic state and are rather reminiscent of the slander campaign conducted by the state apparatus before 1989.” Recently, the Foundation published a report that revealed that “a judge involved in a public debate or one who hands down a ruling that is unfavourable to the ruling parliamentary majority almost immediately becomes the object of attacks by the media and social profiles associated with the ruling camp”.

It became clear that the clues lead to the leaders of the ministry of justice headed by Zbigniew Ziobro. He bears political responsibility for what is happening in his ministry. For now, Ziobro’s position does not seem to be threatened but if it turned out that he had known about the whole procedure – PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński would have to let him go. Already during the first PiS government (2005-2007), Ziobro was regarded as a hawk who chased after “coteries” – either doctors or judges, in an effort that allowed him to improve his status within PiS. Today, Jarosław Kaczyński holds no warm feelings for Ziobro who, despite being the party’s deputy chair, betrayed him in 2011 and caused a split within PiS. He re-established his alliance with Kaczyński before the 2015 election as PiS’s coalition partner and leader of Solidarna Polska (United Poland).

Polish PM congratulates Zbigniew Ziobro surviving no confidence vote; Photo: Krystian Maj / KPRM

After four years spent at the ministry of justice, Ziobro is considered as PM Morawiecki’s most powerful enemy in the right-wing camp, with extensive influence in state-controlled companies, the prosecutor’s office and secret services. And Kaczyński likes to have a balance of power.

However, time will play a key role here, since the parliamentary elections in Poland are only weeks away, but according to recent polls, the party still enjoys a significant lead in the polls. The scandals exposed so far reveal the hypocrisy of the ruling party – such as the one triggered by the former speaker of the Sejm who shared official flights with his family members – but they failed to significantly affected PiS ratings.

Anna Gielewska

Anna Gielewska is co-founder and editor-in-chief of VSquare and co-founder of Polish investigative outlet FRONTSTORY.PL. She is also vice-chairwoman of Fundacja Reporterów (Reporters Foundation). A journalist specializing in investigating organized disinformation and propaganda, Gielewska was the John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University (2019/20) and has been shortlisted for the Grand Press Award (2015, 2021, 2022) and the Daphne Caruana Galizia Award (2021, 2023). She was the recipient of the Novinarska Cena in 2022.