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Poland’s Infringement on Cultural Human Rights

Credit: World Tourism Organization | Flickr

Prawo i Sprawiedliwość: the “Law and Justice” Party

Poland is violating the international human right to the freedom of expression through legally sanctioned censorship. As of February 2023, New York based human rights organization Artistic Freedom Initiative (AFI), plans to bring suit against the current Polish government in an open effort to challenge Poland’s controversial blasphemy and defamation laws. AFI would file in either the European Court of Human Rights or the Court of Justice of the European Union. Both courts have jurisdiction over Poland as a state of the European Union and as a signatory of the European Convention of Human Rights.

In AFI’s 2022 human rights report titled Cultural Control: Censorship and Suppression of the Arts in Poland, the organization details the historical and political background behind the Polish government’s rise to power. Spearheaded by the right-wing populist “Law and Justice” party (directly translated from “Prawo i Sprawiedliwość,” and commonly known as “PiS”), Polish president Andrzej Duda’s government has transformed the country’s arts and culture sector to solely reflect a Catholic, nationalistic agenda. This agenda has increased since an absolute majority re-elected PiS in 2015, the first absolute majority re-election since the fall of Stalin’s communist regime in 1989.

After PiS returned to power, Piotr Gliński, the new Minister of Cultural and National Heritage, removed merit-based hiring practices across Poland’s cultural institutions. In just a few short years, Gliński oversaw the flooding of PiS allies into twenty-three of Poland’s major arts and cultural centers in an effort to censor and ban any historical depictions or artistic expressions that disagree with PiS’s ultraconservative narrative (9). PiS specifically plans to eradicate depictions of Poland in any questionable or negative light, a long-standing issue among nationalist Polish communities wanting to focus only on the best parts of Poland’s history.

In 2017, for example, the Museum of the Second World War in Gdánsk merged with the PiS-controlled Westerplatte and 1939 War Museum, allowing Gliński to install a director of his preference and change the operation of the museum. Founding director Paweł Machcewicz’s vision for the museum was to show, in an honest and holistic manner, the horrors of war as a reminder of what the world has endured. His vision felt particularly poignant in Gdánsk, where Hitler invaded and began WWII. The museum now reflects a more sanitized and patriotic view of the war, glossing over the atrocities committed by Polish soldiers in favor of uplifting depictions of Polish heroism instead.

AFI’s report lists four key methods PiS has employed to attempt to establish their idea of a Polish national identity:

  1. The legal processes targeting artists deemed to produce anti-nationalist or anti-Catholic works of art through blasphemy and defamation laws;

  2. The installation of right-wing leaders in the country’s arts and cultural centers;

  3. The use of press to promote Catholic, nationalistic propaganda; and

  4. The emboldening of non-state actors, including right wing organizations, individuals, and religious groups, in the intimidation and harassment of dissident artists (10).

The legal questions at issue are primarily the blasphemy and defamation laws PiS has enforced to suppress artistic and cultural freedoms in Poland.

Poland’s Blasphemy + Defamation Laws

Article 196 of Poland’s Penal Code (1997) punishes artists whose creative expressions may be deemed harmful or offensive to the Catholic Church. It literally makes blasphemy illegal—a unique position across Europe. In practice, this law stifles artists.

Elżbieta Podleśna’s “Rainbow Madonna”

In 2019, police arrested Polish civil rights activist Elżbieta Podleśna, along with two fellow activists, for distributing art depicting the Black Madonna of Częstochowa with a rainbow-colored halo. This particular Madonna is a piece of national pride and an emblem of the Polish Catholic Church. It was chosen because of its importance to the country, to protest against PiS’s well publicized anti-LGBTQ+ viewpoint. However, the Church argued Podleśna’s artwork violated the blasphemy law because it went against “‘traditional’ narratives about family structure and values [] presented in school curriculums.” (11). The activists faced two and a half grueling years of litigation for “offending religious feelings,” a broad phrase under Article 196. The phrase is frequently interpreted to favor the conservative view that the LGBTQ+ community erodes the patriarchal family system, and therefore should be punished.

An older case may set some precedent as to how these blasphemy claims are handled in the European Court of Human Rights. Polish pop star Dorota Rabczewska (Doda) was convicted by a Warsaw court in 2012 for violating Article 196 based on an interview she gave three years earlier. Doda shared that she found it “difficult to believe in” the Bible as it was “written by someone wasted from drinking wine and smoking weed.” Two people claimed she had offended their religious feelings, which resulted in a guilty verdict in criminal court and a subsequent fine of 5,000 złoty. Doda then brought her case to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that Poland violated her right to freedom of expression when the state prosecuted her for blasphemy. In 2022, a whole decade after her conviction, the court found that although Doda’s statements may have shocked or disturbed people, they were protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is important to note that six out of the seven judges of the court ruled in favor of Rabczewska, and the only outlier, Judge Krzysztof Wojtyczek, was also the only Polish member. In his dissenting opinion, Wojtyczek argued for the importance of protecting religious feelings under the belief that there is a growing sentiment of “religiophobia” against Judaism and Christianity, a common conservative view—shared by PiS—that speaks to the fear that Christian beliefs are being persecuted and must be preserved at all costs

An “LGBT-free zone” sign posted as part of activist Bartosz Staszewski’s road-sign project.

Article 212 of Poland’s Penal Code criminalizes defamation, opening up offenders to potential imprisonment up to one year as well as substantial fines. Across Europe and most western countries, defamation is solely a civil matter, but Poland chose to criminalize it, greatly enhancing the seriousness of the offenses. Within its provisions, Articles 133, 135, 137, and 226 of the Poland Penal Code respectively criminalize defamation of the country, the President of Poland, Polish national symbols, and Polish public officials (11). PiS has weaponized Article 212 against those who have dared to criticize the government, including artist and activist Bartosz Staszewski, who posted signs reading “LGBT-Free Zone” outside of institutions that passed anti-LGBT resolutions. These codes are particularly surprising just one generation after the fall of the Iron Curtain. A few decades ago, Polish people whispered their opinions as Stalin’s government took their neighbors to Siberia for speaking out against their Russian occupiers. Today, PiS is similarly imprisoning its Polish-born artists for speaking their opinions.

Another artist, Polish writer and journalist Jakub Zulczyk, faced up to three years in prison in 2021 for referring to President Duda as a “moron” in a post on Twitter. Although Duda claims that the government did not bring the charge, prosecutors claimed that Zulczyk’s words constituted defamation because they were “offensive” and “unacceptable.” A Warsaw court dropped the charge last year, stating that a conviction would endanger free speech and set a precedent for prohibiting criticism of public figures. According to Joanna Szymanska, senior program officer at fellow human rights organization Article 19, Article 135 was hardly ever used before PiS’s reelection in 2015. This aligns with AFI’s statistics that defamation convictions have also doubled since PiS returned to office, demonstrating PiS’s abundant use of these dormant laws to suppress civil rights.

Violating International Human Rights Laws

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has been the foundation of international human rights for the past seven decades. Its purpose is not only to protect human rights, but also to promote the universal enjoyment of those rights. Among the ten pillar concepts of UDHR, signatories agree to uphold the freedom of thought along with the freedom of opinion and expression.

The new measures PiS recently put in place, namely the rapt enforcement of its blasphemy and defamation laws, directly violate the UDHR. PiS’s actions specifically violate Article 19 of the UDHR which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” To limit artistic expression is a blatant attack on the Polish population’s freedom of expression. And can freedom of thought exist without the possibility of expressing it? When PiS started taking measures to limit its population’s freedom of expression, it directed an attack against the most precious thing - its populations’ very selves.


Art goes beyond just expressing oneself; it is an essential part of any democratic system and must be preserved. In the words of the Norwegian filmmaker, human rights activist, and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Artistic Freedom and Creativity Initiative Deeyan Khan, “Art has the extraordinary capacity to express resistance and rebellion, protest and hope. It injects a vital contribution to any flourishing democracy.

AFI, in an effort to defend and preserve Poland’s artistic freedom, incorporated in its report, a list of legal and policy recommendations to the Polish government to repair its arts and culture sector (91-92). AFI states, first, the country must affirm its commitment to promote an enabling environment for vibrant, diverse, and independent arts and media sectors. Second, Poland must guarantee that all artists’ rights are protected. Third, the state must ensure its legislation is in compliance with international laws and, among other measures, repeal the “blasphemy law.” Fourth, Poland must set in motion legislative and policy changes to ensure the independence of arts and cultural institutions. Fifth, the country must implement measures to promote the independence of public service broadcasting. And the sixth and final recommendation requires Poland to guarantee the availability of merit-based grants and subsidies for independent art institutions.

Only after Poland implements these recommendations will AFI agree to forgo bringing suit. For now, the rest of the world will have to keep watch on Poland’s policies and hope they start making changes soon.

*The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of Santa Clara University.


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