Poland’s recent censorship reveals flawed democracy

By: Leo Schenk – Columnist, Junior

Back in November, Poland’s Law and Justice Party (in Polish, abbreviated as PiS) won 235 seats in the nation’s lower house and 61 seats in its Senate, as well as having control of the country’s presidency. This would normally be a standard change of government, with one party gaining an outright majority in the national parliament. However, the national-conservative PiS has been turning heads in its first three months in office.

With its center of power in the rural east of the country, The Guardian describes the PiS’s ideals as “an old-fashioned authoritarian nationalism, invoking traditional Catholic values.” In the three months that it has ruled, in addition to stating that Poland is in no hurry to adopt the Euro, the party has proceeded to nationalize control of media outlets by replacing editors of major state-owned media outlets and additionally appointing a plethora of new judges sympathetic to its nationalistic message.

PiS has pushed the country back into the past, which many in the more metropolitan west would rather leave buried in history. According to Deutsche Welle (DW), the PiS lacks the 2/3 majority necessary to directly alter the constitution, but with the Treasury Minister using the right to appoint media heads, DW claims these leaders are pushing the limits of what representative democracy could allow. On Saturday, Jan. 9, citizens of Warsaw protested in the center of the city to express their fury at the government, attempting to make a statement that actions against the freedom of the press are not to be accepted. This protest and those opposing the recent censorship mark the minority however.

The leaders of Europe are divided on exactly how to respond to this apparent challenge to the EU founding constitution. The EU commission, a body with one representative from each member state designed to draft European law, has launched an investigation into whether or not the new rules are a “threat to democracy,” as reported by The Telegraph. President of the European Council Donald Tusk (a native of Poland) has called the legitimacy of the complaints into question. As such, he has blocked the debate of it in the council, which prevents this previously unused measure from actually restricting Polish voting rights in the EU. The decision to initialize this procedure has led to a row between the PiS supporters and the EU leadership. Political cartoons depicting EU leaders as Nazis have surfaced in Poland, against these international groups attempting to protect the constitutional institutions that guard liberal ideas such as freedom of speech and of the press. This certainly leaves any opinions on the topic seemingly at a loss. After all, if the majority of Poles support the recent actions taken by their government, shouldn’t the international community? The answer is far simpler than one may think.

It is a natural and blunt “no.” Poland has become one of the rallying nations of the former Soviet bloc as an example of how to effectively run a liberal democracy in a nation that had not experienced one since 1939. The Solidarity Movement, which brought about the democratization of Poland, became an example for other Eastern European nations wishing to move in similar directions, many of whom are now full members of both the EU and NATO. One of the core principles of any democracy must be the absolute rule of constitutional law, which includes natural freedoms established by the nation-state and any supranational institutions by whose morals it has agreed to abide.

Should the EU allow the Polish government to set this precedent of altering the definition of “freedom of the press” simply because they are now in the majority when this functionally means there are no rights for anyone in any minority? This debate is not something that is easy to convince people of; oftentimes, for reasons of security, many will attempt to rationalize the lessening of the extent of certain freedoms and rights, but that can’t be allowed. If rights are negotiable, then they are not rights. And if the majority can decide to remove rights from the minority, then they are most certainly not rights.

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