The Polish Criminal Code provides the following offences:
Defamation (Criminal Code Art. 212): Defamation is defined as imputing “to another person, a group of persons, an institution or organisational unit, conduct or characteristics that may discredit them in the face of public opinion”. The penalty for defamation is a fine or restriction of liberty .
Insult (Criminal Code Art. 216): Insult consists in insulting another person in their presence, or in their absence but with the intention of having the insult reach them. The penalty for insult is a fine or restriction of liberty.
For both offences, the penalty is stricter if committed through the mass media. In such cases, the punishment may be a fine, restriction of liberty, or imprisonment for up to one year. In addition to these penalties, the court can, in the case of both defamation and insult, also award a supplementary payment either for the offended party, the Polish Red Cross or another social cause indicated by the offended party. According to Art. 215 the offended party can also require publication of the court’s judgment.
Criminal Defamation of Public Officials
Insulting a public official or a person called upon to assist him in the course of or in connection with the performance of official duties is a criminal offence under Art. 226(1) of the Polish Criminal Code. The penalty is a fine, restriction of liberty or imprisonment for up to one year.
Criminal Defamation of the Head of State
Publicly insulting the President of Poland is a criminal offence under Art. 135(2) of the Polish Criminal Code. The penalty is imprisonment for up to three years.
Criminal Defamation of the State and its Symbols
Publicly insulting the Nation or the Republic of Poland is a criminal offence under Art. 133 of the Polish Criminal Code. The penalty is imprisonment for up to three years.
Publicly insulting, destroying, or removing a symbol of the state, such as the Polish flag, is an offence under Criminal Code Art. 137(1). The penalty is a fine, restriction of liberty or imprisonment for up to one year.
Publicly insulting or humiliating a “constitutional authority of the Republic of Poland” is a criminal offence under Art. 226(3). The penalty is a fine, restriction of liberty, or imprisonment for up to two years.
Criminal Defamation of Foreign Heads of State
Offending the head of a foreign state or the head of the diplomatic delegation of a foreign state is a criminal offence under Art. 136(3) of the Polish Criminal Code. The penalty is imprisonment for up to three years.
Publicly insulting “a person belonging to the diplomatic personnel of a mission of a foreign country to Poland, or on a consular official of a foreign country in connection with the performance of their official duties” on the territory of Poland is a criminal offence under Art. 136(4) and punishable with restriction of liberty or imprisonment for up to one year.
Criminal Defamation of Foreign States and Symbols
Insulting the symbols of foreign countries is a criminal offence under Art. 137(2) if the foreign country in question provides reciprocal protection for Polish symbols. The punishment is a fine, restriction of liberty or imprisonment for up to one year.
Criminal Defamation of the Deceased
Offending the religious feelings of other persons by publicly outraging an object of religious worship or a place dedicated to the public celebration of religious rites is a criminal offence under Art. 196 of the Polish Criminal Code. The penalty is a fine, restriction of liberty or deprivation of liberty for up to two years.
Additionally, under Art. 257, it is an offence to insult a group or particular person on the basis of their religious affiliation. The penalty is imprisonment for up to three years.
The following are official data on criminal convictions from the Polish Ministry of Justice for the year 2013 .
• For Art. 212(1) (defamation), there were 20 convictions, resulting in 0 sentences of imprisonment (deprivation of liberty), 3 sentences of restriction of liberty, and 17 criminal fines.
• For Art. 212(2) (defamation committed through the mass media), there were 11 convictions, resulting in 2 suspended prison sentences, 3 sentences of restriction of liberty, and 6 criminal fines.
• For Art. 216(1) (insult), there were 71 convictions, resulting in 3 suspended prison sentences, 23 sentences of restriction of liberty, and 45 criminal fines.
• For Art. 216(2) (insult committed through the mass media), there was 1 conviction resulting in 1 criminal fine.
• For Art. 226(1) (insult of a public official), there were 3,666 convictions, resulting in 220 unconditional prison sentences; 1,261 suspended prison sentences; 1,013 sentences of restriction of liberty; and 1,172 criminal fines.
• For Art. 226(3) (insult of a constitutional authority), there were 2 convictions, resulting in 1 unconditional prison sentence and 1 criminal fine.
• For Art. 137(1) (insulting, destroying, or removing a State flag), there were 28 convictions, resulting in 1 unconditional prison sentence, 2 suspended prison sentences, 5 sentences of restriction of liberty, and 20 criminal fines.
• For Art. 196 (blasphemy), there were 9 convictions, resulting in 5 suspended prison sentences, 3 sentences of restriction of liberty, and 1 criminal fine.
• There were no convictions for Arts. 135(2) (insult of the President) and 133 (insult toward Poland).
Criminal Law and Media
3. Selected cases
• In 2016, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Polish courts had violated Art. 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to the conviction of Maciej Ziembiński, who at the relevant time had been editor of the newspaper Komu i Czemu. In August 2004, the paper published an article criticising a local proposal for quail farming and referring to unnamed public officials as, i.a., “dull”, “pretentious” and “dim-witted”. The local mayor and several officials filed charges under Art. 212 for defamation via mass media. A court convicted Ziembiński, but for insult via mass media under Art. 216. Ziembiński was fined the equivalent of €2,500, which was later upheld on appeal. The Court stated: “In the Court’s view, without taking a stand on each specific remark made by the applicant, there is no doubt that the remarks in question, used in the particular context of the article, remain within the limits of admissible exaggeration. The domestic courts failed to consider the applicant’s remarks in the context of the article as a whole .”
• In 2006, Polish journalist Andrzej Marek began serving a three-month prison sentence for libel. The conviction related to two articles published in February 2001 in which Marek alleged that an official in the town of Police had, among other things, used blackmail to obtain his position. The conviction had been upheld by Poland’s Supreme Court, but two days into Marek’s prison term the Constitutional Court suspended the ruling and Marek was freed.
• In 2009, Robert Rewiński, a former journalist for Gazeta Wyborcza, was convicted of criminal libel over an article alleging financial malpractice at Fundusz Ochrony Środowiska (the Environmental Conservation Fund) in the western Polish city of Zielona Góra. According to reports, the Zielona Góra District Court accepted that Rewiński’s article concerned a subject of public interest, but judged that he had not reported carefully enough and had illegitimately damaged the subject’s reputation. The court sentenced to him to a fine and payment to a social cause. Prior to his trial, Rewiński had been arrested and held in temporary detention for seven days.
Additionally, at least two persons have been charged in recent years with insulting the Polish president.
• In 2012, a 26-year-old man was sentenced to 15 months of community service and 15 months of “restricted liberty”, in which he was not allowed to change his address without the court’s permission, for having created a website with games such as Komor Killer in which users could fire vegetables at the president, Bronislaw Komorowski. The images of the president on the website had, in the court’s view, clearly sexual, erotic dimension.” In 2013, an appeals court threw out the verdict. Komorowski reportedly did not agree with the original verdict, stating, “If you are in politics, you have to have a thick skin.”
• In the second case, a blogger was charged after referring to the president as a “cwel”, which according to reports is a “a word used to describe criminals (typically sexual), who are fair game for sexual abuse from other inmates.”
Recent Legal Changes
As part of changes to the Polish Criminal Code in 2010, the sanctions for criminal defamation were reduced. Deprivation of liberty is now only possible in case of defamation or insult through mass media (Arts. 212 and 216). Art. 212 is seen as a particular problem in Poland. In 2011, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and the Polish Chamber of Press Publishers launched a campaign to repeal the provision from the Criminal Code. The head of the Chamber stated that there had been a rise in convictions under Art. 212, against both journalists and others.
In 2006 the Polish Constitutional Court ruled that Art. 212 was compatible with the Polish Constitution .
In November 2012 the Polish Ombudsman, Prof. Irena Lipowicz, submitted an application to the Polish Constitutional Court requesting an investigation “into the compatibility of Art. 212, Sec. 2 of the Polish Criminal Code – namely, the phrase ‘or imprisonment up to one year’ – with provisions in the Polish Constitution and Art. 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights”. In June 2013, the Constitutional Court dismissed the application by stating that its 2006 ruling had already settled the matter .
Notes and Acknowledgements
Information for Poland was originally collected by IPI as part of the “Out of Balance” report, published in January 2015 with support from the European Commission and incorporating research contributed by Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest and by the SHARE Foundation in Belgrade. This entry was later expanded and updated by IPI as part of a study commissioned by the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Last update: March 2017.
The information contained in this database is for informational and advocacy purposes only. If you are a journalist facing a defamation claim, you should seek legal advice from a qualified attorney. However, if you are unable to find such an attorney, IPI may be able to assist you in doing so. Please contact us at info(at)ipi.media.