Defamation remains a criminal offence in Poland (punishable with imprisonment). The Polish Criminal Code includes two relevant offences that fall under the umbrella of defamation.
Defamation (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 punishment for defamation is a or .
Insult (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 punishment 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
Provisions on the books.
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, par. 1 of the Polish Criminal Code. The punishment is a , ., or imprisonment for up to one year.
Criminal Defamation of the Head of State
Provisions on the books.
Publicly insulting the President of Poland is a criminal offence under Art. 135, par. 2 of the Polish Criminal Code. The punishment is imprisonment for up to three years.
Criminal Defamation of the State and its Symbols
Provisions on the books.
Publicly insulting the Nation or the Republic of Poland is a criminal offence under Art. 133 of the Polish Criminal Code. The punishment is imprisonment for up to three years.
Publicly insulting or humiliating a “constitutional authority of the Republic of Poland” is a criminal offence under Art. 226, par. 3. The punishment is a fine, restriction of liberty, or imprisonment for up to two years.
Criminal Defamation of Foreign States and Symbols
Provisions on the books.
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, par. 3 of the Polish Criminal Code. The punishment 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, par. 4 and punishable with restriction of liberty or imprisonment for up to one year.
Additionally, insulting the symbols of foreign countries is a criminal offence under Art. 138 if the foreign country in question provides reciprocal protection for Polish symbols. The punishment is a , ., or imprisonment for up to one year.
Criminal Defamation of the Deceased
Provisions on the books.
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 punishment is a , penalty of restriction of liberty or the penalty of 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 punishment is imprisonment for up to three years.
Statistics on Application
The following are official data on criminal convictions from the Polish Ministry of Justice for the year 2013.
- For Art. 212, par. 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, par. 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, par. 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, par. 2 (insult committed through the mass media), there was 1 conviction resulting in 1 criminal fine.
- For Art. 226, par. 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, par. 3 (insult of a constitutional authority), there were 2 convictions, resulting in 1 unconditional prison sentence and 1 criminal fine.
- For Art. 137, par. 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, par. 2 (insult of the President) and 133 (insult toward Poland).
Complete data for the years 2008 – 2013 can be downloaded here (Excel, Polish).
Poland does not have a specific civil defamation law. Civil liability in Poland is based on the balance of constitutional rights. Art. 47 of the provides that “everyone shall have the right to legal protection of his honour and good reputation”. Harm done to this right may incur liability. At the same time, Art. 54 of the Constitution guarantees the right to express opinions and to acquire and disseminate information. Art. 14 further guarantees freedom of the press. The does not contains specific provisions on defamation. Art. 23 it provides protection for personal rights, among them the dignity and image of a person. Art. 43 states that provisions on the protection of personal rights of individuals shall apply to legal persons. As per Art. 24 of the Code, a person can seek action if their personal rights have been threatened by the actions of another and in a case of infringement a person may also “demand that the person who committed the violation perform acts necessary to remove its consequences, in particular that the latter make a statement of a relevant content and in a relevant form.” A person may also demand financial compensation or payment of an appropriate sum of money to a specific social purpose.
There are no caps on non-pecuniary damages for defamation in Polish law.
The following defences are explicitly provided in the Polish Civil Code.
Honest opinion (fair comment): Negative evaluations of scientific or artistic works or other creative activity, professional or public services that are “consistent with the principles of social coexistence” are not liable. This provision also applies to satire and caricature (Art. 41).
Privileged reporting: Truthful and accurate reports of public meetings of Parliament and national councils and their bodies are not liable (Art. 41).
Art. 24 of the Civil Code states that a person can be held liable for the infringement of personal rights unless his or her actions were not unlawful. In order to show that a particular act was not unlawful, according to Polish experts, defendants can in principle rely on defences of truth, opinion, public interest, etc. that have been established in Polish case law.
According to Art. 38, par.1 of the Civil Code, civil liability lies with the author, editor or other person who caused the publication of the material, the liability of the publisher is not excluded. Mentioned persons are jointly and severally liable in terms of financial liability.
According to Art. 442, par. 1 of the Civil Code, a claim for damages caused by defamation (or other damage to personal rights) must be filed within three years from the date on which the damaged party learned of the damage and of the person liable for it. However, any claim must be filed no later than 10 years after the damage occurred. Some additional provisions may apply.
Media Cases and Case Law
In 2006, Polish journalist Andrzej Marek began serving a three-month prison sentence for libel. The conviction related to two articles published in Feb. 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 the ruling and Marek was freed.
In 2009, Robert Rewiński, a former journalist for Gazeta Wyborcza, was of criminal libel over an Art. alleging financial mispractice 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 Art. 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 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 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 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. A subsequent constitutional challenged against the possibility of imprisonment as a punishment filed by Poland’s human-rights ombudsman was also rejected by the Court.
Legal Sources and Acknowledgements
Information on defamation laws in Europe was collected by the International Press Institute (IPI) in collaboration with the School of Public Policy’s Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest and their partners at the SHARE Foundation in Belgrade. (Read more about our partners here.)
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 ipi[at]freemedia.at.
Information on Poland was last updated in January 2015.