Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights defends Polish journalist Rafał Remont against criminal libel charges

After asking the press office of a Polish state-owned energy company for information, a local journalist was accused of criminal libel and ordered to apologise to a member of the company's supervisory board. The case is now being brought before the European Court of Human Rights, Gazeta Wyborcza reports.

Seeing the charges as a violation of the right to free speech, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights stepped up to defend the rights of Rafał Remont, a local journalist (now no longer working in the profession) from Gryfino in northwestern Poland, who in 2017 emailed some questions to the press office of the state-owned energy company PGE.

Mieczysław Sawaryn

The questions concerned the mayor of Gryfino, Mieczysław Sawaryn (a former member of the ruling Law and Justice party), who at the same time serves as a member of the state-owned company’s supervisory board. The journalist investigated a possible conflict of interests since the town of Gryfino happens to use the services of the PGE-owned Dolna Odra power station.

While Mr Remont did not receive any answers, Mieczysław Sawaryn decided to sue the journalist, claiming that the questions slandered and defamed him. Later, the mayor told Gazeta Wyborcza that the questions were theoretical, unprofessional, and that the journalist could have obtained the information from the municipal office, which he failed to do.

The criminal case was pending before the courts for over three years.

In a non-final appealable order from 2019, the court found the journalist guilty and sentenced him to, among other things, a fine of PLN 1,000 and an additional PLN 1,000 as a contribution to charity. Rafał Remont appealed against the verdict.

In December 2020, a final verdict was passed. The Regional Court in Szczecin overturned the lower court decision and remitted the criminal proceedings "for a trial period of one year", but found the journalist guilty of libel. The court obliged him to apologise to the mayor, ordering him to pay PLN 1,000 to the Polish Red Cross.

- I apologised to the mayor- Rafał Remont told Gazeta Wyborcza - I still have time to make the payment to the charity. Because I still have a one-year trial period, I was assigned a probation officer. I’m being treated as if I were some kind of a criminal.

Rafał Remont no longer works as a journalist, and he admits that the story contributed to his decision to quit the job. The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights became interested in his case.

In his complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, Piotr Kładoczny, one of the Foundation's lawyers, emphasizes that the journalist was subjected to a criminal trial only because he dared to ask questions. He points out that what the mayor saw as defamatory was not even a published text, but simply e-mails.

In the complaint, Mr Kładoczny wrote: "Source verification constitutes an element of journalistic integrity, and the sentencing of the complainant on criminal charges for merely attempting to verify facts should be perceived as an extremely harsh measure".

The Foundation also points out that "punishing journalists or threatening them with consequences for actions taken while still working on the material may also have a chilling effect and threaten to deprive journalists of their ability to perform their function as public watchdogs".

- I believe that the judges in the Strasbourg Court will look at this situation from the perspective of the law and not politics, as was the case in Szczecin- comments Rafał Remont. - The fight for justice is expensive, and it's not easy. But it has to be done because otherwise there can be no transparency as to the actions of public authorities- he adds.

The Polish Ombudsman's office is also interested in the case. It has asked the court for the case files.

Image: European Parliament.

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