August 13, 2019 / 2:10 PM / 4 months ago

Poland's rights commissioner on faultlines of divided country

WARSAW (Reuters) - With his square, horn-rimmed glasses and measured academic tone, Poland’s human rights commissioner seems an unlikely figure to attract a crowd at a rock festival.

Adam Bodnar, Poland's Commissioner for Human Rights speaks during an interview with Reuters in Warsaw, Poland July 16, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

But when Adam Bodnar appeared this month at the Pol’and’Rock Festival to take part in a discussion on hate speech there was a sizeable audience.

The lawyer has found himself at the meeting point of conflicting currents in Polish society. He is feted by liberals as a relentless defender of civil rights at a time when critics of the government say they are under threat, but is a bugbear for many on the right for his criticism of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party and defense of minority groups.

“I am really not able to understand, even with the best of good will, why ... for four days in a row I was the top item on the main news program,” Bodnar, 42, told the festival crowd, referring to attacks on him by state-run television over his questioning of the manner in which an alleged child murderer was arrested.

The Pol’and’Rock Festival, held on a dusty field near the German border, is organized by well-known liberal fundraiser Jurek Owsiak.

For PiS, Bodnar’s efforts to defend gay rights activists or people detained by police in criminal investigations embody a liberal agenda the party sees as a threat to the country’s traditional Catholic values.

“In my opinion he stands up for some citizens and not others. He is becoming more of an opposition politician than an ombudsman”, Ryszard Czarnecki, a PiS politician and member of European Parliament, told Reuters.

Bodnar said his role can be tough.

“I have a few principles which help me, but they also make it more difficult. Firstly - don’t get offended. Secondly - don’t attack people personally. Thirdly - in spite of everything look for things which bring people together rather than dividing them,” he told Reuters in an interview.

“Sometimes I feel isolated... An ombudsman as the person who speaks up for the values of the liberal democratic world can have a sense of isolation.”

But while Bodnar may feel empowered to censure the PiS government, with the weight of a state institution behind him, he fears a growing number of Poles do not.

FEELING MUZZLED

Bodnar believes a succession of legal threats against government opponents, researchers and NGOs countering the party’s conservative agenda has shrunk the space for public debate in Poland.

“There are people who could do something, but for a variety of reasons they don’t, they are afraid or feel constrained,” he said.

One case Bodnar points to as evidence of PiS pressure on non-governmental institutions is a spat last month between the Justice Ministry and a foundation popularizing the study of law.

The foundation accused PiS of circumventing parliamentary procedure, the constitution and international standards to adopt new criminal rules as part of the government’s “tough-on-crime” policy. In response, the ministry threatened to sue its members.

“The ministry backed off, of course, but in the long term such a signal leads to a reduction in the number of people willing to engage in public debate (...) because we don’t know what the consequences there may be,” Bodnar said.

PiS’s support is riding high ahead of a national election scheduled for Oct. 13. It has taken advantage of robust economic growth in central Europe’s largest economy to implement a generous program of social spending, while its defense of traditional values is popular with many Poles.

PiS argues its wide-ranging reforms of the justice system and public media, which have attracted accusations of a tilt toward authoritarian rule, aim to make Polish society more fair and true to its Catholic heritage.

MEDIA OWNERSHIP CHANGES

However, Bodnar said a PiS ambition to curb foreign media ownership if it wins another term could further muzzle public criticism of the government.

PiS officials have signaled in recent weeks the party will consider steps to bring more news outlets under of the control of Polish capital, in a policy similar to that of PiS ally, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Slideshow (2 Images)

The potential changes to media ownership, a policy called “repolonisation”, are touted by PiS as a reform that should be tackled to ensure open debate, free of foreign influence.

Few details have emerged so far, although officials said various steps could be considered, including legal caps on ownership or efforts to buy publishers or broadcasters.

“It’s a scenario which appears rather real,” Bodnar said. “If new rules are introduced to influence the rights of owners, the profitability of investments, it can lead to a further diminishing of public debate.”

Additional reporting by Joanna Plucinska; Writing by Justyna Pawlak and Alan Charlish; Editing by Frances Kerry

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