There are growing concerns that state agencies in Poland were, and possibly still are, spying on journalists – a trend that could have a chilling effect on Polish media, experts warn.
Some reporters are adopting tools and practices to improve their digital security, however there is no law to protect journalists from illegal surveillance and the prospect of legislative change, to prevent unchecked surveillance and ensure media freedom, appears slim.
And there’s more to it. Evidence of state surveillance of journalists in Poland is scarce, and there is almost no public agreement on the topic, including whether spying on journalists is indeed illegitimate. This uncertainty is partly due to the deep political polarisation dominating public discourse. Since the far-right Law and Justice party (PiS) came to power in October 2015 it has enacted a series of radical reforms of state institutions, including taking over the public broadcaster which, it claimed, was politically biased. In response, most Polish media outlets were quick to take sides as either ardent supporters of the new government or fervent critics.
Spying on journalists: a political issue
As a result of this polarisation, and as part of their ongoing feud, Poland’s two leading political parties continue to trade allegations that the other has allowed the surveillance of journalists.
Over the past two years PiS ministers have publicly accused the previous administration, led by the centre right Civic Platform party, in power between 2007 and 2015, of spying on journalists on multiple occasions, mostly in the context of two political scandals.
In 2009, as the parliament was deliberating amendments to the gambling law, the gambling scandal broke. The daily Rzeczpospolita published transcripts of conversations between an MP and a casino magnate. In response, the Internal Security Agency spied on the newspaper’s staff. This was later confirmed by Mariusz Kamiński, head of the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) between 2007-2009 and now minister without portfolio in the PiS government.
The second media surveillance controversy was in 2014-2015. The wiretapping scandal emerged after the weekly Wprost published excerpts of secretly recorded conversations of ministers and senior state officials at a Warsaw restaurant. Following the publication of these recordings, police units were formed to infiltrate and bug the phones of journalists and their contacts. Around 80 individuals, including journalists that reported the original story, their lawyers and their families, were monitored, according to an investigation by the Bureau of Internal Affairs ordered by PiS after they gained power in 2015.
Similarly, when they held office, government members from the Civic Platform party accused their PiS predecessors of spying on journalists. Some instances of this surveillance were subsequently proven in court.
For example, a story published in October 2010 in the daily Gazeta Wyborcza named ten journalists who were allegedly targeted by the CBA, the Interior Security Agency and the police between 2005 and 2007.
Following the publication, one of them, Bogdan Wróblewski, a long time court reporter with Gazeta Wyborcza, decided in 2011 to file a civil lawsuit against the CBA. In the lawsuit he claimed the state agency had been acquiring his phone records while he was covering some of its most controversial arrests.
The final ruling, issued by the appeals court in April 2013, stated that CBA’s acquisition of Wróblewski’s telecommunications data for six months in 2007 was unlawful and could not be considered to be in the public interest.
No legal protection for journalists
Anti-surveillance campaigner, Katarzyna Szymielewicz, said Polish law does not protect anybody against illegal surveillance: “We don’t have independent oversight and… we don’t have the right to know whether we are under surveillance, and that also affects journalists,” Szymielewicz said.
Szymielewicz, who is president of the Warsaw-based anti-surveillance Panoptykon Foundation, said her organisation is unable to confirm whether journalists are being spied on, but warns the very threat of unchecked surveillance could have a serious chilling effect on journalism.
Taking action to protect sources
Journalists in Poland are legally obliged to protect their sources, and the Polish Penal Code guarantees that their professional confidentiality can only be repealed by court or the Prosecutor General. However, evidence of state surveillance threatens to damage the trust between reporters and their sources.
Wojciech Cieśla, an investigative journalist with the Polish edition of Newsweek, and co-founder of the NGO Fundacja Reporterow (Reporters Foundation), believes that concerns over state surveillance of journalists in Poland are well founded. To protect his sources he has taken various security measures such as using encrypted email and messaging apps. He describes such actions as “a form of occupational hygiene.”
When asked if he has a reason to think that he is under surveillance Cieśla laughed nervously. Then he quickly clarified that it’s not about him. “When I use all these tools – PGP encryption, secure communications apps – I do it not for my security, I do it for my interlocutors, my sources,” he says. “About myself I don’t really care – they can follow me, they can track me down, they can take all my phone records – because I commit no crime. I’m a journalist and I’m following topics that are in the public sphere and in the public interest. That’s how I see this profession and my role as a journalist. But as much as I can I will protect my sources using all those security technologies.”
Yet, both Cieśla and Szymielewicz argue that many Polish journalists lack even the most basic measures to protect themselves and their sources. “In this way they are enabling this kind of surveillance, or even inviting it, by not protecting themselves,” Szymielewicz said.
In autumn 2016 Panoptykon held workshops to introduce Polish journalists to digital security technologies and practices. The emphasis was on the basics. “With secret surveillance we rather make an effort to explain the rules of the game to them, so they are not surprised if somebody has their phone records because they are so easy to get it. We explain the problem with the lack of oversight, and the general (legal) framework – which they have to be aware of because of the risk it creates,” said Szymielewicz.
More work is needed with media organisations, local and national, with both management and IT staff, she adds. “If we had any resources, we would be continuing (these training). But we don’t have any resources.”
Szymielewicz added that journalists could help themselves if they started to openly report on fears that the state is spying on the media. “In my view, the best thing would be if journalists themselves write about surveillance and its risks,” she said.
Image: Flickr CC Ania Mendreck licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/