Protests have erupted in Poland over judicial reforms with many expressing concern over the future of democracy in the East European country.
On July 18, the Polish parliament proceeded with the reform of the Supreme Court Act, triggering protests over a perceived erosion of the separation of powers and the rule of law.
According to some, the Polish judicial system is “going through a shock therapy, with changes that critics and the European Union say violate the constitution and threaten the independence and impartiality of the Polish judiciary”.
Many are even calling it the “July coup on democracy”.
The latest push for reforms came without proper consultations, a last-minute addition of the act to the parliament’s daily agenda, and while thousands of people were protesting in front of the building.
Under the proposed bill, the current Supreme Court justices will be forced to retire, except those named by the justice minister, who would also be responsible for selecting candidates to succeed the retired judges.
President Andrzej Duda has three weeks to sign the bill or veto it. Although he has noted some inconsistencies, he may still sign the bill into law, pending the resolution of the concerns.
The bill, it is feared, will eliminate the judicial branch’s role in the system of checks and balances – and consolidate political power in the executive and legislative branches.
“These are fundamental reforms that deeply transform our political system. The process lacks transparency, the drafts were not properly opened to opinions before proceeding. They violate the constitution in number of ways,” Ewa Letowska, a former Supreme Court judge, told EU observer.
The reforms also have significant potential consequences for media freedom, Polish journalists and media experts say. They fear the government’s apparent attempt to assert more influence over the judiciary will further erode the state of press freedom in the country, especially if courts become less willing to protect fundamental rights such as freedom of expression.
Dorota Glowacka, co-ordinator of the Observatory of Media Freedom in Poland, said the media could be among those most vulnerable to the effects of the new laws, noting that Poland maintains a number of criminal and civil law provisions – particularly those related to defamation and insult – that are “quite widely used by politicians or public officials against journalists”.
On the other hand, TVP, a national broadcaster, accused the Polish opposition of trying to organise a “violent coup” recently.
“Low turnout in front of Sejm despite Gregorz Schetyna’s call for putsch,” it said in a red banner over its images of the Polish parliament, referring to the leader of the Civic Platform opposition party.
People, meanwhile, have largely spoken out against the move. “We, the citizens, are defending the rule of law, we are on the side of the law,” said one of the protest leaders, Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, a top pro-democracy activist in the 1980s.
“This whole set of (judicial) bills is a scandal,” said protester Agnieszka Janczarska, a 39-year-old lawyer in Warsaw. “It’s a destruction of the fundamental principles of a democratic state, namely the separation of powers.”
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