By Frank J. Dmuchowski
On May 3rd Polonians around the world will celebrate Polish Constitution Day. The Polish Constitution is the world’s second oldest constitution and the oldest in Europe. The oldest constitution is the one of the United States; it went into effect on March 4, 1789. Poland’s constitution went into effect on May 3, 1791.
As time went by both constitution’s evolved to deal with new problems and rights of the individuals. In the United States we have used amendments to the constitution to express new major societal rights. This has not always been a smooth process but it has happened with the United States not having any major wars fought on her soil with the exception of the American Civil War from 1861-1865 in which 600 thousand Americans were killed by their fellow Americans. (It should be noted that while Poland has lost more people in wars fought on her soil that she has NEVER had such a fratricidal conflict.).
Poland on the other hand has suffered incredible human losses during war and in the exploitation of here society by primarily Germany and Russia. During the period from 1795- 2013, Poland has been a free and independent country for less than 50 years (1919-1939) and (since 1989) Poland’s first fully free elections were held in 1991. The wonderful thing about Poland is that she has persisted and continues to evolve notwithstanding horrible events that have been inflicted on her citizen’s by Germany and Russia (It is important to note that today Germany is one of Poland strongest allies and economic partners. Relations with Russia on the other hand are still in a state of flux). The most current constitution for Poland was written in 1997 and was certainly derived from the May 3, 2013 Constitution. Rights within the Polish Constitution are derived from the various amendments.
Over the next several weeks there will be a number of commemorative events celebrating the May 3, 1791 Constitution of Poland. I would encourage all of my readers to attend these events and also to take the time to go on line to discover more. At the same time it is important to be aware of the evolutionary nature of any constitution whether Polish, American, British, French, German, Russian, Chinese etc. Of course as we are all aware a constitution is only words if they don’t come close to actually guaranteeing and protecting the rights of the individual citizens.
Let’s look at one way in which the constitutions of different countries can be considered from an American perspective. That is through the lens of the State Departments “Annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” report.
The State Department’s Annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices as an Example of Attempting to Achieve Global Consistency in the Area of Human Rights
The State Department of the United States is required by law to provide an annual Human Rights Practices Report in order to be in compliance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1971. The report is given to Speaker of the House of Representatives and the committee on Foreign of the Senate.
Most countries in the United Nations and in particular those who may be recipients of foreign aid are reported upon. The Department of State prepares the report using information from U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, foreign government official, nongovernmental and international organizations and published reports. U.S. diplomatic missions abroad prepared the initial drafts of individual country reports using a variety of sources including government officials, jurists, armed forces, journalists, human rights monitors, academics and labor organizers.
The Country Reports on Human Rights Practices covers internationally recognized civil, political and workers rights as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which seeks to incorporate human dignity into the process of government and law.
The typical report has an Executive Summary and covers topic sections such as “Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life”, “Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment”, “Denial of a Fair Public Trial”, “Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home or Correspondence”, “Freedom of Speech and Press”, “Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons”. Etc.
A topic section can be broken down into subsections. For example the section which includes “Discrimination, Societal Abuses and Trafficking in Persons” contains subsections such as Women, Children, anti-Semitism, Societal Abuses, Acts of Violence Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.”
As you might guess some of these topics are very controversial in terms of definition and interpretation give a particular countries societal norms and the extent to which they are in agreement with the norms acceptable to the U.S State Department and other sources.
An Example of Comments on “Censorship and Content Restriction” in Poland Related – to the Separate Issues of TV Trwam and Polish Pop Star Doda.
As an example of a particular portion of an individual country report I would like to look at the State‘s Human Rights Report for Poland under the “Freedom of Speech and Press” section and specifically the subsection “censorship and content restriction”. This subsection is of interest to many Polonians as it deals with the TV Trwam efforts to receive a digital license. What I found to be most interesting is the way in which the TV Trwam issue was presented with the case of a Polish rock star who gave an offensive remark on the Bible.
The Human Rights report “censorship and content section for Poland” noted only two specific issues for the entire year. The first relates to what is going on around the refusal of the of the National Radio and Television Broadcasting Councils to grant the Roman Catholic TV Trwam a digital TV license. The second relates to the decision to fine the Polish pop star Doda $1600 dollars for her comments on individuals who wrote the Bible. It is impossible to determine the level of seriousness which the State Department attributes to each event.
Below you will find the entire “Censorship or Content Restriction” sub-section of the 2012 Human Rights Report for Poland
“Censorship or Content Restrictions: The constitution provides for freedom of the press and social communication, and the right to acquire and disseminate information. It prohibits censorship of the press or social communication. However, the law prohibits, under penalty of fines, the promotion of activities that are against government policy, morality, or the common good, and requires that all broadcasts “respect the religious feelings of the audiences and, in particular, respect the Christian system of values.” The government rarely enforced this provision. The law also places some limits on editorial independence, for example, by specifying that journalists must verify quotes and statements with the person who made them before publication.
The National Radio and Television Broadcasting Council, a five-member body appointed by the sejm (two members), the senate (one member), and the president (two members), is responsible for protecting freedom of speech and has broad power to monitor and regulate programming, allocate broadcasting frequencies and licenses, apportion subscription revenues to public media, and impose financial penalties on broadcasters. While council members are required to suspend their membership in political parties and public associations, critics asserted that the council remained politicized.
On January 17, the National Radio and Television Broadcasting Council denied the digital broadcasting license application of the Roman Catholic television outlet, TV Trwam, ostensibly for deficiencies in the application. On May 25, the Warsaw Administrative Court rejected Trwam’s appeal of the council’s decision. On August 25, Trwam appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court. In a January 10 letter to the council, the Helsinki Human Rights Foundation alleged that the criteria for granting licenses were unclear, leaving the council too much room for discretion. Likewise, on July 3, the human rights ombudsman filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court claiming that the excessive discretion in the licensing process, which the media law provides to the council, permits arbitrary decision making, potentially limiting free speech.
On June 18, the Warsaw Appeals Court upheld the decision of the first instance court to fine pop star Dorota Rabczewska (known by stage name “Doda”) 5,000 zloty ($1,610) for offending the religious feelings of two complainants. She was initially sentenced on January 16 for claiming in an interview in 2011 that the Bible was written by someone “drunk on wine and smoking some herbs.” “(Author’s bolding)
My question to you is how you interpret the “Content or Censorship Restriction “section quoted above. This is one of the less controversial sections of the report on Poland.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that each item in human rights reports does not necessarily represent some sort of human rights violation and that all of these events are not necessarily of equal value. In many instance it is simply a situation in which someone within the State Department has decided that something is worth noting. On the other hand there are clear instances of human rights violations when we speak of murder, human trafficking, child exploitation etc.
In closing, it is important to note that every country in Europe from Andorra, to Monaco, to Luxembourg to Poland, France, and Germany etc has a Human Rights Report provided by the State Department. There are close to 50 reports for Europe and Eurasia alone. Are they all guilty of some sort of human rights violation? Of course not! This is why it is important to read the various country reports very carefully including all sections as well as the Executive Summary. There are subtle issues that warrant great care on the part of the reader. In a subsequent issue of the paper we may discuss more on the Country Human Rights Reports written by the Unites States’ State Department. If we do so we will make several comparisons of the Human Rights Report for Poland with other European Countries.
In the final analysis it is often the willingness of individual countries to properly implement their constitutions and also to bring their constitutions into alignment with foundational issues of human rights. This is much easier said than done.
Poland and the United States continue to make significant strides. It does not mean that they are in lock step as their historical experiences and societal norms are different. I hope that all of you will consider participating in a Polish Constitution Day event on or around May 3rd.