Photographer: Maria Swärd/Getty Images

Poland Starts Ad Campaign to Back Court Overhaul Disputed in EU

  • Public-relations offensive includes billboards, commercials
  • Move follows EU push to sanction Poland for rule-of-law lapses

Polish state-backed institutions kicked off a public-relations offensive to support the country’s government as it clashes with the European Union in a dispute over the rule of law that risks marginalizing the bloc’s largest eastern member.

A foundation financed by state-run companies launched a campaign of advertisements and billboards to promote plans to revamp the judiciary by giving politicians more say in how courts are run. An earlier push for the legislation in July triggered weeks of anti-government protests and was criticized by the EU’s executive as undemocratic before being partly vetoed by President Andrzej Duda. The government has dismissed warnings from officials in Brussels that it may face sanctions and vowed to stamp its authority on courts.

“We want deep justice-system changes because that’s what Poles want,” Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said at the official start of the campaign on Friday. “Attempts to discredit the Polish government via allegations that the rule of law is being broken here are lies. We have to fight this.”

The ruling Law & Justice party is in conflict with the EU’s most powerful members, who have raised the prospect of sanctions for backsliding on democracy. French President Emmanuel Macron said last month said Poland could end up on the margins of Europe if it didn’t change course, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel asserted that she’s ready to challenge Poland, even if it sours relations between the neighbors.

Szydlo has repeatedly said her government isn’t doing anything to undermine democracy and that Poland, the biggest net recipient of EU aid, has no intention of leaving the bloc. To help take the message abroad, Polish public television, run by a former Law & Justice lawmaker, announced plans to create an English-language news channel.

‘Privileged Caste’

The new commercials, posted on social media and a website created by the state-company financed foundation, show young, urban Poles -- a demographic that largely supports opposition parties -- talking about how unfair the nation’s justice system is.

The portal, whose name translates into “fair courts” in Polish, has a section named “the privileged caste” containing articles about judges caught drunk driving, accused of shoplifting and starting bar fights. It also cites a case where a judge released a recidivist pedophile from custody and a 16-year-wait for a final ruling in the brutal murder of an elderly woman.

The campaign comes weeks before Duda, a former Law & Justice lawmaker, will present his proposals for revamping the justice system. In July, the president rejected legislation that would have forced all justices on the Supreme Court to automatically retire, which critics said breached the Polish constitution.

Laundry Detergent

Across Poland, new advertisements have sprung up on billboards to promote the court overhaul, asking “Do you really want things to stay how they were before?”

The ads are similar to those put up by Hungary’s government this summer to discredit billionaire philanthropist George Soros, whose support for a liberal-democratic governing model and acceptance of refugees run counter to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s positions. Those ads showed a smiling Soros next to the caption “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh.”

Polish judges condemned the campaign, saying it amounted to another step in erosion of the constitutional division of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

“The justice system is too important for a billboard campaign, it’s not a laundry detergent,” Bartlomiej Przymusinski, a spokesman for the Polish Judges’ Association, told Bloomberg by phone. “We want to make sure courts work for the citizens, not for the politicians.”

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