‘The loop is tightening’: how a Polish writer is risking imprisonment for calling the president a ‘moron’ — explainer

‘The loop is tightening’: how a Polish writer is risking imprisonment for calling the president a ‘moron’ — explainer
Image: Jakub Żulczyk by Zuza Krajewska / Facebook

31 March 2021

Polish writer Jakub Żulczyk faces charges for insulting the Polish president Andrej Duda on social media, risking a three-year prison sentence.

What happened?

On 7 November last year, Duda tweeted to Joe Biden to congratulate him on a “successful presidential campaign”. He added, “as we await the nomination by the Electoral College, Poland is determined to upkeep high-level and high-quality PL-US strategic partnership for an even stronger alliance.”

In response, popular Polish novelist Jakub Żulczyk wrote “Joe Biden is the 46th president of the USA” on his Facebook profile, adding: “Andrzej Duda is a moron.” The 37-year-old writer said that he had researched US politics and that he had “never heard of such a thing as an Electoral College nomination.”

On 23 March, prosecutors launched charges against Żulczyk, considering the text “offensive” and “unacceptable”. Żulczyk, who is known for his 2014 novel Blinded by the Lights, which was later adapted to a TV series for HBO Europe, said he had found out about the charges from the press.

Insulting the head of state can result in imprisonment or a fine in Poland, which has some of the strictest rules on defamation against state officials, symbols, institutions, and national flags, as well as insults to religious beliefs.

What is the bigger picture?

The case is consistent with the Polish right-wing government’s increased authoritarian rule under the Law and Justice party (PiS), which has restrained the freedoms of artists through politically-motivated appointments of museums directors and, more recently, banning a women’s film festival in March for showing a short film about women working in a Hungarian factory producing vibrators, as well as another short, depicting Donald Trump’s misogynistic comments.

“This is far from an isolated incident,” Jo Harper, author of Our man in Warszawa and Poland’s Memory Wars. Essays in Illiberalism, told The Calvert Journal. “It fits firmly into a running attempt to define what is acceptable to say, to read, to discuss. The right in Poland is more ‘woke’ than the rightwing pundits usually accuse the left of being. The control of language is critical, and goes to the heart of issues of free speech. But only when it offends a traditional conception of the state, authority and Polish statehood. Not when it offends gay people, women, or immigrants,” he added.

What is the legal bigger picture?

While other countries including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and Uzbekistan among others, also consider insults brought to state officials as criminal offences, Poland has the highest number of “insult” laws.

OSCE has criticised these laws in one report, saying they “cannot justify conferring on [the head of state] a privilege or special protection vis-à-vis the right to report and express opinions about him or her.”

What next?

“I’m not going to act like the Warsaw prosecutor’s office and respond now to whether the charges are correct or not,” Żulczyk commented in another Facebook post. “This is between me and my attorney. The court will be the first to find out whether I plead guilty or not, then the media,” he added.

The event has sparked outrage in Poland and abroad. Amid high-profile reactions, film and TV director Agnieszka Holland, an outspoken critic of Poland’s government, said: “The loop is tightening, especially since their ass is on fire. This [case] will not result in liberalisation — quite the opposite,” she warned.

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