A Polish satire journalist has been indicted on a charge of “insulting the Polish nation” in a column. The column, published in weekly magazine Angora on December 17, 2017, satirized links between the Polish authorities and the Catholic Church. If he is deemed guilty, the columnist, Antoni Szpak, could face up to three years in prison.

“Journalists’ role is to keep an eye on the government – and that is what he did”, Paweł Woldan, editor-in-chief of Angora, told the International Press Institute (IPI) in an interview. “We published the column not seeing anything inappropriate in it.”

The column focused on the 26th anniversary of the founding of Radio Maryja, a small, ultra-conservative radio station run by Father Tadeuesz Rydzyk, a Roman Catholic priest. The celebrations in the city of Toruń on December 2 were attended by several government ministers, with letters of congratulations from the prime minister, president and the leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. In the column, Szpak mocked what he saw as the prime minister and president’s deference to Rydzyk, juxtaposing this with the reference in Poland’s constitution to officials’ impartiality on matters of religion. The column closed with the line “This kind of paranoia can only take place in a stupid and smug country!”

The column was brought to the attention of the prosecutor’s office in Łódź by a reader, who alerted it that a crime may have been committed. After analysing the column, the prosecutor’s office brought charges against Szpak for “insulting the Polish nation” based on his reference to “a stupid and smug country”.

The charge – based on Article 133 of the criminal code, which threatens a penalty of up to three years in prison for “whoever publicly insults the Nation or Polish Republic” – has raised eyebrows in Poland.

“The column is not about any nation – in the sense that the prosecutor’s office wants”, Szpak told TVN24, a private television channel. “Rather, the column is about the authorities.”

Szpak, who has pleaded not guilty, sees the charge against him as part of broader pressure on the media by the Polish authorities.

“This is not just the case of Szpak – columnist, comedian, journalist, but rather part of a larger whole. The announced meddling in the media is taking place”, he added, referring to broader concerns about media freedom in Poland since PiS came to power in 2015.

IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said the prosecution of Szpak violated international standards on freedom of expression.

“Numerous international human rights bodies have urged states to repeal criminal laws protecting the honour of the state and state institutions precisely due to the danger that such laws can be abused to punish and silence critical voices”, he said. “The charge against Mr. Szpak perfectly illustrates that danger and should be dropped immediately.”

Commenting on the charges, Angora Editor-in-Chief Woldan told IPI that he is surprised that the prosecutor’s office decided to prepare a criminal indictment for the column, rather than a civil one.

“In a secular country, a journalist has the right to express disapproval of links between the state and the church”, he said. “Even now, six months later, I cannot see anything insulting in the column, just things that might cause the authorities a certain discomfort.”

“I am watching this unfold with uneasiness”, he added. “Such are the times.”

The indictment against Szpak comes at a time of widespread concern about judicial independence in Poland following the government’s changes to the judiciary, which the European Commission warns undermine the rule of law. Recent tweaks to the legislation by the Polish government have not assuaged Brussels’s concerns. Despite this context, Woldan says that he continues to believe in courts’ common sense.

“If the matter goes to court, I still hope that it will make a sensible decision”, he told IPI.