Polish group using Varadkar criticism to highlight LGBT issues

Defamation case will decide line between freedom of expression and hate speech

Leo Varadkar: During a TV debate in Poland five days after Ireland’s abortion referendum, anti-abortion guest Kaja Godek called the Taoiseach –  and all homosexual people – ‘perverted’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Leo Varadkar: During a TV debate in Poland five days after Ireland’s abortion referendum, anti-abortion guest Kaja Godek called the Taoiseach – and all homosexual people – ‘perverted’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

If Poles thought “taoiseach” was a difficult to pronounce, Leo Varadkar should familiarise himself with “zboczenie” – the Polish word for perversion.

That was the term used to describe him on Polish television last May, five days after Ireland’s abortion referendum.

On Yes or No, a popular current affairs show on private broadcaster Polsat, discussion of the Irish vote took an unexpected turn.

Host Agnieszka Gozdyra introduced the segment by describing the vote as a revolution in a country “often compared to Poland because . . . of its Catholicism”.

By comparison, the host said, Poland’s ongoing campaign to limit abortion – headed by her anti-abortion guest Kaja Godek – indicated Poland was heading in the opposite direction.

Ms Godek described the Irish result as the work of “abortionists” censoring Ireland’s anti-abortion campaign before the vote, both on traditional and social media.

“I want to say with strong conviction that Ireland cannot be described as a Catholic country,” she said, considering its prime minister was “a self-declared gay, who shows off his bizarre orientation”.

As the other panellist laughed, Ms Godek asked “if pre-natal tests show that an embryo is homosexual, can you actually abort it?”

A stormy debate ensued.

Growing backlash

Poland is a long way from Ireland on LGBT rights. With no marriage equality or civil partnership, gay rights campaigners sense a growing backlash against them, spearheaded by right-wing lobby groups and backed by the national conservative government.

In August, Poland’s interior minister described a gay pride parade as a “march of sodomites”. On Monday another gay pride march, scheduled for this weekend in the eastern city of Lublin, was cancelled by the mayor.

A 2015 report by the Council of Europe, the human rights body, complained that Poland’s criminal definition of hate speech does not incorporate sexual orientation as grounds for prosecution.

Given this climate, Ms Godek’s remarks have been taken up by group of LGBT people in Poland as an opportunity to seek a court decision on where the line is drawn between freedom of expression and hate speech.

For Warsaw law professor Jakub Urbanik, the case is about testing what he calls the “Crying Game defence” – named after Neil Jordan’s 1992 film.

“In it the transsexual character says ‘a girl has to draw the line somewhere’,” said Prof Urbanik. “That remark in turn paraphrases eminent English judge Lord Denning. We need to draw a line in Poland.”

In general, Polish defamation law allows only the affected person to take action against alleged violations of their personal rights.

But there are exceptions. This case hinges on the moment Ms Godek was asked if she was saying all homosexuals – not just Mr Varadkar – were perverted. Her answer: “Yes, yes . . .”

Legal precedents

In their 50-page filing, submitted on Wednesday, the 16 complainants list legal precedents they see in international and Polish law to allow them – as homosexuals – to sue her as injured parties.

In 2004, a Polish priest was awarded damages because he felt defamed by a satirical article about Pope John Paul II. Defamation of the pope, the Polish court ruled, “may violate personal rights . . . of a clergyman who feels bound to the pope”.

In a 2016 case, a Nazi concentration camp survivor from Poland won a case against German public broadcaster ZDF for referring mistakenly to “Polish” camps.

Court documents filed on Wednesday in Warsaw mention Mr Varadkar at length, but trial procedure in Poland does not require complainants to submit a full list of witnesses at this stage.

However, the group behind the legal action are enthusiastic about the idea of inviting the Taoiseach to testify.

Marriage equality campaigner Aleksandra Muzinska insists the case is not about whether or not Mr Varadkar’s homosexuality is a “perversion”, but about raising awareness of inequalities faced by Poland’s LGBT community.

“I wanted to be part of this lawsuit because I think I have a privilege to represent LGBT people in Poland,” she said, “especially those who don’t have means or opportunity to sue Kaja Godek.”

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