10 May 2019

Freedom of speech doesn't matter when feelings are hurt?

It’s not easy to defend an arrest based on “blasphemy laws” in 21st-century Europe -- but some Polish politicians are trying hard, and the Polish media are lending a helpful hand.

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P. Sterczewski NewsMavens, Europe
Freedom of speech doesn't matter when feelings are hurt? - NewsMavens
Black Madonna, Wikimedia Commons

Elżbieta Podleśna, a 51-year old Polish opposition activist, was arrested for several hours on Monday and faces criminal charges for “offending religious feelings”. In Poland, that is punishable by up to two years in prison. Her home and car were also searched by the police and her electronic devices were seized. All because of several posters and stickers showing the Black Madonna (the most worshipped icon in the country) with rainbow halos around her and Jesus.

Podleśna had put these posters in the area around a church in Płock at the end of April, after the church’s Easter decoration (“the tomb of Christ”) listed “LGBT” and “gender” as “sins to be saved from”.

The posters were immediately met with strong condemnation from the church and the ruling party. The spokesman of the Polish Episcopate called it a “profanation” that caused “enormous pain” to Poles. The Polish minister of internal affairs, Joachim Brudziński, called it an act of “cultural barbarism”. After Podleśna was brought in by the police and presented with charges, the minister triumphantly announced the fact, adding that “twaddling about freedom and tolerance does not give anyone the right to offend feelings of the believers”.

The news on the arrest quickly spread over national and international media and sparked gestures of solidarity with the accused, criticism of the authorities’ attitude towards the case (even from some more tolerant Catholicmedia), as well as happenings, actions and demonstrations. Amnesty International and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights have condemned the police action.

Yet, Church officials as well as right-wing politicians and media outlets have remained unwavering in their stance and defended the legal actions against Elżbieta Podleśna (the Polish Episcopate condemned the spread of the image for the second time and has asked for “compensatory prayers for the profanation”). A common denominator of these reactions is the attempt to spin them as the oppression and discrimination of Catholics in Poland -- a country where about 90% of the population declare as Catholics.


Tygodnik Solidarność” (Solidarity Weekly) is one of the media which went out of their way to present Podleśna as all but a criminal and, consequently, justify her arrest.

They published a compilation of outraged statements of clergy members who called her acts “evil” and drew parallels between modern day Catholic church in Poland and the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. They jumped on dozens of tweets attacking Podleśna and portraying her act as the persecution of Christianity, granting each a separate article on their website. To mention a few: one is reporting a “rosary prayer for the desecrated icon of Black Madonna”, another one arguing that LGBT orientation symbolized by the rainbow flag is not what was equated with a crime in Podleśna’s “justified arrest”: it’s not “the sick orientation itself, but the actions of its bearers”, the argument goes; yet another accuses Podleśna - dubbed here as “the divine mother of LGBT” -- of seeking martyrdom (as if she asked to be arrested). In contrast, this is how the paper has presented tweets where the image was shared in solidarity (sic!) with Podleśna:

“‘Defenders of democracy’ profoundly profane the image of the Mother of God. Will they try it on  the symbols of other religions?"

"There is a lot of talk today about tolerance, respect for otherness and the fight against 'hate speech'. These concepts, however, have never affected and do not concern Christians, especially Catholics. A bright example of this was the applause with which the self-proclaimed "elites" met the anti-church and anti-Christian speech of Leszek Jażdżewski. Today, another edition, profanation of the image of the Virgin Mary on the Internet.”

Many publications also attempted to call out the supposed hypocrisy of the “liberal elites” by introducing other religions into the story -- more specifically, remembering their condemnations of (and actual) attacks on mosques. When some of those who criticized the arrest pointed out that the rainbow has been used in many Christian images, the argument was met with claims that the shift of the rainbow’s meaning as a Jewish and Christian symbol to an LGBT+ community emblem can be compared to the evolving history of the swastika.

Perhaps most prominently, the minister of internal affairs - responsible for the police force - has also reached for this kind of rhetoric. And “Tygodnik Solidarność” has not failed to lend its support. In an article titled “Joachim Brudziński: Those who attack me today, praised me when the police protected the Equality March”, they published one of the tweets about the case, reading:

Those who attack me hysterically today for actions against people who offend religious feelings of Catholics, are the same ones which praised me when I criticized events in Pruchnik or when the police protected #MarszRówniści. [Equality March] According to them, the rights of Catholics are less important. So pathetic.

Brudziński is referring to the recently revived Easter ritual of beating an effigy of Judas (stylized as a stereotypical Jew) in a Polish village and to the police intervention in Lublin, when the Pride demonstration was attacked by nationalists in October (at the time, Brudziński has actually falsely attributed “hooliganism” to both sides).


To put aside all other “twists” on the story, the one which came from a high state official and received support from this and other media is certainly among the more disturbing.

Joachim Brudziński suggests that distributing the image of the Holy Mary with a rainbow halo is similar to proliferating an anti-semitic tradition of beating an effigy of a Jew and with violent attacks on a Pride demonstration. With this comparison, he is putting very different phenomena on the same (or at least meaningfully similar) level.

A manipulation of a well-known religious image by adding a rainbow is not a violent or hateful act. The anti-semitic ritual of beating an effigy entails stereotyping, stigmatizing and inciting hatred towards an ethnic minority, and was historically connected to anti-semitic attitudes and actions. Despite the very public character of the event in Pruchnik in April 2019, charges have been pressed only against two men.

The reference to the Pride march in Lublin (which was initially banned by the city mayor, until the decision was overturned in court) is also misleading: freedom of demonstration is one of the basic democratic laws, and protecting the demonstrators against violence is a regular duty and obligation of the police - not an act of goodwill by the minister of the interior.  


We rank the statements of Joachim Brudziński -- and many other right-wing figures -- on this issue as a spin - an attempt to divert attention from the fact that a woman was arrested because she created and distributed an image of, at best, dubious “offensiveness”. Moreover, treating a rainbow LGBT+ emblem on par with fascist symbols and/or violent and hateful acts, is an example of intersectional discrimination in itself.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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