World of Blasphemy: Poland
Despite its constitution guaranteeing free speech, Poland's blasphemy law serves to censor musicians and artists who fall foul of the Catholic establishment, writes Anna Vesterinen
What the law says
Article 196 of the Polish Penal Code: "anyone found guilty of offending religious feelings through public defamation of an object or place of worship is liable to a fine, restriction of liberty or a maximum two-year prison sentence."
Article 25(2) of the Polish Constitution: “Public authorities in the Republic of Poland shall be impartial in matters of personal conviction, whether religious or philosophical, or in relation to outlooks on life, and shall ensure their freedom of expression within public life.”
How the law is used
Poland is overwhelmingly a Roman Catholic country, with around 90 per cent of the population counted as members of the Church. Catholicism in Poland does not stop at the church doors either. The main political parties are heavily influenced by religion, and Catholic advocacy groups wield considerable power in the country. For example, churches and conservative parties successfully pushed for outlawing abortion in 1993, making Poland one of very few countries to re-criminalise abortion after it being legal for decades. Today, Poland is indeed one of the most politically conservative countries in Europe, and one of the last to have an actual blasphemy law.
By concentrating on the defamation of objects or places, the law makes blasphemy an easy justification for restricting art, music and writing that uses religious imagery. It is indeed often used as a sort of censorship law to prosecute those who criticise the Catholic Church, or the conservative authorities.
Recently, the prosecution of popular musicians has made headlines in the country. In particular, charges against the vocalist of the death metal band Behemoth, Adam Darski (AKA Nergal), have raised eyebrows in Poland and abroad. Darski was originally charged in 2007 for ripping a Bible during a show. During the show he also stated that the Bible was a "book of lies" and the Catholic Church was "the most murderous cult on the planet". Long story short, even though Darski was cleared of the charges in 2010 and again in 2011, his case keeps reappearing due to pressure from Catholic groups. In January 2013, a district court finally found him guilty of offending religious feelings by “intentionally insulting the Holy Bible”. Darski’s case is set to be re-examined soon. If sentenced, he may face up to two years imprisonment. Darski is very popular in Poland as a musician and a TV personality, and is open about his support of secularism and free-thinking.
Pop musician Dorota ‘Doda’ Rabczewska has also been a target of blasphemy accusations. In 2012 she was fined 5,000 zlotys (£1,026) for “offending the religious feelings of Christians and Jews”. Her offence was to state in a 2009 interview that she believed more in dinosaurs than the Bible because "it is hard to believe in something written by people who drank too much wine and smoked herbal cigarettes". Such a statement must have also angered the religious groups and individuals in Poland who push for creationism to be taught in public schools. Rabczewska lost her appeal in 2012, but has threatened to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights.
While the Polish blasphemy law makes it possible to charge people in cases such as these, the country’s constitution should be on their side. The constitution ensures an individual’s right to freely express their personal convictions. Rabczewska was merely stating her own opinion and did not target any specific groups or individuals. Darski’s case should be considered even less harmful; anyone familiar with death metal should not be surprised to see anti-religious acts on stage, and it is highly improbable that many fervently religious people were present. This was indeed the reason for Darski’s two previous acquittals: the courts saw his act as art that is consistent with the band’s music, and targeted to fans who would not be offended by it.
What is behind such charges is not necessarily widespread offence taken by the believers. Polish society is turning increasingly secular, which makes the Catholic Church and conservative politicians worried for their diminishing power. The blasphemy law still gives them the ability to censor and punish those who do not agree with their traditional views. But those they seek to silence are, like Nergal and Doda, the young, educated and secular – people who may be able to engage the new generations better than the old guard.