Tuesday 5 July 2011

Lawsuit is the Latest Tactic of Attempted Intimidation in Struggle for Tenants' Rights

Some members of the ZSP from Warsaw are being sued for a film they made and put on the internet. Other members of the Tenants' Defense Committee are also being sued because the film was on their website. The video documents the problems of two families who have been having problems with their landlady, who wants to evict them, for years.

The video was intended to give tenants a voice in a system which is extremely one-sided, ignoring their rights and not even ensuring they are protected by the rights they have under the law.

The 35- minute film, which was made in January 2010, shows the situation of the tenants struggling to keep their homes. They have to go out in the snow to use a porta-toilet since their cesspool was mysteriously destroyed. We also film how the landlady tries to have the gas turned off with a man she presents as an employee of the gas company. This turns out to be very shady. She also asked the electric company to turn off the electricity in the house claiming that nobody lived there.

The tenants describe this history of harassment and how they were treated over the years by those who they turned to for help. One tenant recorded how he attempted to get the police to intervene against the harassment, which included violations of the law on the protection of tenants' rights and health and sanitation law. It showed that the police were totally dismissive, considering it a „private matter”, like some domestic dispute. Another tenant showed mounds of documents, representing useless attempts to fight through the legal system. This included a curious letter from the public prosecutor's office. The tenants were presented with documents with a forged signature. The prosecutor's office found that indeed the document was forged, but said that they would do nothing about the case.

This is a very typical situation in Poland as tenants and others find that they are not able to use the legal system in their struggles against anybody with power, money or connections. On the other hand, they face bias if they try to fight.

This is what happened to our comrade who was the main person speaking in the film. The landlady is trying to evict him and we went to court with him. The bias of the judge was incredibly striking. During the hearing she expressed the opinion that there is something wrong with people like him who expect their right to housing to be respected and that he has to understand that if you want a place to live, you have to take a mortgage and work 40 years to pay it off. This lesson in ideology was not only inappropriate from a judge which is supposed to be neutral in the case, but is even grotesque when you consider the fact that the man is 60 years old and such people simply are not in the position to take any loans. In addition, he asked for a court-appointed lawyer. His financial situation is such that the case is a huge burden – his wife is retired and ill and he himself is in bad health, with severe hypertension, but cannot afford to retire due to his housing problems. The judge reprimanded him for his request, telling him that he should be ashamed of himself and asking why taxpayers should pay for a lawyer when he has a job.

(Witnesses in the courtroom lodged a complaint against the judge, demanding she be removed from the case. Surprisingly this was effective.)

In such an atmosphere, the Tenants' Defense Committee feels that it is essential to make such stories known to the public, to give people a voice and to put human faces on the tragedies being lived as a result of privatization and lack of sufficient action on the part of the authorities to protect tenants and at least guarantee them replacement housing when they give over property rights to private owners. People like this were given municipal housing but are transferred to private owners like pieces of furniture, along with the property. The city does not care if it had concluded a housing contract with those people and finds replacement housing for only a small fraction of them. This hits the elderly and older low-income workers especially hard as they are unable to afford housing on the private market and are usually not able to find higher-paying jobs or to work three jobs to make ends meet.

Many months after we published the video, we received a letter demanding we remove it or we would be sued. Apparently the landlady was offended by the fact that people viewing the film commented negatively about her in the comment section of the page.

We think that the suggestion that we censor out any comments that were negative against the landlady is an obscene violation of the right to free speech and conscience. Furthermore, we are outraged by the extremely high incidence of legal intimidation used in this country against ordinary people to stifle critical views and comments in public life. This leads to a situation where people are afraid to speak out or that media of any sort are afraid to print many things. In this context, we feel it is urgent to protect the very few media which allow workers, tenants and others who are harmed by those with power and money to tell their experiences and voice their opinions.

The catalog of cases made in Poland against internauts for voicing critical views is daunting and shows the extent of the problem with free speech in this country. We can mention, among a few notable recent cases, the raids and arrests against a guy who made a satirical site against the president, or the court case of another guy who criticized the competence of one mayor or even the long and intense internet investigation to find the „criminals” who made a cross from beer cans and thus „offended people's religious sensibilities”. Just like dismissed workers who face such abstract and wide ideas such as „acting to the detriment of the company”, which they can legally be fired for, internauts find themselves up against vague and biased laws that can see them sued or even prosecuted for things such as „offending people” or „damaging somebody's reputation”.

Our point of view is that if the truth damages somebody's reputation, it is not our problem. The public interest to warn people against things such as harassment in the workplace or home, against things like abuse of power or position – this is not only important, but an essential for those fighting back against these things. Especially in countries where the legal system is biased and ineffective, communication with other people becomes one of our main tools in the social struggles.

And we have to point out that the actions of the state only confirm our criticism of it and that the struggles need to be fought by direct action, not by relying on the system.

A while ago we received the papers connected to the suit – 800 pages, most of which were submitted to the court in an attempt to discredit the tenant and our organization. None of this has scared us and has only made us more determined to fight.

Our case goes to court on July 11 and may drag on for a while. We ask people to support this struggle by publicizing the case, which also will more generally highlight the problems of tenants and freedom of speech. We also ask that individuals or organizations which support the tenants' struggle please consider making a donation to our organization. Both the ZSP and Tenants' Defense Organization are entirely self-financed organizations which from time to time need a little extra cash when faced with certain struggles. Those who could help can contact info@zsp.net.pl for more details.

The film we made can be seen here. It is in Polish but we think we will make a translation into English quite soon.