#Watchdogs: The right to information has ruined my life!

On the Watchdog Poland website, she writes about herself “I am a theatre actress by profession, but I am more and more interested in what the various authorities are hiding behind the scenes. I have found how important it is for democracy and the functioning of society to bring to light what is happening out of sight of the citizens”. We invite you to an interview with Watchdog member Alina Czyżewska.

Janna Gucman-Muż: Alina, how did you come up with social activity as an idea for yourself, as an interest, and later also as a way of life? I’m especially referring to culture and transparency in culture. Why did you decide to get involved in culture from a completely different side than acting?

Alina Czyżewska: I wasn’t planning to deal with culture, but in general, to get involved socially in civic and city issues. We founded the People for the City (Ludzie dla Miasta) social movement in Gorzów Wielkopolski in order to make a change in a city where the mayor had been ruling for 16 years.

But you weren’t yet a member of the Citizens Network Watchdog Poland then?

No, I wasn’t.

What year was that, do you remember?

2014. It was the year of the local elections and it was all new to us. We were driven by a desire to make a change and wake people up. We were looking for ways to do that, to show that the city belongs to us, not to the officials. Not to the mayor, not to the councillors. That this is our common good and we have the right to demand, expect, control. Everything we did resulted more from intuition and the desire to introduce a new narrative.

When I was searching on the Internet for ways to act, I came across the Kalisz Urban Initiative. I called them, we talked about the problems of our cities, and Kalina [Kalina Michocka from the Kalisz Urban Initiative – editor’s note] said: You should invite Szymon Osowski. And that was the beginning of Watchdog Poland.

We created a community meeting at a local bookstore. And this meeting was for me a reevaluation of everything I thought about the city, the authorities, the state.

Previously, I accepted the status quo, that there is an authority that is right, because it has control over the structure of the state, money, lawyers with secret knowledge, and the citizens are powerless. Szymon presented a completely different view of the world, but not his idealistic one, the one that is enshrined in the law. In the Constitution, in acts.

Was it after that meeting that you became more interested in the right to information?

I remember my first reaction was: Gosh, we can know everything, but what is “everything”? You can do everything, but what does that actually mean?

I had little knowledge of what documents public offices had, what they collected. I didn’t know what to ask, what was actually in those acts. For me, this was secret, specialised, legal, political knowledge, which is a completely different world than our civic one. 

I remember going to a City Council session for the first time and experiencing how much incompetent these people are who take public money, who decide about the city. The councillors were not familiar with the law.

That was also the first time I spoke at the session. There was an ongoing discussion about whether councillors had a right to know where the  mayor had gone and the deputy mayor did not want to provide this information. I searched the Internet for the relevant law and simply said what was written there.

I was surprised that among more than 20 councillors, including lawyers, teachers, people who were already exercising their mandate for a second term, nobody knew what legal environment they were operating in, what they were allowed and what they were not allowed to do and what the law was. And all they had to do was check on the Internet. That’s when my idea of authority as competent people who are above “ordinary citizens” began to change.

From that meeting with Szymon, apart from everything that concerned the right to information, I remembered a sentence that “in Poland it is custom that rules, not law”. We do things because that’s the way it has always been, the way it’s done, without reading or understanding the law. In such a situation, a person who has the power does as they please is a monarch. And yet the law is supposed to secure and protect us from abuses of power. This is common knowledge, so why isn’t anyone passing it on to us?

That was 2014. It’s been a few years and you’ve dealt with a lot of different things and topics in the meantime.

Yes, but I stayed away from the culture.

What caused you to take a look at your own environment? Now you are more widely known as an activist in the area of transparency in culture, and until recently you were an active professional actress.

I wasn’t involved in this before because I didn’t want to get into trouble, but finally it came to me on its own. The first such case, which was not related to the right to information and scrutinising the government, but to the fact that we all think that what the government does is right and that it is never wrong. We repeat nonsense that we think is the law. And such nonsense in the world of theatre and in the world of culture is that in competitions for directors of cultural institutions, the committee only recommends a candidate, but the decision is made by the “king and master” – the marshal or mayor. There was such a case in one of the theatres in Toruń, where the competition for a director was won by a person the marshal did not like, so he adopted a resolution cancelling the competition. The whole theatre community thought that the marshal had the right to do so, and that the committee was only “recommending” a candidate, when in fact it was otherwise.

This was your first case related to the theatre, culture. What happened next?

I did not suddenly start getting involved in a large number of cases. In 2015, I was known in the cultural community rather as a city activist who took an interest in and intervened in various local government cases, wrote a lot on Facebook about this topic, showing what I do, stripping this pathos from public authorities.

I asked, for example, about the remuneration of the officials of Gorzów Wielkopolski or about the expenses connected with the organisation of the city festival.

Convinced by Bartek Wilk of Watchdog, whom I met during the Watchdog School organised by the Watchdog Poland in 2015, I started publishing on the Internet my letters to various institutions. That’s how I started showing what I do. Explaining in simple language the reality of the law to people who, after a while, saw that they didn’t have to be afraid when they knew that something was wrong, that it was okay to ask, to check, that I would give them advice on what to do.

Did you tell them what to do or did you do it yourself?

Both. I told people what could be done, but I also took up certain matters myself, for example, I went to local government sessions in other cities. This also brought up the topic of sport and how it is subsidised by municipal companies.

That means more areas…

Yes! Because culture was not so obvious to me. I kind of didn’t notice what was wrong. It was only with time that various doubts about such culture of secrecy in the theatre community started to come to my mind, such as the fact that we can’t talk to each other about our rates, that we only whisper about money, that it’s not elegant to talk about money and that in fact we don’t know what the rates are or whether we’re being cheated. It’s good for the authorities. We don’t talk, so I don’t know if we are being treated fairly or if we are being discriminated. 

Do you remember your breakthrough case?

One case which, in my opinion, had a great impact on the change of awareness in the cultural community, was the case of Rzeszów three years ago, when the mayor blocked a performance in which the themes of paedophilia among priests appeared. The mayor announced to the people that he had decided to suspend the rehearsals. Decided? The authorities act by legal acts, not by their will and words, and a decision is, in the case of an authority, a paper with specific provisions and a legal basis from which the mayor’s power to take action in a given area must be derived. I then wrote three mockery public letters to the mayor outlining the absurdity and illegality of this situation and “questioned” the mayor publicly, requesting this decision. Of course, it turned out that there is no such document – because there cannot be, as the mayor does not have such power. That in Poland the law rules, not someone’s taste in art or their will. By ridiculing and mocking the incompetence of the authorities, I made journalists and the environment aware that we should demand documents, hold the authorities responsible and not believe everything they say, that we can ask directly and not whisper behind the scenes, and exercise our rights openly. The actions of the authorities must be transparent. They are supposed to act in accordance with the law and within the limits of the law, only we don’t know that because we don’t learn about it.

The case of plagiarism in the competition for the director of the Silesian Museum in Opole was also quite a hot topic. I was sued by the Opolskie Voivodeship for exposing this case.

Your story shows that you didn’t have this knowledge in the beginning and only with time you learned to use it, starting with local city activities, through sport, to culture…

Yes. It started with local movements. From Gorzów. Being in a network of people, contact with the Congress of Local Movements, participation in the Watchdog School, and the exchange of knowledge and experience showed me how the attitude of authorities, of councillors towards citizens looks like in different places in Poland. How this local democracy looks like.

Let’s go back to Watchdog for a moment. How did you become a member of the association?

Kasia Batko-Tołuć called me by surprise and offered me a membership, and I was shocked, unbelieving, but I agreed [laughter – editor’s note].

What is the right to information for you? What did it give you?

Let me be clear – it ruined my life. I thought I would be an actress, that you can act, change the world through theatre, but it turned out otherwise.

What do you ask about most often and whom? What is the right to information for?

Sometimes to show, to educate the authorities that there is such a law, because often they still don’t know that it exists at all, for example, schools are such institutions. I get approached by students with various problems and I try to help them, but what do schools do? They often throw my requests into the SPAM folder, pretending the question wasn’t there. This is breaking the law! And this is done by teachers, schools, which are supposed to educate.

Of the other cases I was recently interested in was, for example, the issue of visiting hospitals, which were making up their own laws, prohibitions, and orders related to operating in a pandemic. They closed the doors to visitors in child psychiatry wards and wards for the elders, making it impossible for families to contact, visit, and to control and check if anything wrong was going on behind those doors. And here the right to information allows me to stand up for human rights in general and to enforce them, so I ask questions, explain, demand to see the documents on the basis of which prohibitions, regulations and decisions are issued.

I also try to teach people that we hold the power as a nation. We are not subjects, we have the power, only we have to learn to use this power. I show that the authority-citizen relationship is different than we are taught, that the hierarchy is the opposite of what we have been told and that this view can be transferred to other institutions, such as hospitals, theatre schools, etc. 

Knowledge is power. I am trying to reduce the monster that is “power”. I show that an ordinary person can win against the Prime Minister’s Office, against a voivodeship, etc.

What is your biggest success (so far) in the area of transparency activities?

This is a continuous process. It’s hard to find one thing.

For example, in theatres people have started talking to each other about money, they are less afraid to ask. Society’s view on, e.g., how much famous people in culture earn is changing. People see this injustice, discrimination or unequal treatment, they expose violence, and knowledge and reliable information pushes us to discuss, talk and change something. We stop believing that authority is right.

Are there more people like you in the cultural community? Do you see any changes?

Yes, and I’m wondering how to multiply this number in order to lead to even more changes.

I see how, especially young people, are becoming aware that it is possible to ask, to demand information, and how very quickly they are inspired to act by the other people around them. And it’s a wave, but we [Watchdog – editor’s note] are not a large organisation. We will not be able to grow this idea in the minds of 40 million Poles. That’s what the system should do –school. It’s just that the way school does it doesn’t work.

Many problems could be avoided if we all as citizens were aware of the tools we can use.

Finally, tell us what would you wish the Watchdog Poland on the occasion of its 18th anniversary?

Propagation. Propagate, go viral, so that this virus of transparency spreads, because it is such a beneficial virus that spreads by doing a lot of good. This is a virus of democracy that shows people that they have the power.

Thank you for this conversation!




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