Attacks on the Press 2001: Poland

Scandal mongering and mudslinging blackened the images of both politicians and the press in 2001, particularly during the run-up to September’s parliamentary elections.

The first scandal erupted in January after Rzeczpospolita, a leading Warsaw daily, published a series of investigative pieces on official corruption. Justice Minister Lech Kaczynski accused the paper of conspiring with the Polish Special Services to uncover compromising evidence designed to ruin officials’ reputations and force them to resign; the paper denied the charge. Kaczynski implied that the paper’s evidence was invalid and opened an investigation to find out who had leaked the compromising information.

Kaczynski subsequently retracted these claims in a January 13 letter of apology to Rzeczpospolita and promised to investigate the newspaper’s allegations. But the paper, along with politicians and media and civic groups, accused Kaczynski of assaulting press freedom. The controversy finally died down in August, when Kaczynki’s initial investigation into the paper’s alleged collusion with the Special Services was dropped.

Kaczynski was at the center of a second scandal that shook Poland in June, when the public television network TVP accused the minister and his brother, Jaroslaw, of embezzling US$600,000 during the 1990s that had been earmarked to repay part of Poland’s foreign debt. The network, whose management has close ties to Poland’s former communist SLD movement, charged that the Kaczynski brothers used the money to finance their right-wing Law and Justice party, an SLD rival.

A group of parliamentarians from several parties charged that TVP’s report was a biased and politically motivated effort to discredit the SLD’s rival candidates during the parliamentary election campaign. The Association of Polish Journalists also accused the network of allowing political bosses to exploit it for political ends. “Freedom of speech was supposed to exist in a free Poland, and public television was supposed to be reliable and unbiased,” the association said, according to the Polish news agency Polska Agencja Prasowa. “Never have we departed so far from these values and standards.” The association called for amendments to the national broadcasting law to prevent media exploitation for political purposes.

On July 2, the Kaczynski brothers sued TVP and sought an apology for the network’s allegations. The case was still pending at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Poland’s goal of joining the European Union, which has called for legal and constitutional reforms, boosted legislation that promotes greater press freedom in 2001. After long delays, parliament approved a new Access to Public Information Law. In October, a month after its final approval, the law was tested in a Lublin District Court case when Miroslaw Sznajder, editor-in-chief of the Krasnik-based newspaper Nowiny Krasnicke, filed a complaint against local mayor Piotr Czubinski. The court found Czubinski guilty of witholding public information and ordered him to pay a 2200 zloty (US$540) fine to the Press Freedom Monitoring Center. The mayor also promised never to obstruct press investigations again.