Jarosław Ziętara

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Journalist Jarosław Ziętara disappeared on September 1, 1992, in Poznań, western Poland. After years of delay in investigating his disappearance and suspected death, and a pressure campaign by the journalist’s family and colleagues calling for action, prosecutors in 2011 reopened the investigation and determined that Ziętara had likely been killed in connection with his reporting on corruption. In October 2022, two suspects were acquitted on charges of abduction and aiding in the murder of Ziętara, which the prosecution appealed in 2023. In January 2024, the Court of Appeal in Poznań issued a final judgment upholding the 2022 acquittal of Aleksander Gawronik, a former member of the Polish Senate and entrepreneur, on charges of incitement to murder, due to a lack of evidence.  

The whereabouts of Ziętara’s body remain unknown in a long-standing case that highlights challenges in pursuing justice for journalists targeted for their work. 

Ziętara, a 24-year-old investigative journalist for regional daily newspaper Gazeta Poznańska, disappeared in the morning of September 1, 1992, after he left his home to go to the editorial office in Poznań, according to a 2008 report by his employer, a 2012 report by public broadcaster TVP, and a timeline of the case published on a commemorative website, maintained by Ziętara’s family and friends, that collects and archives documents and articles. (Gazeta Poznańska merged with Głos Wielkopolski in 2006.)

On September 2, 1992, local police in Poznań were notified of Ziętara’s disappearance, according to the commemorative website; however, the police did not investigate at that time, saying he had likely disappeared of his own accord or died by suicide, according to Głos Wielkopolski and the commemorative website.

Prior to his disappearance, Ziętara had published investigative articles about alleged irregularities and corruption connected to the privatization of state-owned companies, and the alleged involvement of the political elite and the secret services in these scandals; he also covered human trafficking and smuggling along the German-Polish and Belarusian-Polish borders, according to reports by Głos Wielkopolski and private news channel TVN24. Along with working for Gazeta Poznańska, he contributed to the local edition of Gazeta Wyborcza and to the Wprost weekly, according to those reports.

Following pressure from friends and family, the district prosecutor’s office in Poznań opened a criminal investigation into Ziętara’s disappearance on September 6, 1993; police had earlier suspected that Ziętara had gone abroad without notifying anyone, weekly newspaper Polytika reported in 2015 and Głos Wielkopolski reported in 2020. The investigation was discontinued in March 1995, as it found no crime; it resumed in November 1998—this time into Ziętara’s potential kidnapping and killing—after new testimony emerged from witnesses, whose identities were not disclosed, saying that the journalist was a victim of a contract killing, according to the commemorative website and a 2011 report by Głos Wielkopolski. The investigation was dropped again in September 1999 because Ziętara’s body had never been found, according to the same sources.

In September 2008, Głos Wielkopolski reporters analyzed documents provided by the prosecutor’s office and found that important information had been overlooked or even ignored by investigators. According to those documents, the prosecutor’s office possessed information which said that Ziętara got into a police car shortly after leaving his apartment on the day of his disappearance, and that Ziętara’s office had received an anonymous message stating that officers from the State Protection Office (UOP, the intelligence agency from 1990 to 2002) knew what happened to journalist. Głos Wielkopolski also reported that the journalist’s family informed investigators that six months before his disappearance, Ziętara was summoned to the UOP in Bydgoszcz and was offered a job or some kind of cooperation deal.

On April 29, 2011, the editors-in-chief of the largest newspapers in Poland sent an open letter to the Polish government requesting that the investigation into Ziętara’s disappearance resume and be handed over to a prosecutor’s office outside Poznań to guarantee the impartiality of the proceedings, and that the intelligence services disclose any information they might possess about the journalist and hand them over to prosecutors, Gazeta Wyborcza reported.

The investigation resumed on June 14, 2011 and was transferred from Poznań to Kraków, in southern Poland; the Kraków prosecutor changed the legal classification of the investigation from kidnapping to murder, according to a report by TVP, which CPJ reviewed. According to that report, the Kraków prosecutor also found—following an analysis of evidence—that a potential motive for the crime was Ziętara’s journalism about economic scandals.

On November 4, 2014, the Kraków prosecutor’s office ordered the pre-trial detention of a former member of the Polish Senate and entrepreneur identified as Alexander G. and charged him with inciting murder, Głos Wielkopolski reported. The outlet later identified him as Aleksander Gawronik, who served as a member of Poland’s Senate, the upper house of Parliament, between 1993 and 1997, according to the Senate’s website.

On November 25, 2014, the prosecutor’s office ordered the pre-trial detention of two former security guards working for Elektromis, a holding wholesale trade company: 56-year-old Mirosław R., known in the 1990s in Poznań by the pseudonym "Ryba” (“Fish"); and 46-year-old Dariusz L., pseudonym “Lala,” on charges of aiding in the kidnapping of Ziętara, Głos Wielkopolski reported. Their full names were not disclosed under Polish privacy laws, and both denied the charges, according to those reports. According to daily newspaper Fakt, the two men also worked for Gawronik.

On January 2, 2015, the appellate prosecutor’s office in Krakow ordered the two former security guards released, according to the commemorative website and news website Dziennik Polski.

On January 24, 2015, a witness for the prosecution in the cases against Gawronik and the two guards—identified as Maciej B., also known as “Baryła”—told Głos Wielkopolski that he intended to withdraw his testimony out of fear for his life. Gawronik was released on bail from pre-trial detention on February 4, 2015, according to Dziennik Polski and a report by Głos Wielkopolski in 2020.

Gawronik’s trial on charges of inciting Ziętara’s murder began on January 12, 2016, before the District Court in Poznań, according to the commemorative website and a report by news website Superwizjer, which CPJ reviewed. Gawronik pleaded not guilty, according to Superwizjer. CPJ emailed Gawronik’s lawyer for comment in June 2021 but did not receive a reply. The trial of Mirosław R. and Dariusz L. started on January 8, 2019, in Poznań, according to Głos Wielkopolski.

Prosecutors said that Gawronik, who in the early 1990s was active among entrepreneurs in Poznan, incited Ziętara’s murder to prevent the journalist from reporting on his business activities, Gazeta Wyborcza reported during Gawronik’s trial. Three months before his disappearance, in June 1992, Ziętara had written for Wprost about allegedly fraudulent activities of a company that had been taken over in 1991 by Gawronik after its owners and management fled from a criminal investigation, Głos Wielkopolski reported in 2014. According to the prosecutors, Ziętara during the summer of 1992 continued to collect evidence on Gawronik’s businesses and his ties to Elektromis which—the journalist suspected—was involved in smuggling and trafficking in illegal alcohol, Gazeta Wyborcza reported. According to the prosecutors, Gawronik ordered Ziętara’s murder during a meeting at Elektromis that summer, the news website Onet reported. In May 2016, Gawronik testified before the court that he had no connection to Elektromis and was not involved in illegal activities, according to Gazeta Wyborcza.

On February 22, 2019, the witness identified as Maciej B. testified that Mirosław R. and Dariusz L. took part in the kidnapping of Ziętara on behalf of Gawronik, who had demanded that the journalist be silenced, the daily newspaper Gazeta Prawna reported. On September 27, 2019, he gave the same testimony during Gawronik’s trial, according to a TVP report, which CPJ reviewed.

On September 16, 2020, Przemysław Nowicki, a former editor-in-chief of Gazeta Poznańska who was in charge of the newspaper when Ziętara disappeared, testified in the trial of the former security guards that there had been pressure on the newspaper before the journalist’s disappearance from Elektromis not to publish information about the company, which Ziętara was investigating for allegations of tax fraud, Głos Wielkopolski reported.

On October 21, 2020, an incognito witness testified in the trial of the two former security guards that two people who were brought to Poland tortured and killed the journalist in a warehouse belonging to Elektromis after he refused to stop writing about the company, according to a report by the Association of Polish Journalists, an independent trade group, which was observing the trial.

On May 20, 2021, a former employee of Elektromis identified as Zdzisław K. testified at Gawronik’s trial that the journalist was killed and his body dissolved in acid because he was investigating the business activities of Elektromis and its ties to Gawronik, news website Onet reported.

On February 25, 2022, the District Court in Poznań acquitted Gawronik of inciting Ziętara’s murder due to a lack of evidence, the news website Wirtualnemedia reported. In her verdict, Judge Joanna Rucińska said that one of the key witnesses for the prosecution, Maciej B.—who claimed to be an eyewitness to Gawronik’s incitement for murder—had repeatedly changed his version of the events, and that there were many inconsistencies in his testimony, according to the report, which added that prosecutor Piotr Kosmaty said he would appeal the verdict and “fight until the end.”

On May 19, 2022, the Kraków prosecutor’s office filed an appeal of Gawronik’s acquittal, saying that the court had unfoundedly dismissed the testimony of all key witnesses as worthless and questioned the opinions of court experts, Radio Wnet reported. According to that report, the appeal was supported by Jacek Ziętara, the brother of the murdered journalist, in his role as auxiliary prosecutor, a position which allows victims to participate in court proceedings alongside the public prosecutor.

On October 19, 2022, the District Court in Poznań acquitted Mirosław R. and Dariusz L., who were accused of the abduction, imprisonment, and aiding in the murder of Ziętara, due to inconsistent and contradictory witness testimonies, the Polish public broadcaster reported. The national prosecutor’s office appealed the verdict in January 2023.

On January 19, 2024, in a final judgement, the Court of Appeal in Poznań upheld the initial verdict acquitting Gawronik, according to private news channel TVN24.

In January 2024, CPJ emailed the prosecutor’s office in Poznań and Głos Wielkopolski for comment and updates on the case but did not receive any replies.