The article is also available to read on Gazeta Wyborcza’s website.
Threatening to take the Gazeta Wyborcza to court, Piotr Woyciechowski, a close associate of the former Minister of National Defense Antoni Macierewicz, has demanded the removal of an article in which the newspaper reported on a public testimony before the Senate Investigative Committee on Pegasus spyware. Woyciechowski’s lawsuit marks yet another example of the ruling camp’s efforts at silencing independent media, in particular Gazeta Wyborcza – long considered by Jarosław Kaczyński as a major threat to his political ambitions.
As part of the ruling camp’s crusade against independent media, Gazeta Wyborcza is routinely inundated with demands for rectification that are both spurious and repetitive. All of them are almost identical, with a separate filing for each article containing the claim in question. The newspaper also receives dozens of separate pre-trial subpoenas referring to the same publication.
Perhaps one of the most notorious cases so far has been the attempt of Daniel Obajtek, the CEO of Poland’s state-run oil giant Orlen, to flood “Wyborcza” with numerous frivolous lawsuits demanding “corrections” of facts and, in effect, prevent “Wyborcza” from publishing investigative articles about his dubious real estate transactions, like the particularly favourable rebate he received on the purchase of a luxurious penthouse apartment in Warsaw”. He requested that the court impose a one-year-long ban on publishing articles, as well as comments made via press, radio, television, the internet, and posts on Facebook or Twitter, on the topic. Accepting the appeal of Agora SA, the publisher of “Wyborcza”, on June 8, 2021, the Warsaw District Court rejected Obajtek’s bid to silence the newspaper.
There are strong reasons to believe that these legal attacks, which are initiated by various state-controlled agencies, ruling coalition politicians and dignitaries, government ministries, the Ministry of Justice and its loyalist judges, and even by the public service broadcasters, are closely coordinated.
Multiple members of the ruling camp employ the services of the same attorney, Marcin Zaborowski. Since the Law and Justice party came to power, Zaborowski has been appointed to the supervisory boards of the State Insurance Company (PZU) and the national rail operator PKP Intercity. Moreover, multiple state-owned companies regularly turn to his law firm for legal services.
‘An unjustified form of media repression’
Even when other attorneys are involved, they resort to the same legal toolbox with astonishing regularity. The legal strategy has a specific name: SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. These lawsuits are intended to draw media outlets into expensive legal battles, forcing them to fend off endless legal attacks such as civil and public lawsuits, unwarranted calls for rectification and apology, pre-trial subpoenas, etc., in order to prevent them from criticizing individuals and institutions that have the power and resources to carry out such attacks.
The artificial multiplication of lawsuits regarding the same publication can get quite creative. For instance, once a suit is filed on behalf of the Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro, another identical petition is submitted by the same attorney, this time representing Ziobro in his capacity as a private individual.
When dismissing Minister Ziobro’s case against “Wyborcza” in December 2020, the Court of Appeals in Warsaw strongly criticized the legal strategy aimed at inflating the number of lawsuits: “Demanding the same information to be corrected twice by the same entity is an unacceptable action and constitutes an unjustified form of repressing the press by imposing on it the obligation to publish the same corrections several times. This practice may have a ‘chilling effect’. As a result, it may threaten the freedom of speech and press freedom, effectively discouraging the press from taking up important and controversial public issues”.
One can argue that the latest demand of Piotr Woyciechowski, a close associate of the former Minister of National Defense Antoni Macierewicz, reaches an even new level of absurdity and brazen attack on freedom of speech. He demands the removal of an article in which Wyborcza reported on a public testimony before the Senate Investigative Committee on the illegal use of the Pegasus spyware, during which the testifying person mentioned his name.
Woyciechowski was publicly accused of blackmail
“I call on you to voluntarily rectify the violation of my personal rights by immediately removing from the wyborcza.pl website the article entitled “Sensational Testimony Before the Senate Investigative Committee on Pegasus Spyware (…),” Piotr Woyciechowski wrote in a letter to Agora, the publisher of “Wyborcza”.
Woyciechowski was mentioned in the testimony of Andrzej Malinowski (honorary president of the Employers of Poland and a former long-time head of the organization) which he gave on Friday, April 29 before the Senate Investigative Pegasus Spyware. Malinowski was asked to testify because he had been under surveillance since February 2018 with the Pegasus cyber-surveillance tool meant to fight terrorism.
The Gazeta Wyborcza published an excerpt from Mr. Malinowski’s testimony in an article from April 29:”In June 1997 I made an official declaration that I did not collaborate with the pre-1989 communist security apparatus as part of required vetting procedure. Strangely enough, my statement cannot be found in the IPN (Institute of National Remembrance) archives. I have been vetted several times by different prime ministers, and I have notarized statements of two former prime ministers to prove it. At the end of 2018, I learned that there is a file on my alleged secret collaboration with the military intelligence services in the 1980s. In January 2019, I was approached by a gentleman from the ruling camp who told me that a certain Mr. Piotr Woyciechowski is writing an article about it and that the entire matter can be settled very quickly. Apparently, Mr. Woyciechowski has just been fired from PWPW [the state-owned Polish Security Printing Works] and was in a difficult financial situation. If I were to pay him, he would give up writing the article.”
Malinowski decided not to pay. Three weeks later, the right-wing weekly “Do Rzeczy” published Mr. Woyciechowski’s piece.
Gazeta Wyborcza tried to contact Woyciechowski multiple times by phone before publishing the article in which Malinowski’s statement was quoted in order to ask him for a comment. He did not respond to any calls regarding further publications either.
It was precisely the quote from the April 29 article that Woyciechowski took issue with. In an email with the subject “Call for rectification of violation of personal rights” dated May 4, he wrote to Agora: “in connection with the publication of the following press articles: ‘How to Make Money on IPN Files’, and ‘There is No One to Ask About Blackmail’ (Gazeta Wyborcza, 2-3 May 2022), as well as ‘Sensational Testimony before the Senate Investigative Committee on Pegasus Spyware (wyborcza.pl of 29.04.2022) by Agnieszka Kublik – containing a series of slanders and insinuations against me – acting on the basis of Articles 23 and 24 of the Civil Code, I call for voluntary rectification of the violation of my personal rights by immediate removal of the publication entitled “Sensational Testimony Before the Senate Investigative Committee (…)” from the wyborcza.pl website.
The article in question is an account of the Senate Investigative Committee hearing from April 29. The rest includes new coverage of the hearing, supplemented by, among others, Woyciechowski’s Tweets, and editorial commentary on the matter.
Chilling effect gets chillier
Woyciechowski’s legal threats get to the essence of what the so-called “chilling effect” aimed at discouraging or deterring the media from public criticism is all about. It leads to the erosion of the media’s essential role in a democratic society. Among Poland’s independent media outlets, “Wyborcza” holds a record for the number of SLAPP-type attacks issued by the ruling camp, its institutions, and affiliates. So far, we have received nearly 90 such claims. In many cases, they only concern a single article or even just one sentence.
The SLAPP procedure is opposed by many international organizations defending press freedom and civil rights. An open letter calling on the European Union to put an end to SLAPP was signed by about 100 NGOs. Multiple EU media outlets published the joint call on November 16, 2020.
Now, in a pre-court letter he sent to “Wyborcza”, Woyciechowski is essentially demanding that it does not quote Malinowski’s public statement in its articles. In short, he demands that a newspaper censors its coverage of public hearings.
“Mr. Woyciechowski’s demands are absurd”
“As you can see, Piotr Woyciechowski, Antoni Macierewicz’s close associate since the 90s, has a standard response to any press coverage about him: censorship. It is nothing short of a blatant attempt at limiting press freedom and the freedom of speech,” says Roman Imielski, Gazeta Wyborcza’s” deputy editor-in-chief . “Mr. Woyciechowski’s most recent request is doubly absurd. Not only does he aim at censoring and gagging independent media, but it also takes issue with public statements that took place during an open meeting of the Senate Investigative Committee.”
Since 2015, independent media in Poland are faced with an ever growing threat of legal repression. Journalists are frequently harassed by spurious lawsuits brought by the members of the ruling camp, and reporters are subjected to disproportionate police measures. Taken together, these obstructive efforts are meant to discourage investigative journalism.
In the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking for 2022, Poland has dropped to 66th place. In 2015, the country was ranked as the 18th best in terms of freedom of press out of 180 countries. In 2016, the first year after the Law and Justice came to power, it saw a precipitous decline – it was overtaken by 29 countries, and ranked 47th. The decline in press freedom continued ever since, as Poland was downgraded eight consecutive times.
For a comprehensive overview of the attacks on Poland’s independent media outlets initiated by members of the ruling camp between 2015 and 2021, please see this report prepared by Ewa Ivanova.
This piece is part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe in collaboration with leading independent media in the region. Any viewpoints expressed in these articles do not necessarily represent the views of IPI. Read more.