When Thomasz Piatek’s publisher released his explosive book last month about Poland’s defense minister, the well-known investigative journalist was braced for a defamation suit.
What he didn’t expect was a criminal complaint, lodged with the military bureau of Poland’s prosecutor-general’s office, charging him with “using force or threats against a public official” and “public insults or humiliation of a constitutional body.”
If it results in a prosecution and a guilty verdict, the complaint could produce a three-year jail sentence for the journalist.
Now, press freedom organizations in Europe and the United States are protesting Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz’s effort to put away Piatek, who is also a former freelancer for the Forward.
On Tuesday, 10 press freedom watchdog groups released an open letter to Macierewicz, declaring themselves “very concerned” about his effort to put Piatek on trial.
“In our view, there are absolutely no grounds for subjecting a civilian to military justice in connection with his writings,” wrote the coalition of press freedom groups, which include Freedom House, the International Press Institute and Reporters Without Borders.
The letter was released on the same day that the Polish Parliament, at the instigation of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party, voted to sharply rein in the political independence of Poland’s Supreme Court. Amid increasing concerns about the state of Poland’s democracy, the press organizations voiced their concerns about Piatek in the context of what the signatories described as “a broader 2-year-old offensive against freedoms in Poland.”
They added: “The organizations signing this letter therefore urge you to abandon these proceedings against this journalist.”
For a response from the Polish government, the Forward reached out to Alicia Tunk, vice consul of the Polish Consulate, in New York. She said she could not comment on Piatek’s case or on the letter from the press freedom watchdog groups, as she was not familiar with either.
Prior to his book, in a July 2016 article for the Forward, Piatek documented Macierewicz’s role, before his ascension to the defense ministry, as the founder, editor-in-chief, co-owner of and, frequently, author for the far-right newspaper Głos (Voice). During the 1990s, when Macierewicz was most actively involved in the publication, the paper routinely ran anti-Semitic articles and cartoons.
Piatek’s book, “Macierewicz and His Secrets,” contains further allegations about the defense minister who, as the Polish military’s civilian chief on the front line with Russia, works closely with NATO, of which Poland is a member.
According to Piatek’s book, Macierewicz, a purportedly hard-line, anti-Russian political leader in Poland’s nationalist government, has a long history of ties to paramilitary organizations that recruited pro-Russian neo-Nazi youngsters and members of an openly pro-Kremlin party into its ranks. Piatek reports that the defense minister has incorporated these militias into Poland’s civil defense forces. As part of these forces, the militia groups, he writes, were deployed in NATO’s 2016 Anaconda military exercise — the largest NATO maneuvers near Russia’s borders since the end of the Cold War.
The book also alleges long-standing ties between Macierewicz and individuals who work with the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, as well as members of the Russian mafia.
“My book is very well documented,” said Piatek, who is a regular contributor to Gazeta Wyborcza, a major Polish daily newspaper that first rose out of the 1980s Solidarity movement, a movement that ousted communism in the country. “It’s full of notes, links to the internet and on-the-record sources and court records. Everyone can see my sources and see if I’m doing a good interpretation of them.”
In his in-depth article last year for the Forward, Piatek reviewed Macierewicz’s record as director and editor-in-chief of Glos and found 43 anti-Semitic articles, some signed by Macierewicz himself, in 1996 alone.
One article penned by Macierewicz denounced as “a brazen lie and a defamation” the documented slaughter of 40 Polish Jewish survivors of the Holocaust by their non-Jewish Polish neighbors in Kielce when they returned to the town in 1946, after World War II.
Another, in June 1996, blamed “Jewish circles” for the finding by historians across the spectrum that local Poles committed the Kielce murders. A July 1996 article asserted that American Jews were financing Hitler and Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The paper also carried cartoons with classically anti-Semitic images of Jews.
Now, Piatek told the Forward, “I’m waiting for information from the government” about what happens next. According to procedure following such complaints, the government’s prosecutor-general must conduct an inquiry and decide if a prosecution is warranted. Though sounding shaken, Piatek voiced gratitude at the support he’d received from the press freedom groups and from opposition members of parliament.
Meantime, the author admitted, the charges haven’t hurt book sales: “Macierewicz and His Secrets” has sold 80,000 copies during its first month out. “That’s a good number in Poland,” he said.
Contact Larry Cohler-Esses at firstname.lastname@example.org
Larry Cohler-Esses is the Forward’s senior investigative writer. He joined the staff in December 2008. Previously, he served as Editor-at-Large for the Jewish Week, an investigative reporter for the New York Daily News, and as a staff writer for the Jewish Week as well as the Washington Jewish Week. Larry has written extensively on the Arab-Jewish relations both in the United States and the Middle East. His articles have won awards from the Society for Professional Journalists, the Religious Newswriters Association, the New York Press Association and the Rockower Awards for Jewish Journalism, among others. Larry Cohler-Esses can be reached at email@example.com.