Poland: In the land of gag lawsuits, a leading investigative journalist has been convicted without being heard by the court
The laureate of the Press Freedom Award of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Tomasz Piatek, has learnt about being sentenced to eight months of community service from the pro-government media. RSF supports his efforts towards the review of the verdict in the defamation case and his appeal in another lawsuit, also launched from the circles of Poland’s ruling party.
Update: On 10 May 2023, a Warsaw appeal court rejected Tomasz Piatek's request for a resumption of proceedings after he had been convicted for defamation without ever being heard. Considering that the investigative journalist "chose the wrong mode to challenge the verdict", the court suggested filing a cassation in the case. RSF asks the Polish Ombudsman Marcin Wiacek to take this action as he is the only one with the competence to do so.
"One of Poland's most renowned journalists has been convicted without being heard by the court. Indeed, the judicial authorities have not performed the necessary diligence to ensure his right to a fair trial is respected. We support Tomasz Piatek as he prepares to stand before judges again on 30 November in yet another defamation case. He defends press freedom and his public-interest journalism as David against Goliath.
If there was an intent to deny the journalist Tomasz Piatek his rights, the trial would not have looked different. Targeted with a criminal defamation lawsuit by a billionaire close to the Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the journalist was convicted by the Warsaw - Srodmiescie district court on 27 October without ever being heard.
The lawsuit was based on article 212 of the Criminal Code, which - according to Tomasz Piatek’s lawyer, Dawid Biernat - obliges the court to give the defendant an opportunity to respond to the charges. The journalist, however, was not aware of the proceedings, because he never received summons to his current address. The official reason: the judicial authorities were sending the mail to his old address where he was officially registered and where he received the indictment.
While it can be argued that Tomasz Piatek should have notified the court of his new address, the journalist - a frequent victim of lawsuits because of his investigations - did not avoid the trial on purpose, believing he can be reached via his lawyers, known to the judicial authorities, or via his publisher.
RSF believes that the principles of good faith, as well as the basic requirements of the right to a fair trial would have required that the court takes all necessary measures to ensure the journalist is properly summoned and has the opportunity to address the criminal accusations made against him. Until this was the case, the trial should have been postponed. In fact, the mere resending of the summon to Tomasz Piatek’s publisher would have been sufficient to that end.
The laureate of RSF’s 2017 Press Freedom Award has learnt about the verdict from the pro-government media which published the information after the deadline for the appeal : a conviction to eight months of community service at 20 hours a month for writing in his book Morawiecki and his secrets (Morawiecki i jego tajemnice, 2019) that the businessman had ties to Russia and played a role in the 2014 wiretapping scandal that caused a government crisis.
The investigative journalist will stand before the judge again on 30 November 2022 in another defamation case, also related to certain public officials’ alleged links to Russia. A Warsaw district court will hear his appeal against the verdict whose reversal is also demanded by RSF.
Tomasz Piatek was convicted in June 2022 to a €1,000 fine and an apology through the media to a Polish military officer. Colonel Krzysztof Gaj, who is also a former aide to the Prime Minister and former employee of the Defense Ministry, had filed a complaint against Tomasz Piatek over his book about the former Minister of Defense, Antoni Macierewicz and his Secrets (Antoni Macierewicz i jego tajemnice, 2017). A book that earned the journalist the RSF Award.
Despite RSF’s calls, a Warsaw district court ruled that the reporter “slandered” Krzysztof Gaj by claiming in 2017 that he wrote that he supported the invasion of Ukraine and had "dangerous ties to the Kremlin, the mafia and lobbying".
Poland, which was condemned last year by the Court of Justice of the European Union for its controversial judicial reform, was declared on 20 October 2022 “the SLAPP country of the year” by the European SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) contest. The prize given out by a coalition of NGOs including RSF was awarded to Poland, because it “provided the most favourable conditions” for gag lawsuits in 2021-2022.
Poland is ranked 66th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index.