Polish wire-tapping scandal sets a challenge for the press

A prosecutors’ raid on Polish weekly Wprost, which published the recorded conversations of top Polish politicians, poses questions about freedom of the press in Poland. But the whole scandal says even more about the state of the media in Poland. After 25 years of democracy, now is a good time to ask how free and professional they really are.

Foto: CreativeCommons/Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres

The wire-tapping scandal has been at the top of the Polish political agenda for the last several weeks. In June, Wprost published excerpts from eavesdropped conversations between key Polish politicians and businessmen, including the internal affairs minister, the head of diplomacy, the finance minister and the head of the central bank. According to the weekly, there are still hundreds of hours of taped conversations, which took place in restaurants at different dates over the last year. Wprost did not disclose the source of the information, but only declared that it got the tapes from “a businessman”.

What is in the recordings? One conversation that sounded obviously criminal – a politician asking a colleague to do something with the tax investigation against his wife. Internal Affairs Minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz asking whether the central bank could help his government if the economy was in trouble. Polish Chief of Diplomacy Radosław Sikorski calling Polish-US relations “worthless” and saying that “we gave the Americans a blow job”.

The investigation into the illegal recordings started immediately after publication. A few days later, prosecutors raided the offices of Wprost with special forces agents and police. They demanded that the journalists hand over the media on which the conversations were stored. After hours of unsuccessful negotiations, special agents tried to remove the editor-in-chief’s laptop by force. They were stopped by a large group of journalists from different media organisations who gathered in the office of Wprost to protest against the raid. The weekly voluntarily passed the tapes on to the prosecutors the next day.

We still do not know what the effects of the investigation will be (three people have been charged: two waiters and a businessman) or the political implications (the ruling party suffered losses in public opinion polls). But the whole scandal has posed important questions about media freedom in Poland, as well as the general state of the country’s media.

How far can the state go?

The raid by prosecutors, special agents and police on the Wprost office was the first of its kind in Polish history following the fall of communism. The investigators wanted to get their hands on storage media with recordings, while editor-in-chief Sylwester Latkowski refused on the grounds of professional secrecy.

The right to keep the sources of your information anonymous is one of the bases of a free press. The information must be released only when the court tells you to do so, and judges can only issue such an order in the case of a few serious crimes which are listed in the legislation. Illegal wire-tapping is not one of them. In cases of crime, the media usually cooperate voluntarily with the authorities.

From a formal point of view, during the search for and retention of the evidence in the Wprost office, there was no violation of criminal procedure. The prosecutor and the police are allowed to search a room in order to find evidence in a case if they have reasonable grounds to suppose that the evidence may be present there. If the owner refuses to release it, the prosecutor may decide to take it by force.

However, more than a hundred Polish journalists signed a protest against the raid. Even Justice Minister Marek Biernacki has admitted that the prosecutors’ measures were disproportionate and inappropriate for the situation. He added that the prosecutors’ actions raise doubts about the standards of conduct regarding information collected by journalists.

During a press conference, Monika Olejnik, one of the most popular journalists in Poland, told the Prime Minister that he “had lost the media”. However, journalistic solidarity soon broke down as people from the media began to question Wprost‘s methods, especially following the publication of the next recordings.

How far can the media go?

Wprost stated in an article that it published the conversations to serve the public good, so that the public could learn about the secret dealings of politicians. Another reason the weekly gives is to guard the state. “If someone records the key politicians in the country over dinner, it’s an alarm for Polish security forces”, wrote Latkowski. In his opinion, the role of journalists is not to protect the authorities, but “to show where the state works badly or doesn’t work at all. To write the truth, even when it is painful”.

Was this really the case? In the second part of the recorded conversations, it was hard to find anyone who broke the law. Attention was brought mainly to the blunt words spoken by Minister Sikorski on Polish-US relations, which undermined his international position and might cost him the post of EU Chief of Diplomacy, which Poland is applying for in Brussels.

This example brings up a question: should a free media worry about national interests and the state? The Guardian and The Washington Post published Edward Snowden’s leaks concerning American security services spying on nearly everyone on this planet. They did that despite accusations that it would harm the current American administration and US relations with allies, and despite the easily foreseeable campaign against them. Simply put, the newspapers decided that publication was in the public interest.

But the press also often collaborates with the authorities when it comes to national security and the country’s international standing. This is possible when it does not compromise their independence and journalistic standards. One example: when the same Washington Post published a story on CIA black holes in Europe, it initially withheld the information that they were located in Poland and Romania at the request of the authorities.

Many senior Polish journalists have criticised Wprost. “The so-called ‘Wprost tapes’ are a disgrace to investigative journalism, possibly the ultimate one. Over a decade, this kind of journalism – which is costly and requires a lot of work – is being displaced by leaks from security services. (…) In this case, there are two scenarios; I don’t know which is worse. Either the author of the publication was taking part in the wire-tapping, or the weekly is a passive tool in the hands of an unidentified group”, wrote Jerzy Baczyński , editor-in-chief of weekly Polityka.

Latkowski admitted later that his newspaper got the tapes just a day before sending the weekly to the press, meaning that it did not have time for proper journalistic work.

Tomasz Lis, editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska, wrote that the Polish case “can’t be compared to Watergate, but to the scandal of tabloid News of the World, which was illegally wire-tapping people and using the information in its articles”. He listed the things that Wprost should have done but did not do before publication: it did not contact the recorded politicians or the Prime Minister; check if the alleged deal between the Internal Affairs Minister and the central banker was unconstitutional and if there really was any deal; or, last but not least, try to find out why someone was revealing the recordings to the press.

Critics reminded the public of the proper conditions under which the press is allowed to use tapes, wire-tapping or a journalistic provocation. Firstly, when there is no official way to get a certain piece of knowledge that is really important for the public opinion. Secondly, when there is a suspicion that someone has broken the law. Long parts of the conversations published by Wprost did not meet these conditions.

The press under pressure

Why does the media break these rules? “When you don’t know what it’s all about, it must be about money”, as the old saying goes. For many years in the West and for some time in Poland, the sound economic position of the media was the best guardian of its quality. Now, with circulation and advertising revenues shrinking due to the expansion of the internet, the rules have become looser. The rising importance of web services, which publish everything “as it happens”, increases the pressure on the media.

“The media today is mainly a business. Talking about its mission and public responsibility is ridiculous and embarrassing. The buzz, quotations, attractiveness of publication, and especially ability to raise emotions – these are the things that count”, wrote Baczyński. “The most important are swearing, talking about penis length, gossip and nasty remarks. The sense of the conversation and its context get drowned in this sauce, becoming a single scandal.”

The history of Wprost is a good example of the tabloidisation of the mainstream press. The weekly started as a regional newspaper in Poznań, western Poland. It was seen as a voice of reformists in the Communist Party, and it kept a distance from the authorities in Warsaw. In the late eighties and nineties it became a liberal mainstream newspaper, and one of the most popular weeklies in the country.

But recently, as the press market started tumbling, the newspaper found itself in trouble. In the last eight years, it has had six different editors-in-chief. The editorial line and concept of the weekly has changed every now and then; once it was right-wing, then liberal again. Latkowski, editor-in-chief since last year, also changed the concept of the weekly. It now specialises in publishing sensational stories from the lives of celebrities. The first material which grabbed public attention was the story of a businessman and former top tennis player who was recruiting girls to be mistresses for certain other businessmen.

However, the new strategy did not bring significant success, at least until the wire-tapping scandal. Ten years ago, the weekly was selling 168,000 copies a week; now it sells 50,000. The main competitors – Polityka and Newsweek Polska – are far ahead, with more than 120,000 (as of Q1 2014).

The prosecutor’s office made a grave mistake in raiding the Wprost office, but this does not mean that the weekly has become an innocent warrior for the freedom of the press. With the growing influence of tabloids and internet services, the whole media landscape is changing – not only in Poland, but in the whole Western world. One thing is for sure: as wire-tapping becomes easier and easier, and as we see more and more publications like those in Wprost, the rules for the media need to be reinvented.

Łukasz Lipiński

Łukasz Lipiński

is the vice-director of Polityka Insight, a centre for political analysis based in Warsaw. From 1998-2012 he was an editor on the national, foreign and economics desks of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.