Something rotten in the state of Poland

Newsweek Poland
A "Newsweek" cover showing Poland's minister of justice. The headline says: Ziobro has to answer questions.

It exposed that invoices for hundreds of
thousands of euros were issued by the party’s friends and that the
Polish minister of justice appeared to be at the heart of a fraud perpetrated against the European Parliament (EP).

A Danish journalist, Peter Jeppesen, and I
– together with my colleague Michal published our stories on the same
day, on 15 November. I published – together with my colleague Michal
Krzymowski – my part in the Polish weekly Newsweek Polandand he did it in the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet.

We were confident in our material, which
contained witness statements, recorded interviews, and documents. It was
one of those strong stories that journalism students dreamt of.

Who would have thought that such a splash – involving a government minister – could simply be ignored in Poland?

What prompted the collaboration between a Danish and a Polish journalist in the first place?

The answer to that question is the
history of Meld – the Movement for a Europe of Liberties and
Democracy. Meld was an EU-level party founded in 2011. Populist MEPs
from Denmark, Lithuania, and Poland, among other states used it to
support the work of the eurosceptic right in the EU assembly .

Meld’s troubles began last October when
Rikke Karlsson, an independent Danish MEP, asked Morten Messerschmidt, a
Danish eurosceptic deputy, how it spent its allocation of EP funds.

She began asking questions after having
been named as a Meld board member without her knowledge. When
Messerschmidt refused to grant her access to Meld’s accounts, she
resigned from the party in protest in the first scene of what became a
political drama in Denmark.

Journalists had discovered that Meld
received EP funds for EU-related symposiums and workshops that never
took place. In Denmark, Meld had instead used hundreds of thousands of
euros obtained from the EP to work on the campaign of the right-wing
populist Danish People’s Party.

I got information that fictional
symposiums may also have taken place in Poland. The information
concerned Solidarna Polska – a minor, right-wing party that is currently
in a coalition with the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. In one
example, Newsweek Poland found a document confirming that Meld had paid
for a climate conference for 800 people to be organised in Poland. The
document said it took place in Krakow on 30 June 2013.

There was just one problem: No such event took place in Krakow on that day.

Instead, the largest room of the Kiev cinema in the city served as a venue for a Solidarna Polska party convention held under the slogan “A new state, a new constitution”. It brought together 1,200 party sympathisers in a US-type rally with flags and banners. The party leader’s fiery speech did not say one word on climate change. When we started to investigate, Solidarna Polska removed content from YouTube about the “climate” meeting.

Piotr Dabrik
Zbigniew Ziobro

The Polish
politicians involved in the case were all linked to PiS, which came to
power in autumn 2015.  For a few years, Meld’s Brussels faction was led
by Jacek Wlosowicz, a former Solidarna Polska treasurer who is now a PiS
senator. Wlosowicz was also the right-hand man of Zbigniew Ziobro, the
head of Solidarna Polska, who now serves as Poland’s minister of
justice. Jacek Kurski, another character in our story, is now president
of Polish public broadcaster TVP.

On top of the bogus climate conference in
Krakow, other Meld funds were transferred to its friends in Poland, who
then sent substantial donations to Ziobro’s party. Some suspect
donations appeared to have been funnelled by relatives prior to Poland’s
2015 election. Ziobro family members donated 437,000 Polish zloty
(€98,000) to his party. One of Wlosowicz’s elderly relatives, who lived
modestly in a block of flats in a poor district in the Polish town of
Kielce, also made donations. Jacek Kurski, a former Solidarna Polska
MEP, received three transfers, totalling 42,000 zloty, from his 20-year
old daughter the week before the Polish vote.

Newsweek Poland asked if it was possible
that the politicians’ co-workers, friends, and family were sending money
that was not theirs?

We never got an answer.

Accusing a minister of being involved in obscure financial scams – that is serious stuff.

In any case, it was taken seriously in
Denmark, where Jeppesen’s text in Ekstra Bladet, including on the Polish
thread in the Meld affair, had an impact and was widely quoted in
newspapers and on TV.

In Poland, we do things differently.

When Newsweek Poland published its online
edition on Sunday evening, the day before the print edition, Wlosowicz
threatened to sue us and to sue other Polish media if they quoted the
article. The main Polish online news providers did not dare to cite or
follow up on our story, those who did, withdraw.

Wlosowicz, who was president of Meld
until its closure, also denied any link to the Danish case. He said in a
statement that the EU’s anti-fraud office, Olaf, “has challenged only
[Messerschmidt’s] expenditure … and this at a time when politicians

Solidarna Polska no longer belonged to the Meld”. Wlosowicz is a small fish. We’ve been waiting for days for Ziobro, Poland’s minister of justice, and Kurski, the TVP chief, to reply to the Newsweek Poland revelations.

We’re not holding our breaths for their answer.

The reason the reaction to the story in
Poland was total silence probably has more to with the political climate
change than with the fictional climate conference in Krakow. The Polish
political atmosphere had changed since the 2015 elections.

In today’s Poland, a journalist can
publish a story showing that government members stole money from the
European Parliament, but that does not mean that anybody will be held
accountable.
The Bureau of the European Parliament decided in
May 2016 that the ‘European party’ MELD and the affiliated fund FELD
had misused funds for 400.000 Euros, which should be recovered. In
Denmark, the Danish MEP involved in the affair, Messerschmidt,
subsequently agreed to repay 134.000 Euros of EU funds.

In Poland, three days after our
publication, Ziobro held a press conference in which he said: “Me and my
deputies, both in the ministry of justice as well as the prosecutor’s
office, are guided by the principle: the state has to protect the honest
and be ruthless against those who break the law.”

When we asked him about the Meld affair,
he declined to answer. He blushed a bit, then smiled for a while,
before abruptly leaving the press conference. I had asked him twice:
which of the prosecutor’s offices that is subordinate to you will
address this issue? In Poland, all prosecutors are subordinate to the
justice minister.

How can the same story be a scandal in
Denmark and nothing in Poland? How can the minister of justice, who is
facing allegations of fraud, just walk away from questions?

I’ve struggled to answer these questions.

Perhaps the European Union for Poles is
still a distant thing, something that they and their politicians treat
like a piggy bank, a source of easy grants, rather than as a club with
rules and values. Poland, since the 2015 elections, has come to resemble
the Hungary of prime minister Viktor Orban, where party-loyal media do
not ask hard questions and where ministers also feel immune from
scrutiny.

Maybe what we are living in is a golden age of populism.

Nobody in Poland believes that Olaf will
lift the lid on this case, but unless the EU imposes some checks and
balances from the outside, politicians like Ziobro will be able to keep
on laughing. I believe that Ziobro’s statement – that the state has to
protect the honest and be ruthless against those who break the law –
will, one day, come to be the case in Poland, despite him.

This is not just about how politicians
handle bad PR. It is about living in the liberal, democratic Europe that
we all signed up to.

This post was also published by EUObserver and Zeit Online (German) .