When resident doctors went on strike in 2017, senior editors at state broadcaster TVP commissioned and approved an article smearing leaders of the strike with false personal attacks, according to the court testimony of a former journalist who co-wrote the story.
The article in question, titled “They complain about wages, [but] they eat caviar canapes”, was published on the website of the news channel TVP Info. Over the last four years, TVP has become a propaganda mouthpiece for the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, used to promote and praise the government while attacking its opponents.
The story published by TVP included photographs of leaders of the doctors’ strike taken from their social media accounts and designed to suggest that, despite their demands for better pay, they actually lived a life of luxury.
One of them, Katarzyna Pikulska, was shown in pictures from “exotic corners of the world”, such as Tanzania and Kurdistan. In actual fact, Pikulska had visited these places not on holiday, but as a volunteer with a medical charity to help in local hospitals (as the state radio broadcaster had reported a year earlier).
TVP’s report was eventually taken offline following criticism of its misleading nature. However, Pikulska decided to sue TVP for the false claims it had made against her, demanding that it issue her with an apology and pay 300,000 złoty to charity. This week, the case reached court, reports Gazeta Wyborcza.
One of the first witnesses was Ziemowit Kossakowski, a co-author of the story who no longer works for TVP. Kossakowski claimed in court that the chief publisher of TVP Info’s website had ordered him to write the article and had sent him links to all the necessary material, telling him it had been verified. When Kossakowski raised doubts about its veracity, he was again reassured that the material was reliable.
Kossakowski then sent the final text to the publisher and to the head of the TVP Info website, saying in court that it was then “their competence to oversee…the editorial process”. He noted that the title of article “came from the editors”.
Kossakowski described himself – an inexperienced journalist who at 22 years of age was the youngest in the newsroom – as “a tool used to attack the resident doctors”. He later tweeted an image of himself outside court apologising to Pikulska, whom he called “a courageous doctor wrongly slandered by TVP”.
Po złożeniu zeznań w charakterze świadka, przeprosiłem osobiście doktor Katarzynę Pikulską, odważną lekarkę-rezydentkę, którą została niesłusznie pomówiona dwa lata temu przez TVP.
Przeprosiony zostały przyjęte. pic.twitter.com/CeJ1QJJVEk
— Ziemowit Kossakowski (@ZKossakowski) November 20, 2019
In response to Kossakowski’s testimony, Samuel Pereira, the head of TVP Info and one of those accused of editing and approving the article, hit back. He claimed that he was not even at work on the day in question, and said that it was Kossakowski who deceived the publisher, not vice versa, by assuring him that the material in the story had been verified.
Kossakowski was later suspended from work at TVP Info due to the article and his contract was then allowed to expire.
Kossakowski himself is a controversial figure. He is one of a number of young, right-wing bloggers and internet personalities who found themselves employed by state media after the change in government in 2015. He had been known for making xenophobic statements, including saying that “Islamists should hang from trees”. He also stood as a PiS local election candidate, but the party reportedly cut ties with him due to his controversial remarks.
Katarzyna Pikulska’s case against TVP Info continues, with the next hearing due to take place on 16 April.
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.