Shake-up in the Press Over TNT Claims
December 21, 2012
A controversial article in one of Poland’s leading dailies claiming that investigators found traces of explosives in the wreck of the plane that crashed in 2010, killing the Polish president and 95 others, has triggered a shake-up in the right-leaning press. A string of journalists were sacked after military prosecutors said the paper’s claims were untrue.
In an Oct. 30, 2012 article, the Rzeczpospolita broadsheet, which has regularly criticized the Donald Tusk government, claimed that investigators had found traces of TNT and nitroglycerin on the remains of the presidential plane, which crashed in Smolensk, Russia. For Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, this was evidence that his twin brother, President Lech Kaczyński, had died as the result of a bomb plot, rather than in an ordinary plane crash.
PiS has been voicing such theories for months. Soon after the article was published, Jarosław Kaczyński said the theory that the president had been assassinated should be treated from then on as a fact. But he did not name who he believed stood behind the plot.
However, military prosecutors conducting an investigation into the Smolensk crash denied the claims in the Rzeczpospolita article. Col. Ireneusz Szeląg, head of the district military prosecutors’ office in Warsaw, said that the equipment used in Smolensk to examine the wreckage can react in the same way to pesticides, solvents and cosmetics as to explosives.
The prosecutors also said that the devices used to examine the wreckage in Smolensk had reacted in the same way during tests on a second Tupolev plane owned by the Polish government, similar to the aircraft which crashed near Smolensk. The devices gave a reading that could indicate the presence of “high-energy” materials, including explosive materials. The experiment designed to check the devices that had been used by investigators to examine the wreckage in Smolensk was conducted after Rzeczpospolita published its controversial article. Various parts of the second Tupolev plane—which did not crash—were examined, including the crew’s seats, crew seat belts, passenger seat belts and the VIP lounge.
Autopsies performed in Poland on several victims of the Smolensk crash indicate clearly that there had been no explosion aboard the presidential plane. No evidence such as burned hair, singed eyelashes and eyebrows, scalded or burned skin, extensive burns to the lungs, or carbon dioxide in the blood was found. Experts say that if there had been an explosion it would have caused a heat wave with a temperature of around 3,000 degrees Celsius and a pressure wave, and both would have left marks on the bodies.
Amid a political row ignited by the Rzeczpospolita article, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Tomasz Wróblewski, was fired by the newspaper’s owner Grzegorz Hajdarowicz. Also fired was the reporter who wrote the controversial piece, Cezary Gmyz, a well-known investigative journalist, along with two other colleagues. Hajdarowicz offered an apology for publishing the article, which—as he put it—had not been based on reliable sources. However, Gmyz is still insisting that his sources are credible. But he has refused to disclose their names, despite a request by the publisher. A group of right-wing journalists protested in defense of Gmyz, citing the right to freedom of speech and reporters’ obligations to protect their sources. A poster campaign was even conducted in Warsaw by Gmyz’s colleagues in support of him.
Critics of Hajdarowicz’s decision claimed that ever since he bought an over 50-percent stake in the daily in July 2011, he has interfered in the paper’s editorial content and fired reporters for being too critical of the ruling government coalition. In the first half of October last year, Hajdarowicz bought the remaining stakes and became the sole owner of the daily. This is when, his opponents claim, he launched another drive to bring Rzeczpospolita’s editorial staff to heel, a drive that also took in the Uważam Rze weekly published by the same group. The weekly was often even harsher in its criticism of the government.
At the height of the row, Hajdarowicz met on several occasions and in an atmosphere of secrecy with government spokesman Paweł Graś, whom he has known for years. Right-wing political commentators immediately expressed their outrage and alleged that Hajdarowicz was trying to strike a deal with the government to ensure public sector institutions did not pull out of booking space for official announcements in Rzeczpospolita. Such advertising contributes significantly to the paper’s profits. The condition that the government allegedly set Hajdarowicz is that he should stop attacking the ruling coalition and water down criticism voiced by Rzeczpospolita and other newspapers he owns.
Heads also rolled at Uważam Rze. Paweł Lisicki was dismissed as editor-in-chief. In protest, almost all the top journalists, commentators and columnists quit the weekly. The editorial staff was almost completely replaced. Those who quit announced that they planned to set up a new right-wing weekly. Meanwhile, the new editorial team at Uważam Rze announced that they would continue to remain critical of the government when they saw fit. This, however, did not convince readers. Uważam Rze sales dropped sharply and the magazine lost its status as one of Poland’s most influential weeklies.