Boy’s Suicide in Poland Spurs Backlash Against State Media Tactics

As the host of a jaunty morning radio show, Grzegorz Piepke saw it as his job to “make listeners smile” as they prepared for work and avoided talking about Poland’s often venomous political struggles on air.

But last month, arriving at the studio of Radio Szczecin before dawn, he found red paint splattered over the entrance and a message to staff members: “You have blood on your hands.” He quit on air the same day. A fellow presenter did the same.

The radio station, part of a public broadcasting system controlled by Poland’s right-wing governing Law and Justice party, had become the target of public fury over what many see as its role in a political hit job that helped identify a 15-year-old sex abuse victim, the son of a local opposition politician. The boy later killed himself.

In a country bitterly polarized between left and right, Radio Szczecin, like other branches of a sprawling public broadcasting system that includes local and national radio and television stations, has increasingly been deployed as a battering ram against opponents of Law and Justice as the party prepares for elections expected this fall.

Mikolaj Filiks, whose mother, Magdalena, is a member of Parliament for the governing party’s biggest enemy, Civic Platform, committed suicide in March at the family’s Szczecin home after being publicly identified, largely on the basis of confidential information released by Radio Szczecin, as the victim of a jailed pedophile.

“Everybody knows there is a political war going on,” Mr. Piepke, the former presenter, said in an interview in Szczecin, his hometown in northwest Poland. “We don’t know which side started it but we do know that this hit led to the death of a child.”

The political war began when Law and Justice came to power in 2015, promising to defend traditional values, protect the Catholic Church, and give a voice to struggling voters living outside prosperous, liberal-controlled cities like Szczecin and Warsaw. Liberals responded with fury when the party restructured the judiciary to limit its independence, targeted the L.G.B.T.Q. community as a threat to Polish values, and rolled back already restricted abortion rights.

Despite a broad national consensus on the need to help neighboring Ukraine beat back Russia’s invading army, Poland’s domestic battles have grown even more vicious ahead of the general election, which needs to be held by November.

The vote will be a critical test of whether Europe’s right-wing populist wave has crested, at least in what had been particularly fertile ground for anti-liberal forces in formerly communist eastern lands like Poland, Hungary and Slovenia.

In addition to using public broadcasters for its own ends, Law and Order has also sought to limit the influence of independent outlets, notably an American-owned television channel, TVN24. The channel has been targeted in recent weeks over a documentary it broadcast critical of Pope John Paul II, who was born in Poland, and his handling of child sex abuse in the Polish church before he became pope.

The governing party’s eagerness to shield the church stands in stark contrast with the response of its media machine to the tragedy in Szczecin — tarring the opposition with accusations it sheltered a pedophile, while deflecting criticism of predatory priests.

The boy’s abuser, Krzysztof Falinski, a liberal Szczecin official who had championed L.G.B.T.Q. rights, was convicted in 2021 and has been in jail since, but his victims had never been publicly identified.

That changed in December when Tomasz Duklanowski, Radio Szczecin’s editor in chief, revealed on the station’s website that Mr. Falinski’s victims included the son of a “well-known legislator,” giving the boy’s age at the time of the trial as 13. While taking care of the boy and his 16-year-old sister in 2020, the editor reported, Mr. Falinski, a friend of the family, had offered the boy drugs and abused him.

Ms. Filiks was the only member of Parliament from Szczecin whose family matched all the details Mr. Duklanowski’s report gave.

Shortly after Radio Sczecin published the information, the boy began receiving calls and messages on his cellphone from friends — and also from his mother’s political foes — asking whether he had been abused sexually, the family’s lawyer, Mikolaj Marecki, said in an interview.

“It was not just his classmates who learned about his abuse. The whole of Poland found out,” the lawyer said. “You don’t need to be an expert in child psychology to understand that this was very upsetting.”

While suicide involves complex mental health issues, and the boy was also likely to have been suffering from the trauma of his abuse, many Poles believe that the public identification may have prompted him to take his own life.

But in an article this week, a pro-government weekly magazine, Sieci, blamed family “problems accumulating for some time” for the suicide, and portrayed Ms. Filiks, a single parent, as a bad mother who had neglected her children and spent too much time at anti-government protests.

Fueling suspicion that Radio Szczecin’s report was part of a broader political operation, is the fact that another arm of the public broadcasting system, the national television station TVP, published an almost identical report on its website two minutes earlier. TVP gave the source as Radio Szczecin, even though the radio station had not yet published the information.

A flood of messages quickly appeared on social media identifying Ms. Filiks’s son as the victim and accusing her and her allies of covering up the 2021 pedophilia case to protect Mr. Falinski, who before his arrest was well known for hostility toward Law and Justice.

One of the first people to draw a clear link between Ms. Filiks’s family and the 2021 pedophilia case was Dariusz Matecki, a conservative Szczecin city councilor closely allied with Poland’s hard-line justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, with whom Ms. Filiks had been locked in a bitter fight over allegations of corruption in the national forests agency.

In an interview, Mr. Matecki said that Radio Szczecin had served the “public interest” by bringing the case to public attention. “There was no direct link,” he said, between the station’s report and the suicide of the teenager.

But, complaining that “the whole church has been stigmatized with pedophilia” by liberal media outlets, he said it was unfair that sex abuse in the opposition camp was rarely mentioned. “The opposition doesn’t take a tough stance against abuse when it is happening in its own ranks, only when it happens in the Catholic church,” he said.

Ms. Filiks has stayed silent on the polemics swirling around public broadcasting. But her lawyer, Mr. Marecki, said she was “convinced that Radio Szczecin contributed to her son’s death and that this all happened for political reasons.”

The station’s editor in chief, Mr. Duklanowski, declined to comment, but told Gazeta Polska, a pro-government newspaper, that he “did not provide information that would identify these people.”

Until Ms. Filiks’s son killed himself, public broadcasting and private media outlets supporting Law and Justice feasted on a story that they presented as an example of hypocrisy on the left — saying that the pedophilia of a sexual predator who had supported liberal causes had been kept secret.

Mr. Marecki, the lawyer, dismissed this as a fabrication. “The narrative that the abuse was covered up by the opposition is obviously not true,” he said. “Magdalena Filiks informed law enforcement as soon as it happened. The culprit was dismissed from his job. There was a trial and he was sent to prison.”

What began as a political bonanza for Law and Justice, however, began to boomerang when Mikolaj Filiks killed himself, leaving Radio Szczecin and other public broadcasting outlets like TVP vulnerable to accusations that they had contributed to his death.

Donald Tusk, the leader of Civic Platform, denounced Law and Justice and its media allies as “disgusting hyenas dancing over a corpse. You have crossed the line.”

Alarmed by a rising tide of anger directed at Radio Szczecin, 40 employees of the station recently signed an open letter to management: “We want to say out loud that NOT EVERYONE at Radio Szczecin agrees with the involvement of public media in the political struggle.”

Having spent weeks attacking Ms. Filiks and her allies as “covering up” the old pedophilia case, TVP quickly shifted gears after the suicide, telling viewers falsely that the opposition had itself revealed the boy’s identity.

“Civic Platform killed Mikolaj,” read one TVP headline.

“I can’t watch this stuff anymore,” said Ewa Marciniak, a political science professor at Warsaw University and director of a government-funded polling organization. “The level of political hostility and animosity has become so high it is unbearable.”

For Mr. Piepke, the former radio host, the whole saga is “revolting” — an alarming sign of how Poland’s polarized politics have eroded basic decency.

Liberal-minded friends, he said, had long questioned his decision to take a job at Radio Szczecin but “my aim was to show that you can be apolitical and work for Polish radio.” That, he said, was a mistake: “I was fleeing from politics but politics caught up with me.”

Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

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