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Poland7 April 2006

Media climate poses threat to press freedom

Reporters Without Borders today voiced concern about repeated press freedom violations in Poland in recent months, in which journalists have protested against the favours received by ultra-conservative media from pro-government parties, a privately-owned TV station was fined for criticising a fundamentalist Catholic radio station, and a monthly censored itself out of fear of government reprisals.

“The current media climate is very disturbing,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The conservative Catholic media are clearing benefiting from their ties with the ruling coalition. The High Council for Broadcasting (KRRiT) should show some concern about this situation, which threatens news diversity.”

The Catholic ultra-conservative TV station Trwam, which belongs to a media group headed by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, got exclusive coverage of an accord between the ruling conservatives, the far-right and anti-free market populists on 2 February. Only journalists from Rydzyk’s group were invited when the accord was signed, triggering an outcry from the rest of the press.

Father Rydzyk runs Trwam, the influential national radio station Radio Maryja, the daily newspaper Nasz Dziennik and even a journalism school. During last autumn’s election campaign, he and his news media came out strongly in favour of the conservative and Catholic parties including the Law and Justice party (PiS) led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the president’s brother.

The KRRiT fined the privately-owned national TV station Polsat 500,000 zlotys (125,000 euros) on 22 March for “violating the dignity of [well-known presenter] Magda Buczek and the religious feelings of the listeners and viewer of her programmes on Radio Maryja and Trwam” because a guest on a Polsat talk-show imitated her voice, suggested she was an “old maid” and referred disparagingly to her inviting little children to pray on the air.

The next day, on 23 March, the publisher of the monthly Sukces decided he had better manually cut out a page with a sensitive article from each of the 90,000 copies of the April issue that was already printed and was about to distributed.

The offending article was one by columnist Manuela Gretkowska, who had written in the February issue that the Kaczynski brothers had no father when they were children. This elicited a warning from the presidential press service. In her column for the April issue, Gretkowska had acknowledged she was wrong but went on to accuse the Kaczynski brothers of lies. When the publisher decided the column would have to be removed, editor Karolina Korwin-Piotrowska, who had approved it, immediately took sick leave.

The last surviving leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Marek Edelman, on 2 April accused Radio Maryja of broadcasting openly anti-Semitic comments. According to Agence France-Presse, one of the station’s commentators, Stanislaw Michalkiewicz, said on 27 March that “Jews have humiliated Poland internationally by demanding money” for goods and property expropriated during World War II. He reportedly added that Jews “sneak up behind us to try to oblige our government to pay them money on the pretext of these demands.” The KRRiT has never criticised Radio Maryja for its xenophobic and sometime anti-Semitics comments.

The Polish constitutional court meanwhile ruled on 23 March that the way the head of the KRRiT is appointed - by the president - was unconstitutional. The broadcasting law would have to be amended because the KRRiT was too dependent on the government, the court said.

Press offences are still punishable by imprisonment in Poland. The most recent reminder of this was in 2002, when journalist Andrzej Marek received a three-month suspended sentence for libel. After a drawn-out legal battle, he was returned to prison on 16 January of this year, but the constitutional court released him two days later and suspended the sentence.

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