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Shutting down criticism in Poland

by MarekNYC Fri Mar 17th, 2006 at 11:07:15 AM EST

When the new Polish government came to power this fall it immediately set about taking control of the state TV.  Being a rather cynical person I wasn't too worried - every Polish government has done so. It also issued thinly veiled warnings to press critics, again, par for the course. When it called the half fascist, half ultra fundy Catholic (think Austria in the thirties or postwar Franco) press empire of Father Rydzyk `the only free press' in Poland I was disgusted, but again, felt that some of the governments opponents were a bit over the top in their dire warnings about the future of Poland's free press (supposedly the most independent of all the post communist countries). But now they're taking over one of Poland's two `serious' daily papers, and now I am worried.

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The newspaper in question is Rzeczpospolita. It is quite right wing - neoliberal in economics, neocon in foreign policy, center right on `moral' issues and the proud owner of an excellent, ideologically all over the map, weekly feuilleton supplement.  It  also has some of the best investigative journalism in Poland, deployed in a completely non partisan manner against corruption and crony capitalism of all political colours.  As you might imagine, everyone is certain that it is the last of Rzeczpospolita's characteristics that the government is interested in getting under control.

The paper was a dry as dust, langue de bois government mouthpiece under the old regime, then it was turned over to a bunch of journalists who'd been fired under martial law and/or who had gotten their experience in the underground press. It has since served as a dependable right wing counterpart to the center/social-liberal Gazeta Wyborcza, its rival in the quality newspaper market. The first post-communist government sold 51% of the ownership to a Norwegian media company and kept the rest. However, in spite of occasional threats, no subsequent government actually used its ownership stake to curb criticism. The previous government certainly must have been tempted - the editorial line was virulently hostile and the post communists provided a veritable gold mine for the investigative journalists.  But it's not just the post-communists that have been damaged by Rzeczpospolita's reporters. The post-Solidarity government that preceded them benefited from ideological sympathy but it didn't stop it from being the subject of numerous exposes, including one that brought down a powerful local political boss (the governor of Upper Silesia) and prompted Lech Kaczynski , Poland's new president, then minister of justice, to sic the `services' on Rzeczpospolita's reporters.  The current government has only been in office for a few months but Rzeczpospolita has already claimed one high level political scalp - the treasury minister turned out to have very close financial ties to a mob money launderer with a record of engaging in corporate fraud.  The treasury ministry is in charge of government owned enterprises and privatization, and thus has been a dependable font of corruption and patronage in the post-communist period.  For a government which had been elected on promises of cleaning up the ministry this was somewhat embarrassing. The editorial line shifted from guarded, nuanced support in the fall, to an increasingly critical stance in the winter. They also strongly supported the opposition's calls for a parliamentary investigative commission on Kaczynski's earlier spying efforts.

The first indication that the government might mean business came during the whole Mohammed cartoon controversy. Rzeczpospolita published them and the guy in charge of the government holding company that controls the government's share of the paper demanded that he be fired. At the time the Norwegians seemed to reject the advice. However, they're interested in selling their share of the paper (or buying out the government's share, but no government has agreed) and can't do so without governmental approval. So he's out.  A week or two ago the most prominent anti-government op-ed writer at the paper decided to change jobs as well.

His likely replacement is Pawel Lisicki, a former senior editor of the paper who resigned in protest at the firing of Bronislaw Wildstein, a top columnist at the paper.  Wildstein had smuggled out a confidential list of names from the secret police archives that listed informers and targets of the secret police, then put it online as a list of informers. The paper has always been strongly pro `lustration' but this was too sleazy for them, and he was out. Since then Lisicki was involved in preparations for the creation of a new, pro-government daily, and in his spare time wrote op-eds saying how the government is perfect and its critics hysterical intellectual elitists who are manufacturing fake scandals about the government.  Journalists at Rzeczpospolita are saying that he is likely to want them to focus their efforts on investigating the corruption of both the past government and the current main opposition party (ultra neo-liberal on economic policy, otherwise centrist) and back off on governmental sleaze. Of course all of them insist on remaining anonymous.

The other Polish serious daily is Gazeta Wyborcza, which is very, very hostile to the government, and the feeling is mutual.  The government has been making various threats against it as well. Until now I've dismissed them as the usual political huffing and puffing, now I'm not so sure.

I have a triple sense of deja vu.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Mar 16th, 2006 at 07:06:33 PM EST
Which three ways?
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri Mar 17th, 2006 at 02:48:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually four.

The two similar media wars during the right-wing governments in Hungary, one I read of during the previous right-wing government in Poland, and just two days ago, a right-wing papers' chief editor was complaining about a supposed right-wing underrepresentation in the press due to foreign ownership of (nominally centre-left) media.

An analogous event to the one Marek told about from the time of the Second Media War: Magyar Nemzet (=Hungarian Nation) was the top right-wing daily, it was respected as fairly independent and with a long tradition. Fidesz's business circle owned Napi Magyarország, taunted Napi Maó (=Daily Mao), which was a Maoist paper during the dictatorship, because it was an uncritical propaganda paper. Editors included far-right figures1. Then one day, in a shady deal helped by the government, the owners of Napi Maó took over Magyar Nemzet, and "merged" the two - which essentially meant that the editors of the former worked on under the title of the latter. (It remains the pro-Fidesz daily to this day.)

  1. The shadiest figure is István Lovas, a truly bizzarre and disgusting disciple of Goebbels. For a start, he is an anti-semitic Jew - he switched to anti-semitism after Israel denied him citizenship. He went there after an arrest warrant was issued on him in the USA for not paying his German ex-wife's aliments, whom and whose child he treated like shit. Before that, he worked for Radio Free Europe, he got to the West after 1956, in which he had a small role. He was imprisoned before, but he lied about the reasons: it wasn't political, he committed gang-raping with friends, holding a girl hostage at a summer house for a whole weekend. Considering how he treats women, you can guess how cynical he is in political rhetoric. His greatest achievement was to integrate altermondialist ideas (at a time when the 'Socialists' were full-throttle neoliberals) into right-wing rhetoric, and get Fidesz to cash in on anti-Iraq-war sentiments.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Mar 17th, 2006 at 04:00:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you for posting this diary, Marek. I often feel I should also provide some coverage of what is going on in Poland, but I lack the time to do so.
There are already so many technical hurdles when one wishes to go to the polls when residing outside the country, but for that I always manage to find time.

When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill
by Agnes a Paris on Fri Mar 17th, 2006 at 03:59:03 AM EST
Thanks, Marek.

(Now on the Wiki)

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Mar 17th, 2006 at 06:23:53 AM EST
GW has an article today on the latest iteration of warnings to them.  They quote an anonymous 'senior PiS politician' as saying '[Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of PiS] has understood that he can't count on the support of Gazeta Wyborcza or its neutrality, he has therefore decided on a very hard line against Agora' [Agora is GW's parent company].  Of course the idea that Kaczynski ever thought he would get sympathetic coverage from GW is laughable - they've opposed him for a good dozen years now.

Gazeta Wyborcza provides a quote from Jan Maria Rokita, the leader of the main opposition party, the PO:  "This is a struggle over institutions. The Kaczynski brothers describe the control by them of all centers of power as 'state leadership'. They believe that the presidential and parliamentary mandate is strong enough for them to control all institutions, not just those to which they were elected. Their election to the 'leadership of the state' should give them domination over all institutions."

A PiS deputy, Artur Zawisza, responds  "What Rokita is saying is truly the core of the dispute between our two parties. The PO politician is describing the canon of liberal democracy - in which civic freedoms are the highest value, and authority is always suspect. The Kaczynski brothers for their part are seeking a model of non-liberal democracy, in which the democratically elected authorities are not always suspect. It thus has the right to intervene in all sorts of areas, not so that sweaty guys can get drunk on power, but to protect the community and the common good, when they are threatened."

PiS idzie na wojnę z Platformą i Agorą

The other day GW reprinted extracts from an editorial in the Czech Lidove Noviny which said that while as good Polish nationalists, the Kaczynskis can't stand Putin, they seem to be taking a page from him in terms of their vision of state and society...

by MarekNYC on Sat Mar 18th, 2006 at 12:16:41 PM EST

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