CONTROL OVER THE MEDIA IN COMMUNIST POLAND
The Root of Communist Censorship.
Journalistic Tradition in Poland.
Poland has had a long history in both journalism and censorship. The first Polish newspaper appeared as early as 1661, in Cracow. At the same time, it was the first newspaper in Eastern Europe entitled Merkuriusz Polski. After that came Nowiny Polskie (Polish News) which enjoyed freedom from 1729 to 1790. Soon after, the dark clouds hanging over the Polish nation remained there for 130 years, during which Poland continued to be divided between Germany, Russia and Austria. It was a time in which the spirit of the nation was kept alive thanks to the efforts of the patriotic writers who, through their use of metaphors and allusions, were trying to outsmart the censors and bring the truth to light. Many Polish intellectuals suffered imprisonment for attempting to preserve national awareness and national identity. Censorship was very much alive in the interwar period and existed in the repressive form that is; control took place after publications of the periodicals. However, at that time the power of censors was undermined by the option of court appeal on part of every newspaper.
Communist Reign Begins.
Right after the beginning of the World War Two Polish government-in-exile attempted to establish the Ministry of Information and Propaganda. Although this try was unsuccessful, Polish government in London managed to control Polish radio, Polish Telegraph Agency and a newspaper Rzeczpospolita. The Communists in Moscow saw the success of the Polish government and decided to form their own centralized organ the Department of Information and Propaganda. Prior to the establishment of the department in August of 1944, PKWN (polish Committee of National Liberation) published a manifesto in which it promised, among other things, the freedom of press and information. The manifesto contained one restriction, namely: "these freedoms could not serve the enemies of democracy." (Goban-Klas, pg. 51) The question of who these enemies of democracy were was unanswered, and therefore, it left space for further interpretation.
Main Organs of Censorship.
The Department of Information and Propaganda was in cooperation with the Ministry of Public Security and the Customs Office. Both ministries were under the extensive supervision of a Communist institution called the Communist Politburo. By the year 1946, all media was nationally owned and controlled by the Ministry of Propaganda. However, the Ministry existence ended in 1947 and then a new organization, Main Office of Control of the Press, Publications, and Public Performances (GUKPPiW,) took over. The office was to prevent "(a) subversive activities against the Polish state, (b) disclosure of state's secrets, (c) infringement of the international relations of the Polish state, (d) violation of law and decency, and (e) misleading public opinion by spreading untrue news." (Goban-Klas, pg. 61-62) Increasing Control.
With time, the degree of censorship was steeply increasing, reaching the point where "even wedding invitations, business cards, and rubber stamps did not escape the office's control." (Goban-Klas, pg. 63) The censorship went as far as erasing parts of the Polish history in order to preserve Soviet name as holly. Personally, I have not learned about what happened in Katyn in 1940, when the Soviets murdered 4,321 officers and soldiers of the Polish army, until after the fall of Communism. Then, finally the autopsy was successfully conducted. But at the time of the discovery in 1943 it was publicly announced that the Germans were the ones responsible for the killings. The publications were true to their original claim and kept the dates and places secret because they would have pointed out towards the real murderers.
The Iron Curtain Falls.
Battered by war Polish nation enthusiastically excepted vision of a better tomorrow, presented by Communists. That vision promised happiness a new reality where justice and equality were to prevail. Media made a great contribution in creating a socrealistic image by publishing various posters displaying youth working in the fields and women operating machines; everything in an effort to build a better tomorrow. Behind the theatrical mask of Communism the real scarred face of tyranny was hiding. To ensure safety of the new, separated by the iron curtain, Polish People's Republic, propaganda repeatedly criticized the "aggressive plans of the imperialist West," emphasizing the goodness and altruism of our brother- Soviet Union. (Goban-Klas, pg. 78) Slowly, the Communist propaganda was molding the society and creating something in the shape of a colossal structure with a poorly defined center of balance.
The First Break in Silence.
The monolithic structure of Communist system started loosing it's balance relatively early, when in 1953 a senior official at the Ministry of Public Safety Jozef Swiatlo fled the country to go to the West. Swiatlo released the shocking information about Soviet interference in Polish affairs to the Radio Free Europe. Radio Free Europe was being jammed by Communists by late at night and early in the morning most of the information was broadcasted into the Polish homes. Listening to the station was highly illegal, but fortunately, to prove the crime was almost impossible. Although the Radio Free Europe broadcasted information on the daily bases it was not vastly listened to until late 1960s when people could finally afford the radio devices.
From Gomulka to Gierek.
"Gomulka was generally disinterested in the media and he disliked journalists personally, yet he accepted the legitimacy of media controversy and criticism that did not challenge the fundamental principles of the political system." (Curry, Johnson, pg. 11) The attitude of Gomulka towards media changed, however, after the demonstrations of 1968. The need for stronger media control and for propaganda embellishment was satisfied by Gierek, who perpetuated the new type of propaganda. It was supposed to persuade society of the success of the future economic policy. The new tactic of media was to criticize the detrimental elements among the citizens like: inefficiency, laziness and waste. Gierek's system was then nothing more than a return to the Soviet type propaganda which was, in fact, less extensive under Wladyslaw Gomulka.
The Monolith Starts Falling.
By the end of 1970s it became apparent to the majority of Poles that the improvement in the social and economic conditions promised for decades was just an illusion and a distasteful joke, played on the citizens with the help of media. Wide access to information from Radio Free Europe and Voice of America increased the hostile attitudes of irritable people towards the political, economic and social situation of the country. Strikes of the Baltic Coast brought a relief in the form of new censorship law, which allowed an appeal to the courts in cases of doubt. The situation changed again with the introduction of martial law when several underground printing shops and radio stations were closed and all equipment was confiscated. But even under increasingly long jail sentences for underground activists, the solidarity spirit did not die. It started regaining it's strength again. The Roman Catholic Church became a big supporter of the alternative media survived the blackout and later began to flourish in the shadow of Gorbachev's glasnost'." (Goban-Klas, pg. 189)
The Communist World Turns Upside Down.
In 1989, I was returning with my parents from a summer spent in Germany. What a great surprise it was for us, after hearing from a Polish radio station, that Tadeusz Mazowiecki had become the Prime Minister of Poland. This unexpected change was followed by negotiations of the roundtable, concluded on April 5, 1989 in a document ensuring "the new political system based on (1) political pluralism; (2) freedom of speech, implying the possibility for the various political forces to gain access to all media; (3) formation of all representative state organs; (4) independence of courts; and (5) an upgrading of the jurisdiction and free election of the organs of local self-government." (Goban-Klas, pg. 209) This concluded the long period of Communist reign, and its control over media in Poland. The victory of the Polish nation spirit demonstrates the courage of Poles who hove dared to stand up to the Soviets, and succeeded in escaping the powerful and greedy grasp of Mother Russia.
1. Curry, Jane Leftwich and Johnson, A. Ross The Media and Intra-Elite Communication in Poland. The Rand Corporation, Santa Monica December, 1980.
2. Klas, Tomasz Goban The Orchestration of the Media. Westview Press Oxford, 1994.