Politics and the Media

Politics and the Media

Prior to the return of democracy in 1989, Poland's independent press defied state censorship and flourished to an extent unknown in other East European communist states. Active publication by opposition groups in the 1970s formed a tradition for the well-organized distribution of censored materials that flowered in the contentious decade that followed.

The Early Opposition Press

As early as 1970, underground groups had begun issuing opposition literature that included short-lived periodicals, strike announcements, and brochures. By 1976 opposition groups were better organized and began issuing influential carbon-copied and mimeographed serials. In the autumn of that year, KOR began producing its Biuletyn Informacyjny (Information Bulletin). During the period between 1976 and 1980, about 500 uncensored serial titles were recorded, some with circulations of more than 20,000 copies. At the same time, underground book publishing flourished as over thirty-five independent presses issued hundreds of uncensored monographs.

Following the Gdansk Agreement of August 1980, Poland saw a new explosion of independent publishing. In addition to Tygodnik Solidarnosc (Solidarity Weekly), whose circulation was limited to 500,000 copies supplemented by ten regional weeklies, Solidarity and its rural affiliate published hundreds of new periodicals. Assisted by donations of printing equipment from the West, about 200 publishing houses had emerged by December 1981, when martial law abruptly curtailed independent publishing.

During Solidarity's first period of legal activity, reprints of opposition literature from abroad, particularly the influential émigré journals Kultura (Culture) and Zeszyty Historyczne (Historical Notebooks), were especially popular.

Liberalization in the 1980s

The imposition of martial law in December 1981 was a major setback for independent publishing. But, despite the confiscation of printing equipment and the arrest of opposition leaders, the clandestine press quickly resumed issuing bulletins. By the end of 1982, some forty publishing houses were producing a great variety of books, brochures, and serials. Not only did the Jaruzelski regime fail to infiltrate and shut down such publishing operations, it allowed considerable freedom of expression in the "legitimate" press. For example, the influential Catholic periodical, Tygodnik Powszechny (Universal Weekly), founded in 1945, provided an independent voice defending the rights of the Polish citizenry.

After the formal suspension of martial law in July 1983, the regime grew increasingly tolerant toward independent publishing. The underground press diversified to reflect the widening spectrum of opposition points of view. By 1986 only about half of the known independent serial titles were organs of Solidarity.

As the independent press grew more diverse, the state press increasingly cited articles published in underground periodicals and even began to publish "illegal" books. In 1986 the regime granted legal status to Res Publica, a scholarly underground journal representing a moderate social and political philosophy. Meanwhile, the Catholic press grew ever more prominent when dozens of church publications were resurrected after long being banned.

The Jaruzelski regime's increasingly liberal attitude toward the print media was motivated not only by a desire to achieve national reconciliation, but also by the realization that the state could not suppress three highly prolific publishing networks--the underground press, the church-sponsored press, and the émigré press in the West. After the mid-1980s, the nonstate publishing houses averaged 500 to 600 new titles annually.

The End of Press Censorship

A key element of the Round Table Agreement was the end of the communist monopoly of the news media. In April 1990, state censorship was abolished. The PZPR publishing and distribution monopoly, the Workers' Publication Cooperative Press-Book- Movement began to break up, and numerous communist-era periodicals were privatized. Some periodical titles, such as the daily Rzeczpospolita (Republic) and the weekly Polityka(Politics), were recast and gained respect for the quality of their journalism. Others, most notably the official party organ Trybuna Ludu (People's Tribune), changed their names but continued to represent a leftist political viewpoint (Trybuna Ludu became simply Trybuna). Many familiar communist ideological publications were discontinued, however. After mid-1989, hundreds of new periodicals appeared, failed, reappeared, and failed again. These failures were the result of the high cost of newsprint, ignorance of free-market business principles, and the unpredictable demand created by a newly liberated reading public.

As of mid-1992, nearly 1,000 Polish periodicals were being published. Among these were seventy-five daily and 164 weekly newspapers. The left-of-center Gazeta Wyborcza (Election Gazette), with a circulation of 550,000 weekday copies and more than 850,000 weekend copies, was the most widely read newspaper. Gazeta Wyborcza, issued in thirteen local editions, resembled Western papers in its layout and extensive commercial advertising. Rzeczpospolit claimed roughly 250,000 readers, followed closely by Zycie Warszawy (Warsaw Life). Of the national political weeklies, Polityka and Wprost (Straightforward) enjoyed the greatest success, with circulations of 350,000 and 250,000, respectively.

In the years following the Round Table Agreement, the Polish press presented a range of opinion that reflected the increasingly fractured political landscape. Following the schism between Mazowiecki and Walesa forces in 1990, Tygodnik Solidarnosc became the mouthpiece of the pro-Walesa Center Alliance, while Michnik's Gazeta Wyborcza and the Catholic church's Tygodnik Powszechny supported the Mazowiecki faction.

Book Publishing

After the Round Table Agreement, book publishing, distribution, and marketing entered a period of unprecedented upheaval. Together with the welcome lifting of censorship came the end of generous state subsidies for publishers. Thus, publishers of esoteric scholarly and literary works with limited market appeal suffered severe losses. At the same time, however, the newfound opportunity to gain profits by satisfying the reading tastes of the Polish public caused a dramatic proliferation of publishing houses. In mid-1992, between 1,200 and 2,000 publishing houses, most of them small enterprises, were in operation. Only about 100 of that number had all the trappings of full-scale publishing firms: catalogs, international standard book numbers, and observance of the copyright deposit law.

Radio and Television

To a significant extent, electronic news and information sources defied government control in the 1980s. Millions of Poles received uncensored radio broadcasts from Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and other Western sources. Solidarity units also occasionally broadcast news programs from mobile radio stations. And hundreds of thousands of VCRs allowed the Polish population to view taboo films by prominent domestic and foreign directors.

Unlike periodicals, the electronic media adjusted slowly to the changed political environment following the Round Table Agreement. As of mid-1992, the Sejm had yet to enact legislation to regulate radio and television broadcasting. Decades of communist manipulation of the electronic media had taught politicians the power of those media in shaping public attitudes. In mid-1992, Walesa indicated his continuing distrust of broadcast journalism by stating that television should represent the government's views and that state television was not the place for contrary political opinions. The membership of the Committee for Radio and Television, a communist-era holdover agency regulating all broadcasting, was determined by the Council of Ministers, and appointment of the committee chairman became highly politicized.

In mid-1992 Poland continued to have only two national television channels, and by Western standards the program offerings were limited. Besides daily news broadcasts, the most popular program was a political satire, "Polish Zoo," a weekly puppet show that lampooned leading political figures and institutions, including the church. To supplement the meager offerings of domestic television, many Poles received foreign broadcasts. Small satellite antenna dishes were common throughout the country. Impatient with the government's inaction, private television stations in Warsaw, Lublin, Poznan, and Szczecin began to broadcast without licenses in the early 1990s.

The government interfered less with radio than with television broadcasting. In addition to the four national stations broadcasting to nearly 11 million Polish receivers, thirteen unlicensed radio stations had come into existence by mid-1992. Nearly 600 applications for broadcasting licenses awaited evaluation. Radio broadcasts were dominated by Western popular music, just as the publishing and film industries were overwhelmingly Western in orientation.

The continuing dominance of Western culture in the 1990s appeared to be assured, as unauthorized reproduction of films, literature, and music made inexpensive, high-quality copies easily accessible to the average citizen. In the postcommunist era, intellectual piracy in Poland emerged as one of the troublesome issues between Warsaw and the United States. In early 1992, it was estimated that the United States lost US$140 million dollars annually to Polish audio, video, and computer program piracy.

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