THE POLISH PRESS; How long is the censor's red pencil?

It is early evening in the summer of 1980 and I am hurrying through the streets of Warsaw on my way to meet a senior journalist from a large daily newspaper when I meet a friend who works in the Academy of Sciences.

I tell him where I am bound and apologize for being in a rush. Why talk to that bunch of liars? he asks, sincerely perplexed.

Well, I see the newspaper everywhere, I reply; people read it on park benches , florists wrap their bouquets in it, and I'm told the circulation runs to seven figures on the weekends. Don't you ever read it? I ask. Sure, he says, to get the football scores and American election results.

But the economic reporting is a joke and most of the international news is given in a way that can only be called obscene, he concludes; everyone knows it, but what else is there to read?

The Roman Catholic papers are hard to get, and the underground press is even scarcer, so most people buy that rag rather than the Army newspaper or the paper of the Communist youth. I plead that I must rush. He gives me an indulgent look, and we agree to meet after my appointment.

In the lobby of the downtown offices of the newspaper, which resemble nothing so much as the lobby of a third-class hotel, the night clerk telephones to the editorial offices four floors above to announce my arrival. On the desk lies a copy of today's paper. The name of the newspaper is in large, block letters flanked by bold red banners. A photographed below shows a stiff, then-party Chairman Edward Gierek shaking hands with other party officials. The clerk nods at me and points to the elevator.

At the fourth floor I am greeted by a man in his late 40s. His matching khaki shirt and trousers, his trim athletic figure, erect posture, close-cropped gray-black hair with white "sidewalls," his deep tan and smooth skin, all suggest a military attitude. He ushers me into an office that is sparse by American standards, but normal for Eastern Europe. He is on night duty, he explains, and so we may be interrupted by dispatches from correspondents abroad.

My host opens the conversation by asking the nature of my article. My plan, I explain, is to meet representatives of the official press and the unofficial, uncensored press.

"In that case I will not talk with you," he comes back in a matter-of-fact tone. "The official press is no press at all. The people who compile it are not journalists, and the publications they produce are not newspapers or any other form of journalism; instead they are mere bulletins of a strictly political nature written to advance certain political aims. I cannot cooperate with you in writing an article that would also examine these bulletins, because doing so would help you portray these bulletins, because doing so would help you portray them as proper journals, which they are not.

"If you are determined to include such unprofessional efforts as these in your article, it is a sure sign that you will write a highly biased account of the Polish press. In that case it would be more forthright of you simply to say this is a biased account [merely] one written from a different point of view than mine."

We are surrounded above and below by all the mammoth apparatus that is required to produce a large metropolitan daily -- the hundreds of desks where trained journalists hammer out their copy, the elaborate communications network for gathering foreign news, the machinery for writing and printing the news. It is the evening shift and the offices are quiet. No hum, no bustle.

At that moment it occurs to me that beside this behemoth of offcial reporting , the uncensored press with its four-score people and hand-cranked machines looks rather pathetic. Goliath and David, Polish style.

I appeal to his self-interest. Better he give me the view from officialdom that send me off to write my piece without hearing so much as a word on how things look from his side.Reluctantly he agrees to talk -- of the record. (Hence all these circumlocutions to avoid naming him or the Goliath he works for.)

His reply is predictable, but still it comes as a shock to me:

"In your country you claim that your press is a Fourth Estate and some of your editors try very hard to make your press live up to that name. We here in Poland make no pretense that our press is a Fourth Estate. Poland is a member of an alliance and has responsibilities.

"Remember, please, we are very small country."

(The last sentence rings in my ears even now, much later, as I write it. It is at once an appeal for sympathy and an abrogation of responsibility.)

For good measure he closes our 40-minute cnversation with the argument that he and his colleagues do not write mere moronic propaganda but try to report the news as best they can within unpleasant but not unreasonable constraints, trying all the while to improve social conditions in their country. We part cordially, respecting the distance that separates us.

Heading back to meet my academician friend, I pass the Great Hall of Culture, a gift from the Soviet Union that stands in a vast open square near the central railway station. It is the tallest structure in all of Warsaw, built in the same style as Moscow University, with the added embellishment of gingerbread decorations of the sort that adorn the cottages of Russian peasants. The people of Warsaw speak of it with the same good-natured ridicule that one might use to describe a grotesquerie given as a wedding present by a great-aunt.

I pause at the small obelisk near the edge of the plaza on which are written distances to major European cities. One arrow points east to Moscow, 1122 km away, the others point west to Berlin, 518 km, Paris, 1365 km, etc. Now, after my conversation with the senior journalist, the Great Hall of Culture seems to me a fitting monument to his words: "We are a very small country."

Unexpectedly, I find my academician friend brimming with curiosity over what was said by the senior journalist whom scarcely more than an hour before he had lumped together with a crowd of liars. Grudgingly, he admits that he had read some of the man's books and regards him as at least a marginal scholar.

I express uncertainty about where nextto turn in my quest for the press of Poland. He tells me that the most independent newspaper with official status is a Catholic weekly published in Krakow. His pronounciation of the name sounds to my ear like pure jabberwockian: "Tee-goad-nick Povsheck-nee." He offers to help me buy a plane ticket to Krakow without my having to endure the three-hour queue at the airline office by going to the four-star Victoria Hotel, where he has a pal in the travel bureau. Feeling very Polish, I accept his kind offer to use his protectia.m

Krakow is a bumpy, 55-minute ride south of Warsaw by twin-engine propeller-driven shuttle. The fare is 400 zlotys for Poles, 800 for foreigners. The zloty, by the walls, sells at 30 to the dollar in banks and 120 to the dollar on the steps of the Victoria or most any street corners; national average monthly wage: 4,500 zlotys.

Unlike Warsaw, Krakow was spared war damage, and hence, until very recently, also spared the benefit of funds for badly needed restoration. If Warsaw is Poland's Rome, Krakow is its Florence. The city spreads out from an immense square, 200 yards on a side. There is no grander city sight in all the Europe I know than this 12th-century market square.

The only reminder of the modern world here -- alas, an inescapable reminder -- is the foul air, polluted by the stacks of nearby Nowa Huta (New Works) steel foundry. They are equipped with smokestack "scrubbers" that are rarely turned on, i am told, because the furnaces run at higher efficiency when the scrubbers are left off.

I am crossing the market square soon after arriving from Warsaw, weaving through a crowd of perhaps a thousand worshippers praying. From the highest windows of the buildings rimming the square, papal banners fly. There can be no doubt that this is the native city of John Paul II. I scurry out of the kneeling crowd and hurry on to find the offices of Tygodnik Powszechny, Poland's leading Catholic newspaper.

They are closed, as are all offices and shops in Krakow this day, for it is the feast of Corpus Christi. I returned to the square where the worshipers have by now dispersed and in their place a Gypsy band plays "Hava Nagilah" for the customers at the outdoor cafe. After buying some post cards I settle in for an afternoon of cafe-sitting.

The next day I am sitting in the office of Marek Skwarnicki, known to his readers as "Spodek," which is Polish for "Bottom," the coarse weaver from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" who wears a donkey's head. He runs down the basics of Tygodnik Powszechny, the paper in which his regular column appears. Press runs are tightly controlled by the government, which rations the country's scarce paper supplies to all publications, including, incidentally the communist Party daily, recently cut from 10 to 8 pages.

Currently the Catholic paper is allowed to print 40,000 copies of its eight-page weekly, roughly 24,000 of which are mailed to subscribers. This leaves only 16,000 copies for newsstands nationwide in a country of 35 million, 90 percent of them Catholic.

As Spodek explains, his paper is devoted to church news, and to intellectual and moral life. The editors try to take the broadest view of this task, and so the paper is no mere clerical newsletter, just as the Wall Street Journal is no mere stock market bulletin. Each issue includes a summary of international news , a report on events at the Vatican, items of cultural interest from abroad, and assorted commentaries and reviews of the arts and letters.

Like every legitimate publication, Tygodnik Powszechny must pass the censor's scrutiny. As the copy is prepared it is dispatched to the censor's office. Individual editors negotiate regularly by telephone with their counterparts at the Krakow branch of the Bureau of Censorship.

Sometimes the Catholic orientation of Tygodnik Powszechny is an advantage in dealing with the censor, Spodek comments. For example, not long ago the paper ran the entire text of a speech delivered by the Pope to UNESCO in France, including references to human rights, which the censors would have banned in any other context.

Despite the meddling of the censors, Spodek manages in his weekly column to address sensitive social issues, he says with a dash of pride. In one column earlier this year he faulted the younger generation for its unrelieved pessimism. In a later installment he reported meeting a young couple in the park who complained to him bitterly that it is impossible to be optimistic in a society that promises so little in the way of decent living conditions.

How can they plan productive lives, they demanded of him, when they have to deal with problems like a heartless landlord who is throwing them out of their one-room apartment because the wife is about to have a baby, and a housing agency that assures them that their new flat will be ready in only a few years? Perhaps he was unfair to them and their generation, he wrote. The censor had no objection.

He so clearly exudes a sense of accomplishment, and for so obviously just a cause, that I cannot help being pleased for him. And yet, I am as aware as anyone in my position can be, of how pathetic he is, if he can take such defeat to be a victory: After all, the censor does manage to keep him docile, and that is the censor's job.

The melancholy of present-day Poland is beginning to engulf me, and so I gather my things to go. On the way out I ask about one photo of a mustachioed man in military dress that stands out on the wall amid the other photos showing popes and cardinals, past and present.

It is "Old Joe," Spodek explains, Emperor Franz Josef. Hanging it here is a joke, a lament for the golden age when Krakow was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A musty joke for a musty office.

Before leaving Krakow I visit Rosa, an old friend. I call her "Golden Rosa," because her hair is straw-colored and her political views are so very different from those of another Polish Rosa from an earlier era, the legendary "Red" Rosa Luxemburg.

My Rosa is Catholic in every aspect of her person. The daughter of a patrician family, she remembers her childhood with Karol Wojtyla, than a young priest, used to wrestle with her and her brothers and sisters, carrying them kicking and squealing in a huge blanket gathered up at the corners and slung over his shoulders. She last saw him, though only from a distance, in the spring of 1979 during his triumphant return as John Paul II.

Now, fresh from the Jagiellonian University, rosa is one of Krakow's most active dissidents. She cheerfully endures police surveillance and periodic 48 -hour administrative detentions.

Can you find me a Polish journalist who speaks his true mind, Rosa? I ask, feeling by now that I have sent myself on a fool's errand.

Blumstein, she replies enthusiastically. He works on the bulletin of Information in Warsaw, the newsmagazine published secretly by the opposition. How he got the information on the plane crash this spring -- the one that killed your boxers -- is a mystery, but it was truly extraordinary. Even the government commission, in fact, especiallym the government commission, investigating the causes of the crash would have difficulty getting such facts. Talk to Blumstein.

I take the quaint little shuttle back to Warsaw.

Sevek Blumsztajn is not so easy to meet, I discover, because he lives in a suburb where installing a telephone requires several years' wait. A full week passes before an intermediary can deliver my request for an interview and arrange a rendezvous. We meet in a fashionable suburban apartment. Copies of Le Monde lie stacked in the corner.

Sevek struggles to pull the wrapper off a stack of Bulletins he has brought with him. The copies are each printed on 50-odd sheets of stationery-size pulp paper, stapled together. The covers carry the legend "Biuletyn Informacyjny." This is the 37th issue in the little over five years' time since the tabloid's first number appeared. Each issue requires 500 reams of clandestinely purchased paper, says the notorious investigative reporter; 5,300 copies printed per issue. The staff consists of a dozen or so people. Sevek is one of four editors.

Although the actual printing of the magazine is done in strictest secrecy, the Bulletin brazenly prints the names of all editors and authors. I offer him the same anonymity as the senior journalist required, and he laughs heartily. Sevek estimates his readership at 30,000 conservatively and upwards of 50,000 optimistically. Distribution is handled through 30 locations in six major cities.All sales are strictly on a person-to-person basis, since the Bulletin is illegal to sell.

I tell him how Rosa marveled over the story about the LOT airliner crash. He grins.

The piece on the crash of the IL-62 was one of our better pieces, he responds. This type of airplane was bought from the Soviets eight years ago. We learned that at the time of the crash the plane had been kept in service two years beyond its period of safe use. On the day after the accident, many employees of LOT -- that's the Polish national airline -- refused to work in protest over unsafe conditions. That day one crew refused to fly a scheduled flight to Moscow on an IL-62 because they knew its engines had been overextended.A new crew wsa put in its place and the flight took off as scheduled.

I am duly impressed with this recitation of malfeasance in high places and ask about his sources.

In every case of scandal in the system, he explains candidly. We are solely dependent on insiders who come to us out of frustration and anger. They are desperate, because they know it is hopeless to take such information to the regular newspapers. In this case it was people working at the Warsaw International Airport who gave us the information.

I explain to Sevek how such reporting is done in the United States, how investigative journalists check and cross-check the reports of low-level insiders willing to talk and then move up the administration chain of command until someone fixes responsibility.

Are you able to use such methods here? I ask, aware at once how naive is my question.

Sevek gives me a tolerant smile and tells me politely that no, it is not possible. Even to obtain the names of administrative officials is often not possible. The bulletin must be content, he tells me patiently, to treat skeptically such reports as come its way and print only those that seem credible.

I remind myself aloud that, granted that printing such unconfirmed allegations, would be considered irresponsible in the US, nonetheless I should not forget that Poland is not an open society and what the Bulletin prints is the only form of investigative journalism available to Polish readers. Sevek is appreciative of my putting their Polish methods in a Polish perspective.

He apologizes that he must cut our conversation short, and with obvious pride he gives me a copy of the latest issue of Biuletyn Informacyjny. Before leaving Poland I give the copy to friends, which, it turns out, is extremely fortunate, since at the border three uniformed guards empty my train compartment of all passengers except me and spend 30 minutes examining carefully every item in my luggage.

There is one last contact I have been saving, an old party warrior who is an editor at a monthly journal used by party officials to float trial balloons. This party organ is read by the rank-and-file party members to detect early warning signs of policy shifts. Likewise, I presume, it is read in Langley, Va. , by analysts of the CIA for the same reason. Small world.(I will call him Jerzy here, which is not his correct name, because I hope to find him just as willing to speak to me candidly the next time I visit Poland.)

Jerzy used to work as a journalist at the Communist Party daily before coming to the monthly. He is still on retainer at the daily and now is in charge of editing ideological articles at the monthly. I arrange to meet him his office, a modest affair in an august building behind the Parliament building on embassy row, not far from the old city. Our encounter is a nonstarter, consisting mostly of his highly lathered folderol about how reluctant is the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

I ask for another meeting, and to my surprise he invites me to his house on the weekened.

Jerzy lives in a comfortable urban apartment on Independence Avenue (Niepodleglosci al.), coincidentally, I note, only a few blocks from the prison where some leaders of the 1968 student revolt were held until the amnesty that followed. He greets me wearing a sport shirt, slacks, and slippers. He offers me a seat in the dining nook that looks onto a well-equipped kitchen and a living room furnished with antiques and hung with lace curtains. He begins to lecture me on how little difference there is between Poland and the US when it comes to First Amendment rights.

What about the Bulletin of Information, Jerzy? I demand to know, as sweetly as I can manage.

Oh, that thing, he answers scornfully. Nothing they print compares to the report of "Deep" (DIP). Are you familiar with it?

I shake my head. Rummaging in a stack of newspapers, he produces a recent issue of the International Herald Tribune and shows me a dispatch by New York Times correspondent John Darnton describing the release of a secret report compiled by a group called "Experience and Future" (Doswiadczenie i Pvyszlosc). Titled "How To Get Out Of It," the report, written by 141 authors (51 of them party members), faulted the government for high inefficiency, overcentralization of the economy, and choking bureaucratization of the public administration.

According to Darnton the report says the credibility of the Polish press is so low that "even the bad news is not believed." Significantly, DIP includes no known dissidents.

For a liberal like me, says Jerzy, the report of DIP offers much more hope than the Bulletin, which offers none.

I'll grant you that, I reply, refusing to be distracted from my point, but that doesn't explain away the Bulletin. It is still illegal.

Look here, he rebounds, unflustered, if the authorities decided to close it down, that would be a relatively easy matter. As for the illegality of the Bulletin . . . . He makes a gesture by pulling down one lower eyelid with his index finger, meaning "that's just eyewash."

Only later, to my chagrin, do I discover that the report of DIP was printed by the same underground press that prints the Bulletin, from the same sector of Polish life Jerzy had so glibly consigned to the status of eyewash.

There is something to what Jerzy, the house ideologue at the party organ, said so demonstratively with his index finger. It describes eloquently the quasi-legal status of the opposition press published beyond the censor's domain, and hints at the fact that Poland is in transition from a closed society to one that, if not quite open, is at least not so closed as it had been until very recently.

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