Warsaw — Suddenly, Poland's papers -- even the Communist Party's Trybuna Ludu -- are worth reading. People even get in line early to make sure they get a copy of the latest edition. And this week the whole issue of censorship is itself in the news here as reformers battle in Poland's Sejm (parliament) to institutionalize the new press freedoms.
Time was when a popular play by Poland's revered poet Adam Mickiewicz was banned simply because its third act dealt with insurrections against czarist Russian oppression. Like certain passages about freedom in Beethoven's Fidelio (which was never prescribed, but not staged often here), it was considered too evocative for Poles.
Literature as well as drama suffered. Few young people had heard of Poland's exiled poet Czeslaw Milosz until he won the Nobel prize for literature last year.
"We did not know until the world honored him that we had a great contemporary writer," the yout newspaper Sztandar Mlodych commented wryly. At Christmas his first work for very many years appeared here.
Absurd cuts were applied to reporting of domestic affairs. This affected not only economic information -- particularly the cover-up of the crisis that loomed during the '70s -- but also subjects like industrial accidents and alcoholism. The rules forbade publication of statistics on work safety, hygienic conditions, or occupational diseases, or of figures revealing the soaring consumption of liquor.
But today the country's reformers are determined to keep the suddenly freewheeling (in Polish terms) press as unfettered as possible To achieve this they want to give the newly revitalized Sejm the responsibility for overseeing the censorship body that will replace GUKPPiW, the traditionally unchallenged and unchallengeable Main Office for Control of Press, Publishing, and Public Performance.
"The Sejm must have exclusive control over implementation of fundamental human rights like freedom of speech and press," one MP commented. "It will also make it much harder for administrative bodies to interfere with the censors."
Others are demanding the elimination of the carte blanche authority that has allowed censors to cut whatever they chose to regard as "misleading public opinion by spreading false information." Since 1946 there has been no possibility of challenging the censors' arbitrary rulings.
It is generally accepted that certain restrictions are unavoidable, given Poland's geopolitical position and alliances. But journalists and writers insist that "no-go areas" be kept to a minimum and that censorship must not, for example, impose a twist to history or omit events altogether.
The debate over the new legislation to ease censorship is likely to boil down to a single question: Who is to control the censors?
Two draft bills are before a commission of parliament. One, prepared by the government, would shift primary responsibility for censorship from the prime minister to the Council of State or the Cabinet. The other, put forth by journalists and lawyers, is the one that holds out for parliamentary control.
This week the Sejm is scheduled to debate the issue. The very fact that parliament has been chosen as the forum in which to find a mutually acceptable compromise indicates its emerging authority.
The regime's draft bill proposes some changes in the way censorship has worked, but not enough to satisfy reformers.They want strict definitions of what is "secret" and a stronger safeguard for free speech outside that criterion.
Even though the legislation is still being worked out, a lot has changed since striking workers in the Baltic ports added free speech to their demands last summer. In the strike settlement the government promised a new law restricting censorship to the protection of genuine "state interests" and guaranteeing that the new unions and the Roman Catholic Church would have access to the news media.
Already radio, television, and the press -- especially mass-circulation papers and serious weeklies -- are showing what they can do without censorship. Sensitive subjects long excluded from public knowledge are getting a full airing.
Newsprint costs limit circulation. Beyond that, censorship has hamstrung everything to do with the printed (and the performed) word, from newspapers to mimeograph sheets, from their choice of title to their choice of editors and format.
A breakthrough came last year when papers published details of a Silesian mine disaster, and a Krakow newspaper launched a bold campaign against industrial pollution.
Censorship cannot be so rigid again.Within some safeguards, the regime has no option but to surrender control to parliament and to grant censored authors and editors the right to appeal to an independent referee or to the courts.
The Communist Party still sees the press as a vehicle for its "leading role" in propaganda. But its new press chief, Jozef Klasa talks of a "genuine partnership" w ith journalists and has instituted regular talks with their union committee.