Next chapter in Polish martial law could be stronger censorship

Just a year ago, Poland's prestigious magazine Polityka was sold out week after week. Poles had to scour the newsstands to find a copy of the publication which openly suggested reforms in the country's communist system.

But the imposition of martial law last December throttled Polityka's limited press freedom, and only recently has it begun to regain some of its former credibility.

But now Polityka, as well as all Polish publications, face further restrictions under a press law pending before parliament.

The law, if passed as seems likely, would run contrary to the reduced censorship and press controls endorsed by the government in the Gdansk agreement with Solidarity in August 1980.

A major point won by Solidarity at that time specified: ''Radio, television, and press to be used to serve a plurality of opinions and judgments . . . to be subject to public control.''

The agreement pledged access to the mass media for the new union - and the churches. The result was both the radio broadcast of the Roman Catholic Church's Sunday mass and publication of Solidarity's own paper, Solidarnosc, whose 500, 000 copies an issue became as hard to come by as Polityka used to be.

The broadcasts of Sunday mass continues, but Solidarnosc has disappeared.

The new press law represents another step in the process of securing complete Communist Party control of the press. Seven months ago the Polish Journalists' Association was suppressed and a political ''verification'' process initiated that removed at least 700 editors and other journalists opposed to martial law.

A new association headed by unknowns among Warsaw journalists was formed. It is called the Journalists' Association of the Polish People's Republic, just to leave no doubt where its politics lie.

There has been no sign of bona fide journalistic enthusiasm for the new body. Even the ''loyalist'' leadership of the new association seems to be uneasy about the draft legislation now being considered by the government. The draft has been submitted to publishers and editors for comment.

The preamble pays lip service to the Gdansk agreement. In addition to the authorities and their permitted coalition parties, it says, trade unions and religious bodies may establish newspapers.

But a comment in Polityka hinted at ambivalence in the language of the draft and made clear that publishing will be the monopoly of ''those who can guarantee observance of the law, including, above all, the political system of the Polish state.''

The new association has called for a press council - half of whose members would be named by the government and half by the journalists (or their permitted representatives) - as a watchdog on press rights and observance of freedom of speech and press. The council, the association says, should safeguard the free flow of information from the government as well.

But 10 months of martial law have reduced the flow of information to a trickle compared to press possibilities in last year's open government. The new press law will reduce it even further for a post-military-rule future whenever that comes about.

Meanwhile, the blatantly pro-military-rule weeklies fail to sell 14 to 20 percent of their press runs. Some have as much as 50 percent returned. The main Communist Party daily, Trybuna Ludu, claims that of its 850,000 circulation (for a party that claims some 2 million members), only 5 to 7 percent is unsold.

But, according to well-informed estimates from people in the trade, nonsales of most, if not all, of these papers are substantially higher than admitted.

An equally telling sign of the times is that three weeklies still sell their entire print. One is the Roman Catholic Tygodnik Powszechny, which has upheld intellectual standards and independence since Stalinist times, even under martial law.

Another church publication is the long-established Przekroj. It is tamer these days but still very much in the tradition of the avant-garde, color-illustrated journal of the 1950s and '60s. Its latest figures: print 430, 000; returns nil.

Tygodnik also sells every copy. In fact, it could sell three times its present run of 75,000 if the government let it have the newsprint. It has cheekily availed itself of the censorship reform that passed through parliament before December, giving editors right of appeal against cuts.

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