THE communist regime's proposal sounded like a stunner - an end to all censorship. Solidarity's response was just as stunning: It turned down the suggestion. ``We realized that we needed preventive censorship to protect ourselves,'' explains Krzysztof Kozlowski, a member of the relegalized trade union's negotiating team on news-media questions. ``We don't have an independent judiciary like you in the West. Our authorities could just decide they don't like what we write, indict us for libel [under the vague charge of violating state secrecy], confiscate our newspaper, and destroy us financially.''
The paradoxical censorship debate, which took place during the recently completed talks between Solidarity and the Polish communist regime, suggests just how complicated a task lies ahead in unshackling East Europe's long-restricted media.
Throughout most of the region, freedom of expression is expanding in this era of glasnost (openness). But as old taboos vanish, independent journalists and artists face new challenges in creating an independent press.
Last week's historic agreement in Poland called for steps toward freeing the media, long unthinkable under communism.
Solidarity won the right to publish a daily newspaper with a 500,000 circulation - in 1980, it could only publish weekly magazines. The independent union will also have a one-hour program on state-run radio and a half-hour weekly television show - before, it never had access to television.
The Polish breakthrough follows Hungary's decision last week to end the Communist Party's monopoly on the press and permit any party or individual, including foreigners, to found a newspaper, radio, or television station. Although such freedom remains unthinkable in the hard-line East European countries - East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania - their restricted news media are also showing glimmers of candor.
A Bulgarian journalist recently interviewed Lech Walesa. His article criticized the union leader, but Solidarity advisors say their leader was ``stunned'' that a Bulgarian would ask to meet him. Official Czechoslovak and East German, as well as Bulgarian, journalists now admit that their countries suffer from formerly ``bourgeois'' problems such as drug abuse and AIDS. Only Romanian newspapers continue to print Stalinist-style paeans to leader Nicolae Ceausescu.
``With Gorbachev and glasnost, there's room for freedom,'' asserts Radek Jon, a Prague journalist who has done groundbreaking reports on black-market currency dealings, AIDS, and drug addiction for the official Mlady Svet. ``People who don't like reading my articles no longer have the courage to speak up.''
In reform-minded Poland and Hungary, glasnost has gone much further. While Mr. Jon says he wouldn't dare write about such politically sensitive subjects as the recent street demonstrations in Prague, Hungarian and Polish journalists regularly print balanced reports on the opposition. Packed houses view long-forbidden films and plays.
Some taboos still persist, even in Poland. The Army and secret services, for example, largely escape press scrutiny. Although an official Polish newspaper has accused the Soviets of the Katyn massacre of Polish officers in World War II, historian Krzystina Kersten says she cannot officially publish her works about the communist takeover of Poland.
``These days, you can say that the communists made mistake after mistake,'' she notes. ``What you can't say is that the installation of communist rule was a criminal error, that it all was a mistake from the beginning.''
Solidarity advisors add that the new media law will not disband the party's press council. It will continue to control major appointments in the state media and distribution of newsprint, always in short supply.
The authorities proved pretty open about newspapers,'' says Jan Jozsef Lipski, a leading union analyst. ``They were much more stubborn about television, making only minor concessions because they realize this is the key medium.''
BUT the concessions already are enough to pose unexpected problems for once-suppressed artists. Krakow's political cabarets, long a haven for poking nuanced fun at authorities, are finding it hard to attract audiences.
``Cabaret has become boring,'' says Regina Pytlik, the local official in charge of culture. ``There is so much freedom to criticize that the artists are having more and more difficulty making up things that make people laugh.''
Much more serious are the new difficulties facing the thriving underground press. Since the 1981 declaration of martial law, the underground has expanded into a professionally run business, putting out more than 1,000 publications, ranging from photocopied pamphlets to slick journals. What happens now that the opposition enjoys its own official press which specializes in its former monopoly - printing the noncommunist point of view?
``There's going to be a big shakeout in the underground press,'' predicts one Western diplomat. ``A lot of the publications will go broke.''
Underground publishers must decide whether to go legitimate. This would bring numerous inconveniences: buying paper officially (much of their supplies now are ``taken'' by printing-plant workers), employing workers officially (many now work in the ``black''), and perhaps worse of all, paying the high taxes on private entrepreneurs.
In the past, many authors chose to publish underground because their works would be printed within a couple of months while an official publisher would take at least two years. Going legal might reduce its speed advantage - and its daring.
``When you come out into the open, you are subject to other types of pressures,'' explains Anna Teresa Szymanska, a journalist with an underground magazine.
``You can't just write what you want, you must be more responsible, more careful about what you say.''
Ms. Szymanski is debating whether to bring her own publication above ground. In recent years, she says, the underground press had little to fear. While stiff fines occasionally were imposed, no one risked going to jail for ``illegal'' publishing. Underground journalists even were accredited to attend press conferences during the round-table.
``Perhaps the best solution is to stay underground, officially tolerated, even if not officially legalized,'' she concludes. ``You must remember, we're still in the process of transforming our totalitarian press into a free press. We have much further to go.''