Polish Journalists Find Challenges In Publishing Independent Papers


A FREE press is one of the cardinal pillars of a free society, but as democratic reforms sweep Eastern Europe, editors and journalists are discovering that it's not so easy to create a truly independent news voice. Even in Poland, where for more than a decade a vast underground press flourished alongside the official, Communist-controlled news media and where Parliament is on its way to abolishing censorship, the transition is marked by pitfalls.

``I have absolutely no professional training as a journalist; I don't know how to do reporting,'' says Kostek Gebert, who was something of a media star in the underground press with fiery pro-Solidarity, anti-Communist articles written under the pen name David Warezawski. Today, still using that name, he writes openly in various publications and even had a piece in the liberal Communist weekly Polityka.

``If I'm present at political negotiations, I can do reporting because that's essentially a columnist's job, right?'' he says in an interview. ``But I tried several times to write a factual report on things I saw, keeping my comments to myself. That was sheer torture....''

``The kind of columns I did were militant columns, for a cause,'' he says. ``What you didn't try to do was paint a balanced picture, but essentially hit at the enemy's weak spots, keep up morale.... So what do you do now if you try to do your job decently? ... In the underground, more or less, you're part of a bigger whole, part of a cause.''

Mr. Gebert's dilemma is experienced not only by journalists coming out of the underground press. Under the Communists, all legal publications were censored and most editors and journalists had to belong to the party.

``It's almost impossible, like being reborn, to learn to write in a Western style, not just because of the censorship, but because of the philosophy of [Communist] journalism,'' says Andrzej Jonas, a former Communist Party member who has worked for more than 20 years in the official media, since the mid-1980s at the government information agency, Interpress.

He said it was a frustrating, stifling career until a year and a half ago, when the beginnings of change in the Communist Party enabled him and Interpress to start ``The Warsaw Voice,'' a lively news weekly published in English. His goal is for ``The Voice'' to be ``a typical, Western-style magazine'' - and also to be published in Polish.

``In the West, the main service of journalism is to bring information,'' he says. ``For Communist journalism the main reason for editing, and for writing, and for publishing is to influence society; to `teach' society, as they say. But it's propaganda. Everything that was done in Poland and other countries of the East bloc was propaganda and was done for propaganda's goals.''

The biggest-selling newspaper today in Poland is Gazeta Wyborcza (Electoral Gazette), an easy-to-read tabloid with the famous red Solidarnosc logo on its front page. The paper, averaging 400,000 copies a day, grew out of the Solidarity underground press. Its chief editor is Solidarity ideologist Adam Michnik. Many of its staffers came from the thousands of underground publications that flourished throughout the 1980s.

Deputy Editor Drzysztof Sliwinski, a Roman Catholic intellectual and Solidarity activist who is a close friend of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, says the paper is trying to find its own voice, independent of the union, the government, the powerful Roman Catholic Church, and any other direct influence. This is a concept many people, staffers and public alike, find difficult.

``We are fighting very much to be an independent paper,'' he says in an interview. ``Public opinion isn't used to such a situation and therefore they consider us very much as an official Solidarity paper. Whereas many people who are involved here, involved in the opposition and so on, also have no idea of the independent press.''

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