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Questionable Policy

Sabina CasagrandeMay 17, 2007

Poland's intellectuals are feeling the heat as the government vows to push through a controversial new law designed to purge communists from public life. But so far, criticism has been faint.

The Polish government is keeping a close eye on the country's media

The organization "Reporters Without Borders" ranks Poland 58th in its press freedom index of 168 countries. Among the 27 EU member states, it holds the lowest position.

The group said it has observed a strong increase in censorship by Poland's conservative government. The latest attempt involves plans announced earlier this month by the parliament's new speaker, Ludwik Dorn, to classify parliamentary journalists. Under the system, certain groups of journalists would have certain reporting privileges and access to politicians.

Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel, Polen Ministerpräsident Jaroslaw Kaczynski
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, here with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hasn't given up yetImage: AP

Dorn, a key ally of Poland's ruling Kaczynski twins, said the division would better organize parliamentary work and "avert chaos." Yet Polish journalists disagreed.

"Dorn should rather read the constitution and what it says on journalists' access to information," Stefan Batorowski from the Polish Journalists Association told Polish media.

Government will continue its efforts

Polish journalists have been feeling increased government pressure to toe the official line. All of the country's journalists were to be screened as part of the government's controversial vetting law, which it said was aimed at purging public life of ex-communist agents. But last week, the constitutional court threw a spanner in the works.

The judges ruled that most of the government's planned law was unconstitutional. It would have required some 700,000 Poles to file statements saying whether they had collaborated with the communist-era secret police.

Those affected included practically all of the country's intellectuals and included journalists, managers of listed state-owned firms and principals of private schools.

People who failed to comply risked losing their jobs and a 10-year professional ban. The legislation had been an extension of a decade-old vetting law that previously applied to only 30,000 lawmakers, government ministers and judges.

While the government grudgingly accepted the court's decision, formalizing it on Tuesday, the battle isn't over.

Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twin brother of President Lech Kaczynski, said work was to begin on a new law designed to purge communists from public life. New legislation would be in accordance with the constitution, he said.

Clearer international communication is necessary

The Kaczynski twins have made it clear in their governing style that they want to centralize power. As a result, some observers have asked why there isn't more of an outcry in the EU regarding legislation such as the vetting law.

Symbolbild Rönrgenaufnahme zu: Polen Lustrationsgesetz Lustration Durchleuchtung
Are the minds of Polish intellectuals being x-rayed?Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"Of course, every country has the legal and political right to regulate domestic policies themselves," said Stephen Bastos from the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

But, Bastos said, this case was different.

"When it is apparent that coming to terms with the past is being politically exploited," then better international communication is needed, Bastos said. "This is to a large degree the case here."

EU criticism has not been successful in the past

Yet the EU is reserved. After all, it has burned its fingers in the past for criticizing a member state's domestic affairs, said Sebastian Kurpas from the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

Back in 2000, for example, EU member states threatened to cut all official ties to Austria if the conservative People's Party (ÖVP) formed a coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ).

"They really shot themselves in the foot with Austria," Kurpas said. The ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government took office and after a few months of chilly diplomatic relations, things returned to normal.

"The experience with Austria really backfired and showed what limited possibilities exist," Kurpas said.

In Poland, a feeling of 'we're doing fine'

Even in Poland there has been noticeably little resistance to the Kaczynski government's policies.

"There are no protests, though there is a massive polarization among the population," said Bastos. Yet effective political opposition was lacking, he said.

"Also, the economy is going doing relatively well and the national rhetoric is leaving the economy alone," Bastos said. A feeling of "we're doing fine" existed among the people, he added.

On an EU level, the bloc doesn't need any bad blood with Poland either.

"There are enough problems right now in terms of the European constitution, as well as strained relations to Russia to deal with," Kurpas said.

Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, needs Poland on its side at the European Council meeting in Brussels in June.