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Polish journalists run into stone wall of censorship

When Solidarity and government spokesmen debated work-free Saturdays on Warsaw television Jan. 27, it was the free trade union's first access to Polish news media since early December. This came only after Solidarity's persuasive show of strength in strikes on Saturday, Jan. 24. And it is the exception that shows just how effective the censorship crackdown of the past two months has been.

Press censorship is not as restrictive now as it was before August 1980, when the Gdansk strikers wrested from the government permission for an independent trade union -- with a right to fair coverage in the media. Solidarity now is mentioned almost daily in the Polish press. Personality news appears -- such as the return to Warsaw from Rome by Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

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Solidarity's views have not appeared, however. More blatantly, according to one veteran foreign observer in Warsaw. "Often there is gross misinformation or even calculated misinformation about Solidarity in the media."

This is one of the reasons for the trade union's action in the otherwise minor dispute between a 41 1/2 and 42 1/2 hour workweek. Solidarity members see the government back- tracking on its promise of a liberalized media policy as representtive of party stalling on almost all of the 21 points agreed to in Gdansk last summer. And Solidarity members regard some measure of communication in the press as an essential tool in their fight to secure eventual government compliance with all 21 points.

The most glaring specific examples of the new censorship involve blackouts of information about "Rural Solidarity" in mid-January, about the congress of the Polish Writers' Union and a major reform proposal at the end of December, and about Solidarity's promise of a moratorium on strikes in early December.

On Jan. 16 the youth newspaper Sztandar Mlodych failed to appear altogether because of the censors' refusal to publish grass-roots interviews about Rural Solidarity with farmers at a government-sponsored agricultural congress. In late December the writers' union congress -- in which an uncompromisingly independent Roman Catholic author was elected chairman, the few Communist Party members who were elected to the presidium were liberalizers, and the old party stalwarts walked out of the meeting -- went virtually unreported in the Polish press.

In late December, too, the Warsaw daily Zycie Warszawy was barred from publishing recommendations for reform by a prominent and very nondissident group of mixed party and nonparty social thinkers called Experience and the Future.

In early December, in the action that initiated the press crackdown immediately after the Warsaw Pact summit in Moscow, Solidarity's gesture of a moratorium on strikes also went unpublished. The gap was especially striking, as the government had been begging Solidarity to issue just such a public statement in a kind of social contract.

That first snub, plus government failure to consult Solidarity on key work issues since then, has led many Solidarity members to feel that the government was simply exploiting Solidarity's goodwill restraint to cut the union out of planning altogether and to roll back the August promises.

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Polish sources attribute the new tight censorship to Soviet pressure and to the December takeover of press affairs by Polish United Workers' (Communist) Party presidium member Stefan Olszowski. Mr. Olszowski, who made a political comeback only with last fall's rise of Stanislaw Kania to the leadership of the party, is now widely touted as the man the Russians may pin their hard-line hopes on if Kania fails to restore party command in Poland.

The toughened censorship has roused considerable discontent in Warsaw editorial offices and also among TV technicians, who are strong Solidarity supporters. So far attempts to resist the crackdown have proved ineffectual, however. With no high political patron to back them -- party chief Kania has been riding the surge of reform only as a realist, not as an advocate -- journalists have run into a stone wall.

At this point activist journalists are planning to tackle the issue obliquely , by invoking their professional ethical code not against censors, but against editors who practice the most extravagant preventive self-censorship. Under guild regulations, anyone who willfully distorts a colleague's story in editing may be suspended from the journalists' union for up to a year, with judgment resting with an honor court of journalists. If one or two of the worst distorters among editors could be suspended as an example, the liberalizers hope that this would deter others from the worst excesses.

Apart from this attempt, the next major test of censorship may well be the new newspaper that Solidarity has been promised by the government. Originally scheduled to start in January or February, it is now set to appear in March, with a healthy 500,000 circulation. There have been no collisions so far, but clearly the newspapers' aim and th e censors' aims are diametrically opposed.

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