The Polish Media in Transition
***** SASINSKA-KLAS***** EJC/REC Vol. 4, No. 1, 1994 *******
THE TRANSITION OF MASS MEDIA IN POLAND: THE ROAD TO
Abstract: Western news coverage of the
collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe
seems to suggest that change all began with
Gorbachev. Though Gorbachev should be credited
with much, he was but one in a series of leaders
who attempted reform. In the case of Poland,
media history is best seen as a series of
expansions and retractions of press freedom. The
road to a libertarian press in the post-Communist
communist era has been rocky. A new press culture
is needed, both on the part of journalists and
their audiences, in addition to the establishment
of freer press laws and financially sound
In that process of change the loss of Communist
monopoly over mass communications was the key to
the breakdown of Communism totalitarianism.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, (1988, p. 254.)
The Raising of the Iron Curtain
On November 9, 1989, television viewers on both sides
of the East-West divide, in West and East Germany, in
France, and in Poland, in the United States, and wonder of
wonders, in the USSR, watched the Berlin Wall crumble, live!
Not only had the physical barrier between the eastern
and western part of Berlin been opened, but because of TV
the most visible, clear and real symbol of that divide was
crushed in front of eyes of the bewildered world. It was
therefore simultaneously destroyed twice: physically and
symbolically, by young East Germans crushing it with hammers
and small crowbars, and by worldwide television coverage.
The latter was a striking case of change in the nature
of the mass communication system on the global level, and in
the Eastern European Communist countries as well.
The Wall itself, built by the East German regime in
1961 to halt the escape of its subjects to the West, became
an embodiment of Churchill's concept of 1946, that of the
Iron Curtain. Its real builder was, however, Joseph Stalin,
maniacally suspicious of the free flow of people and ideas.
And who, as we see later, imposed an almost total separation
of the Soviet Union and its satellites from the rest of the
world, from other countries, peoples, and cultures.
It was therefore easy to understand the great joy of
the world, both of the West and of the East, on the day the
Wall fell as the symbol of that separation. When the Wall
fell, the Iron Curtain was raised.
More difficult to understand is why Western
politicians, political scientists, and mass media experts
were so surprised by the domino-like fall of the Communist
regimes in the autumn of 1989. For them, those regimes
looked solid -- as if they were made of concrete like the
Berlin Wall itself. And, all of a sudden, those regimes
Western public opinion seems to be convinced that the
evolution of Eastern Europe began with Gorbachev. In fact,
the contrary is true; he has been only one in a long series
of Communist leaders who tried to reform Communism. That,
however, does not contradict his prominence as the re-
inventor of the now world-known Russian word "glasnost," nor
the importance of the changes in Eastern Europe provoked and
facilitated by that concept.
But the role of information in the general sense, and
of information and communication technologies in the process
of Communist governments gaining, sustaining, and then
losing power in the Eastern Europe cannot be limited to the
consequences of glasnost (Goban-Klas & Sasinska- Klas,
Mass Media in Poland
The Polish mass media have proceeded through definite
stages over the last forty years or so: the usual pattern
was to go from too much suppression, to what was considered
too much freedom, and then back to further suppression
(Shanor, 1983, p. 328).
"Journalists...[were] pushed and pulled from one set of
demands and expectations to another" (Curry, 1990, p. 33).
But this trend was halted after a period of martial law was
imposed in 1981, and mass media slowly embarked on a new
course from state ownership and state direction to
independent ownership and objectivity. Today, however, the
legacy of Communism still has hold, and mass media in Poland
are still in transition towards a libertarian press
In my analysis I will outline the different press
policies in Poland under Communism and after Communism,
explaining how the media today are still influenced by the
traditions of the Communist era, and then show several
dilemmas that are affecting its change.
The Polish Press under Communism
"The experience of Polish journalists is an atypical
case for Soviet bloc countries: in Poland the leadership
had been forced to compromise full Communist rule and
recognize both the Catholic Church's right to function and
the peasantry's right to private farming. It also showed
greater tolerance for independent opinion than had existed
elsewhere in the Soviet bloc. This meant...an increased
willingness publicly to voice demands and opinions about the
political situation" (Curry, 1990, pp. 32-33).
This said, even though the "boundaries of tolerance"
were wider in Poland than in other Soviet bloc countries,
the media policy which was in effect during the Stalinist
period from 1949-1953 was essentially the same as for the
Soviet Union and other East European countries (Curry, 1990,
The System That Stalin Built
Soviet Communism was, from its very beginning,
totalitarian in nature, exercising the threefold control:
- over politics,
- over economics, and
- over ideology (or over the media of communication)
In a Communist country, like Poland, the rulers were
indeed "three in one": politicians, managers, and priests.
Of this threefold hold over society, the control over
ideology (in practice it meant over the media) was
considered to be crucial. Marxism-Leninism was a compulsory
official belief and a cornerstone of Communist society. The
Communist mass media system had a very simple and
well-defined structure. Everything there was to be planned,
although it was a wish rather than reality. At the same
time official belief was organized as a monopoly over the
media. Setting up the press on the basis of a plan was made
possible, of course, by the absence of private enterprise
and the concentration of power and authority in the hands of
the Communist party (Inkeles, 1950, p. 143).
The mass media system was then very logical as it had a
well-described set of assumptions, albeit with some hidden
ideological premises. And political practice favoured only
one premise in particular, i.e., that of the supremacy of
decisions of the central governing body. The ideology of
the mass media was called "Lenin's theory of the press of
the new type." Its constituent elements were such
principles as: partiinost', or party-mindedness, high
ideological contents, a "link with life," and so on.
From the theoretical point of view, to use Sir Karl
Popper's concept (Popper, 1950), it was a closed system,
based on controlled vertical information flow, and on
limiting as much as possible any horizontal and spontaneous
It is even better to say, it was "a closed
communication system." It did not allow any spontaneity or
any new ideas that were not controlled by the party. Thus,
it was doomed to stagnation, despite its initial,
This Stalinist press doctrine which controlled Polish
media had two fundamental aims:
1) to win the support of a population set against
Communist rule in Poland, and
2) to "sovietize" the people (Curry, 1990, p. 39).
To achieve these goals, the media were instructed to
"be propagandists who day after day conveyed Marxist-
Leninst theories, agitators who day after day spoke about
the international political situation and about the Party's
and people's government policies, and organizers who day
after day mobilized the forces for their active part in
Socialist construction" (Mlodych in Curry, 1990, p. 39).
Thus the role of Polish journalists during this time was
that of "middlemen" between the Communist party and society.
After Stalin's death in 1953, and until 1956, the media
underwent rapid expansion. Journalists replaced "political
appointees" and media "went from being dry, dull and
conservative, to being major voices in liberalization,
filled with popular, critical and sensational articles"
(Curry, 1990, p. 50).
The Post-Stalinist Era
In the second half of the fifties and at the beginning
of the sixties, however, journalists were still influenced
by the Stalinist notion of the press. They saw their
responsibility as "developing the political world of a
citizen through giving him the facts and presenting the
society with all the motives for a decision, revealing all
the causes that brought the party and government to take a
step, enlightening citizens on all of the difficulties and
referring to the patriotism of the society in commanding,
for the moment, their interest in the review and in the
development of the nation" (Kupis in Curry, 1990, p. 53).
The next major stage of press doctrine in Poland was
one of greater freedom under the policy of the First
Secretary of the PUWP, Wladyslaw Gomulka. Gomulka saw the
role of the media as, "presenting positively the problems of
the development of our country, responding to the issues
concerning public opinion, and enlightening the public
broadly as to the difference between socialism and
capitalism, as well as the battle of peaceful forces against
imperialism and unsafe aggression and war" (Gomulka in
Curry, 1990, p. 63).
Gomulka had little concern for the media as a political
force, and distanced himself from it (Hopkins, 1983, p.
108). He was willing to tolerate its independence and
criticism by basically ignoring it. This period of loosened
control continued until Gomulka's downfall in December 1970
and the appointment of Edward Gierek as the new First
Secretary of PUWP.
The New Role of the Media in the 1970s
Gierek, on the other hand, regarded the media as a
prime tool in his program of rapid socio-economic
modernization. He brought the media system "almost full
circle away from the system journalists had come to know
under Gomulka" (Curry, 1990, p. 65). Under Gierek,
journalists were told how to cover events and what could and
could not be reported.
The new role of the media became "to shape the
consciousness of the masses through a constant, systematic
influence on the working people...by reaching them with the
Party's work, indicating the goal and the roads leading to
it through the concentration and mobilization of all of the
society around the party" (Prasa Polska in Curry, 1990, p.
65). Thus journalists were turned into "political
activists" and no longer were marginal political actors.
As the era of Gierek proceeded and his socio-political
policies failed, the focus of the media was again changed.
Journalists were no longer allowed to report on the problems
and failures of his policies. Rather they were to report
these events with a focus on the "'negative elements of
society,' influenced by...waste, laziness and lack of social
discipline" (Prasa Polska in Curry, 1990, p. 66).
As a result, the world presented in the media became
more and more unreal (Kowalski, 1988, p. 184). Journalists
were now promoting a " 'propaganda of success,' denying the
realities of the world around them" (Pokorski in Curry,
1990, p. 66).
This dramatic difference between reality and what was
reported in the press, TV and radio led to demands for
changes in the media system. It also sparked hostility
towards the authorities, as the mass media were, after all,
instruments of authority (Kowalski, 1988, p. 184). Because
the media were not completely truthful, it followed that the
same was true of the leaders.
The Birth of Independent Communication
But if there had not been any information revolution in
the Soviet Union or Poland, at the top and from above, in
politics, in industry, in trade, in agriculture, and in
science, there nevertheless was an ongoing revolution in
people's communication, and that not since Gorbachev, but
since Stalin's death.
As Zbigniew Brzezinski put it: "Under the conditions
of communism and particularly in the setting of the intense
and monopolistic indoctrination, the following process takes
place. An ideologically alienated mass is created, eager to
ingest alternative information. It thus seizes upon new
techniques of mass communication - such as foreign radios,
television, video cassettes, an underground press - to forge
a dissenting if vague political outlook. Economical
failures enable politically active intellectuals to
transform that outlook into demands not only for
socioeconomic but also for political pluralism and for the
rule of law" (Brzezinski, 1988, pp. 254-5).
The more elaborated approach to independent media was
developed in the late 1970s in the Communist countries, when
the strict Communist (or better say, Stalinist) rule eased,
but the system still remained totalitarian in its nature.
It did not allow any spontaneous, autonomous activity on the
social level; and though not having the means for effective
control, it still considered any tendency towards such
activity illegal. A natural inclination of individuals was
to resist the artificial, inhuman, and, most important,
inefficient system of state control by developing
No wonder that the concept of an independent society
emerged as a re-interpretation of the relation of the state
and the civil society (Rupnik, 1979). This concept stressed
the need to restore the civil society in Eastern Europe,
characterized by legality, human rights and freedoms, the
revival of the public sphere and public opinion, plurality
and common action. In this perspective, the state
(totalitarian) was counterpoised against the society.
"One of the first demands made by all social groups in
any period of liberalization is for the mass media to be
free to provide more accurate information and critical
discussion" (Curry, 1982, p. 124). This was also true in
the Solidarity uprising during the summer of 1980 which
resulted from Gierek's failure to maintain the social
economic well being of the people. Media issues played an
important part in the political agenda: "For many years
workers as well as employees were told by official media
that everything was going well, that welfare was growing,
that prosperity was near. Suddenly this was shown to be
untrue, and the people lost their confidence in the mass
media altogether" (Goban-Klas, 1983, p. 498).
In order to reverse this situation, as part of the
agreement signed between striking shipyard workers and the
government in August 1980, workers demanded that the
government "respect freedom of expression and publication,
as upheld by the constitution of the People's Poland, and
take no measures against independent publications, [and]
grant access to the mass media to representatives of all
religions" (Curry, 1990, p. 216).
The agreement also stipulated that "the government
bring before the Sejm within three months a proposal for a
law on the control of the press, of publications, and of
other public manifestations.... including the right to make
a complaint against press control and other similar
institutions to a higher administrative tribunal. Radio and
television as well as the press and publishing houses must
offer expression of different points of view. They must be
under the control of society. The press as well as citizens
and their organizations must have access to public documents
and above all to administrative institutions and
socio-economic plans in the form in which they are
published" (Curry, 1990, p. 216).
This agreement then became the basis for the Act of
Press, Publication and Entertainment Control, passed in
September 1981 and revised in 1983.
After the signing of the agreement between the workers
and the government in August 1980, and until the imposition
of martial law on December 13, 1981, Poland had the most
free press in the Communist world. But within hours of
martial law, it had the most heavily censored and restricted
(Shanor, 1983, p. 328). "People fell asleep in an
information flood and awoke in a desert" (Pisarek, 1991, p.
The result of this military rule was that "all but two
newspapers were closed. Telephone and other transmission
lines were blocked, thousands of journalists were dismissed,
and hundreds were arrested. Television announcers were told
to appear in military uniforms when reading the carefully
censored government documents that passed for news" (Shanor,
1983, p. 328).
In addition, all theatrical performances, public
meetings, conferences, lectures and art exhibitions were
forbidden. For journalists "the shock of hearing General
Jaruzelski's announcement of a 'state of war,' finding
soldiers guarding the streets, having all communications
within Poland and between Poles and the outside world cut
off after heady months of freedom, and knowing that
established, long-time professionals were being interned,
created in them both fear and fury. This was not a
repression that had either been expected or experienced
before. It seemed 'to betray all the rules and harken back
to the worst years of Stalinism'" (Curry, 1990, p. 237).
The state of total blockade lasted about one month.
Then, gradually, communication was restored, except of
course for any media related to Solidarity.
Polish Media After Martial Law
After martial law, in the period of 1982-1989, the
journalism profession underwent considerable changes.
Although the number of journalists increased, their
professional level decreased: those journalists who were
interned during the martial law were replaced by new ones,
often without journalistic qualifications (Pisarek, 1991, p.
7). Most importantly though, the "political and
professional attitudes of journalists became very
differentiated" (Pisarek, 1991, p. 6), which became apparent
in the underground press that flourished between 1984-1988.
Underground publishers in Poland were the first to catch up
with new technology and to use desktop software and laser
printers to improve and increase their output.
Other new means of communications were also important
for spontaneous horizontal communication, like, for
instance, electric-powered portable megaphones used during
demonstrations. An automatic long-distance dialing system,
during the wave of strikes in May 1988, allowed Radio Free
Europe to call well-known dissidents in Poland and broadcast
those conversations live! That became a standard practice
Also significant in this period was the passing of a
complex press law, drawn up in 1984 as a supplement to the
Act of the Press, Publication and Entertainment Control. It
established concrete rules regarding freedom of speech and
the press, openness of public life, and social controls
(Kowalski, 1988, p. 190). Its implementation however was
obstructed due to the actual workings of the legal framework
and from an acute shortage of basic materials necessary for
But discontent was still growing in Polish society in
the 1980s, and finally this led to the wave of strikes in
1988/89, in the face of a deepening economic crisis
(Sasinska-Klas, 1989, p. 82-88). The Communist leadership
decided to introduce profound political reforms, the essence
of which was to limit their power. Meetings between the
government and Solidarity leaders, known today as the Round
Table Talks, were set up from February until April, 1989, to
discuss the future of Polish society.
With regard to the media, many demands were made.
These included access to television; fair distribution of
newsprint; authorization and allotment of a quota of
newsprint to the new Solidarity publication; legalization of
underground publications; legal liberalization of
censorship; an end to licensing of publishing activity;
rehiring of journalists dismissed after martial law;
rejection of the practice of firing journalists for
political reasons; and the end of seizure of foreign
publications by custom officers. And, Solidarity was given
the right to broadcast once a week for thirty minutes on
television and sixty minutes on radio.
Following the Round Table Talks, many advances were
made in liberalizing the Polish media. The Press Law was
modified in May 1989. Censorship was abolished in April
1990, and the Law on the liquidation of RSW, the large
government organization that published virtually every
newspaper in Poland under Communism, was passed in March
1990. As a result, there was a substantial increase in
local, commercial, and specialty publications. Radio and
television are also being transformed, and there are
currently several independent radio and television stations
Polish Media After Communism:
On the Road to Liberalization
These major transformations are all part of the larger
transformation from Communism to democracy and
westernization. "But it is one thing to oust a Communist
government and introduce the rudiments of democracy; it is
another to build a healthy, independent press after four
decades of dependence on totalitarian institutions"
(Nagorski, 1991, p. 10). As a recent study by Everette
Dennis and Jon Vander Heuvel has shown, "we have often heard
it said that the Polish press is not pluralistic, not really
independent. A large number of Poles continue to see the
press as a political organ. It is widely believed that each
party or faction must have a newspaper as its mouthpiece,
and that every newspaper must have some affiliation with a
party or faction. Press independence in Poland remains
tenuous because of [this] long tradition of a
party-affiliated press, and the precarious economic climate
that has driven some papers to seek the shelter of large
political organizations" (Dennis & Heuvel, 1990, p. 15).
Likewise, it is extremely difficult to "banish the
mentality associated with the old era" (Nagorski, 1991, p.
10). It is thought that "the greatest weakness of the
Polish press is the conviction of most journalists that
their job is not merely to report the news, but to shape it
with opinion and to advance a particular political line"
(Dennis & Heuvel, 1990, p. 21). Journalists "regard it
beneath their intellectual capacities merely to write
concise news stories, and want to be individualistic in
their views on political issues" (Dennis & Heuvel, 1990, p.
21). This conception of journalism is heavily ingrained in
the journalists who have come up through the Communist
system. Hopes for a more liberal and objective media are
therefore more likely to be found in the younger, new
generation of journalists.
In order for mass media to become liberalized, it is
also necessary for the mass media audience to unlearn the
legacies of Communism. This is not something that can occur
overnight, but is an evolutionary process. Readers are
still cynical consumers of information.
The lessons that they learned in the past are still
with them today. They learned not to use the press for
information, but as a veiled reflection of reality. They
learned to see the world in terms of sides with different
truths. They also learned that information was not readily
available to enable them to become political or social
actors and to initiate change. As a result, they do not
demand accuracy and objectivity from the mass media, or they
remove their support from the media if they do not get what
Conclusions: Communication at the Crossroads
The changes are clear. However, they are rather
spontaneous, not planned, and not always well conceived.
There is a freedom of the press in Poland in terms of lack
of censorship. But there is not nor will there be, in the
near future at least, independence of the media in the sense
of Western journalism. In Poland newly established
periodicals are very weak in financing and readership.
Advertising markets are limited.
There is little understanding of the value of
journalistic independence, credibility, and integrity.
Rather, new parties and organizations complain about their
own poor image in the mass media, and would like to take the
control over them. The road to independence could be long
In addition to the necessity for both journalists and
mass media audiences to change their approach to mass media,
there are also various dilemmas which have made the road to
liberalization more difficult.
One of these results from the phenomenon that Poland's
journalists are both critics and participants in the
political situation affecting this country. As one
newspaper editor puts it "the role of the press is to
explain the difficulties and not turn people off politics
altogether....(It) should encourage hard-hitting reporting,
but should remain fair in its criticism" (Woycicki in
Nagorski, 1991, p. 14). Independent thinking and
participation in policy-making must be encouraged as an
essential part of building a Polish democracy.
Another dilemma arises from the influx of Western
influence. On the one hand, Western technology,
administrative expertise, and money are helping to ease the
transition period of the media. Without a doubt, the
antiquated equipment producing most of Poland's media is in
dire need of being updated. But on the other hand, "naked
women, heinous crimes and outlandish gossip are finding
their way onto the front pages... as publishers learn that
sex and scandal sell. They have found a large market for
easy digestible, that's-how-they-live-in-the-West stuff"
(Greenberg, 1991, p. 15). Polish media are not very
cautious in accepting foreign ownership to ensure that they
do not develop a heavy reliance on foreign capital. Also,
economic aid is needed in all areas of Poland's transition
from Communism; in the case of media, the goal of remaining
a Polish independent media, and not a Western one, should be
In conclusion, the road to liberalization of Poland's
media is still being travelled. Throughout the Communist
years, the Polish press underwent several stages of
suppression, freedom, and suppression again. Today,
although there is a free media system, it is still heavily
influenced by the legacies of the Communist era. Dilemmas
of political participation versus criticism, as well as of
Westernization have made this path more difficult to follow.
The _Newsweek_ correspondent in Warsaw so aptly put it:
"like the new political institutions growing up around it,
Poland's newly liberated press is learning its lessons as it
goes along" (Nagorski, 1991, p. 14).
No one would deny that the Polish media system needs to
find a new form of legitimation: from ideological to legal.
But its reformation is a very complex social, political and
It is equally as difficult, perhaps courageous, to
build an open society, and an open media, as it was
difficult to develop a closed society and a closed media.
I hope that in a few years we will see the outcome of
this transition, and that it will result in an objective and
liberal press which retains its distinctive Polish
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Correspondence: Teresa Sasinska-Klas
Department of Journalism
Institute of Political Science
31-114 Cracow, Poland
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