Letter from Poland

Source of news: NY Times
2006-05-11 14:26:24 / News read 3270 reading
When Kazimiera Szczuka, a well-known literarycritic and television personality here, satirized a young woman whooften recites prayers for broadcast on Radio Maryja, anultraconservative Roman Catholic radio station in Poland, she did notknow, she says, that the young woman suffered from a cripplingdisease and used a wheelchair.

"I called her and apologized to her, because I didn't know she wasdisabled," Ms. Szczuka said in an interview, "even though manydisabled people phoned me to say that I shouldn't apologize."

Still, the Polish National Broadcasting Council, which enforcesbroadcasting regulations, fined the commercial television station onwhich Ms. Szczuka had appeared the equivalent of $125,000 forinsulting a disabled person and mocking her religion. It was, thePolish press has reported, the highest fine the council has levied.

That was in March. In April a regular commentator on Radio Maryja,Stanislaw Michalkiewicz, made what are almost universally deemed hereto have been classically anti-Semitic statements, accusing Jews ofusing what he called "the Holocaust industry" of trying to exactfinancial "tribute" from Poland through property restitution claims.

But the broadcasting council has taken no action so far in the caseof Mr. Michalkiewicz and Radio Maryja (pronounced Maria), even thoughthe far-right Catholic radio station has often been a forum forcomments that Jews and others here have called derogatory and insulting.

Why the different treatment, and what does it show about Poland?Commentators have been asking those questions, even as theconservative government has negotiated a power-sharing arrangementwith a group of populist parties whose beliefs are very close tothose of Radio Maryja.

The government says no action was taken against Radio Maryja for asimple technical reason: when Mr. Michalkiewicz made his remark, thepresident of the National Broadcasting Council, Elzbieta Kruk, alongtime friend and associate of Poland's president, Lech Kaczynski,had been forced to step down because of a challenge to the way shehad been appointed — by Mr. Kaczynski himself rather than by thecouncil's other members. During this time, Ms. Kruk has told thePolish press, she has had no authority to act.

But critics of the government see things differently, saying it fearsalienating the station or its constituency, which both helped it winthe last election. Beyond that, some Poles see the unfolding of abitter culture war involving two incompatible views of this country'sidentity and values.

The new conservative governing party, Law and Justice, clearly sidesmore with the religious and traditional values generally representedby Radio Maryja than with people like Ms. Szczuka, who see RadioMaryja as an intolerant throwback to an unwelcome past.

"They don't like her because she is independent," said Andrzej Jonas,the editor of the English-language Polish Voice, referring to Ms.Szczuka, who is well known in Poland as a feminist, an activesupporter of gay rights and an opponent of Law and Justice, whoseleading figures are President Kaczynski and his twin brother, theparty chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Nobody here is saying the scandal indicates a resurgence of the oldPolish demon of anti-Semitism, which is against the law here andwhich many people, including opponents of the Kaczynski twins,believe has never been at lower levels in this country than it is now.

But what many people believe to be at issue are the deep divisionsthat have appeared in Polish life since the end of Soviet-enforcedCommunist dictatorship some 16 years ago.

Ms. Szczuka's views reflect a secular, Western-oriented Poland thatis in the European Union and subscribes to what have become thestandard European democratic and liberal values.

"There was a scandal because they hate me," Ms. Szczuka said,referring to the Radio Maryja listeners who reportedly demanded thatthe government take action against her. "They hate me because I'm afeminist, I'm Jewish — mostly because I'm a feminist," she said.

She is also an activist for gay rights, while President Kaczynski isa political figure who as mayor of Warsaw last year gained notorietythroughout liberal circles in Europe when he banned the city's annualgay pride parade.

On the other side is Radio Maryja, which to many Polish analystsrepresents the still deeply religious Poland that feels threatened bycreeping secularism. The station was founded about 16 years ago bythe Rev. Tadeusz Rydzyk, a conservative, populist priest who activelysupported the Kaczynski brothers during last year's election campaign.

From time to time the station has taken on a nasty edge, in the formof callers on talk programs or commentators who have expressed thenot-quite-disappeared caricatures of Jews that were once deeplyembedded in the Polish culture.

As reported in the daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Mr. Michalkiewicz, theRadio Maryja commentator, spoke on the air of "the men from Judea"who "are trying to surprise us from behind." He said the World JewishCongress was demanding $60 billion in compensation for Jewishproperty lost during World War II, calling the organization "a mainfirm in the Holocaust industry."

He called Gazeta Wyborcza, where a number of prominent Polish Jewishjournalists work, "an unusual example of the Jewish fifth column inPoland."

A professional journalists' organization, the Council for MediaEthics, branded what it called Mr. Michalkiewicz's "weakly documentedaccusations" examples of "primitive anti-Semitism." The papal nuncioin Poland, Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk, wrote a letter to the Polishepiscopate asking that it work "to overcome difficulties caused bysome transmissions and the views presented by Radio Maryja."

Still, the government has taken no action against Radio Maryja likethose it took against the television station where Ms. Szczukacommitted her anticlerical satire, and the suspicion that thediscrepancy reflects an unspoken cultural and political alliancebetween the government and Father Rydzyk's radio outlet is widespread.

"It is probably right to say that that is the real reason," WojciechZ. Dziomdziora, a lawyer and the only one of the NationalBroadcasting Council's five members to oppose the fine levied againstMs. Szczuka, said in an interview.

"The legal situation really didn't allow us to take action againstRadio Maryja," he added, "but probably that was a very comfortablesituation for the council."
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