Thu, 13 Oct 1994

Censorship in Poland

Just two weeks ago, Poland seemed about to take a giant step back from freedom. The lower house of Parliament, dominated by a coalition of former Communists and their allies, overwhelmingly passed a bill called the Official State Secrets Act, which would stifle the lively independent media that have grown up over the past four years.

The upper house, with the same parties in control, was expected to approve the bill as well, perhaps as soon as this week.

But the Polish press fought back and, although the danger has not completely passed, the censors are now in retreat.

Upper house action is stalled, lower house leaders are having second thoughts and Polish President Lech Walesa promises to veto the bill if it reaches his desk in anything like its present form.

The secrets act would prohibit reporting on 71 broad areas of government activity, including arms contracts, international financial negotiations and basic principles of foreign policy.

Penalties for unauthorized release of such "secro" information ranged as high as 10 years' imprisonment. In addition, it would authorize officials to withhold other information on the grounds of professional secrecy.

Such restrictions would permit governments to escape democratic accountability for important public policies and would thwart exposure of the official corruption that has often accompanied the transition from state to market economy.

Official secrets acts are a European tradition in the West as well as the East. Poland's old statute, promulgated under martial law in 1982, was even more restrictive, but it has gone unenforced since Communism fell. As a result, Poland now has some of the best newspapers in the new Eastern Europe.

Continued public access to sensitive official information is vital to Polish goals such as developing a healthy stock market and joining the European Community. A free press can also help alert a newly democratic society to signs of totalitarian backsliding, as the present episode indicates.

The old ruling parties may be back in power in Poland, but they have been usefully reminded that they can no longer rule in the old way.

-- The New York Times