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MONEY WOES SORELY TEST INDEPENDENCE OF POLISH PRESS

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In the 1980s more than 2,000 underground newspapers appeared in Poland, many run by former mainline journalists who refused to sign a pledge to support martial law. Their editors were harassed and jailed.

The best known of these samizdat was not a newspaper at all but an audio tape made by the most respected of Polish newsmen, Stefan Bratkowski. Known as "Bratkowski's Journal," the tape was passed hand-to-hand and copied, but Bratkowski himself eluded capture and prosecution."The Polish journalist never surrendered to the regime," Bratkowski says proudly. Throughout the communist days not only was there a gadfly illegal press, but some controversial papers were tolerated whenever there was a split in the leadership and the paper had a champion in the government.

- THAT INDEPENDENT SPIRIT is alive and in some ways being nurtured. Parliament finally got around to formally abolishing censorship in April.

At the same time independence is being tested. While more papers are being founded than closed in the heady atmosphere of freedom, the press is in what all editors describe as a deep financial crisis. This stems partly from a horrendous rise in costs, including a tenfold surge in newsprint prices in 18 months. It also reflects the decline in wages and living standards. Spending for nonessentials like cultural products has plunged as Poland attempts a painful conversion to a market economy.

A parliamentary commission is working on liquidating the Workers Publishing Cooperative (RSW) that ran the party's press, including 27 dailies. But the government's idea of what the press should be like is foggy.

Among the more successful of the new nonparty papers is the one Bratkowski edits, a weekly of economics and politics called Gazeta i Noworesnosc ("Gazette and Modernity"), which is owned by the Solidarity labor movement.

Gazeta is published in a crowded flat in an apartment complex in the Warsaw outskirts. It is a stone's throw from the tiny cramped rooms of a one-time kindergarten where the Solidarity daily tabloid, Gazeta Wyrorcza ("Elections Gazette") is written and edited.

The daily was founded before last year's semi-free elections, in which parties backing Solidarity won overwhelming control of one house of parliament. The name was kept by reader demand. It circulates about 350,000 copies daily.

The editor, Adam Michnik, is also a member of parliament. He has been close to Lech Walesa, but in late June, when they had a falling out, the Solidarity leader demanded he be fired. The staff got its back up in one of those shows of fierce independence and said "no way."

No Polish paper had its own printing works, so as in the rest of the Eastern bloc is dependent on government printing. The press is receptive to foreign technical help without strings. The leading French quality paper, Le Monde, has donated a press to the Solidarity daily, and other foreign journalists helped ship it to Warsaw. Now the paper must find a place to put it.

Probably the Polish press will not be able to withstand the pressures for selling to Western media conglomerates, as in Hungary (Media Monitor, June 20).

- ONE OF THE OLD COMMUNIST papers being wooed by Western interests and receptive to foreign capital is Rzeczpospolita ("Republic"). It has been taken over by the government, its editor appointed by the prime minister.

Its 400,000 copies go mostly to the establishment but not necessarily to government supporters.

Its position is ambiguous. Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a former journalist, has told the editor, Darusz Fikus, that he doesn't want the paper to slavishly follow the government line. Yet Fikus knows that it is perceived as a parrot and he is limited and pressured both by those perceptions and by politicians. He admits that government papers are outmoded in today's Poland and are a mark of totalitarian regimes.

The government gives it a subsidy big enough to cover only 10 days of printing a year. So it is starting popular and hobby magazines. It also wants to start a paper for farmers, though the new government is extremely unpopular in the countryside.

Robert Hersant, whose name is synonymous with monopoly in the French press, has been looking at Rzeczpospolita, though the Polish press has been speculating on how ludicrous it would be for foreign interests to own a government paper. Fikus responds that he wants to privatize the paper before taking it into a foreign venture.

- TWO OTHER NOTEWORTHY papers: Po Prostu ("Plain Speaking") goes back to 1957, when Poles lined up to buy it during a short-lived liberal period. It was published by courageous University of Warsaw students. Bratkowski is one of its staff alumni.

Says deputy editor Eligivsz Lasota: "We young communists were not interested in ideological problems. We wanted democracy and we wanted to fight the communist terrors."

When the reform fervor cooled the Gomulka government shut the paper, expelled the staff from the party and banned the editors from journalism.

Some of the original staff restarted it last January. Though their commentary is highly regarded, the paper is a shoestring operation, occupying a single room in an office building, having no full-time staff and an uncertain future.

In contrast, another weekly, Polityka, is one of the few papers that has made a transition from a party paper to independence and profitability.

It was established in 1957 when Po Prostu was closed. Over the years it was considered an opposition paper within the communist fold. "In 1981, when martial law was introduced, we faced a difficult decision - shall we continue to publish? We decided to go on, but many of our colleagues left," says editor Jan Bijak.