Thursday, April 12, 2007

Poland: Media watchdog warns of new law

A new law requiring journalists to undergo vetting for possible communist-era collaboration with the secret police could have "severe implications" for media independence, an international media watchdog said Thursday.

The new screening law, which entered force March 15, requires up to 700,000 people in public positions in the country of 38 million -- including university professors, teachers and journalists -- to be screened for past collaboration with the secret services.

The International Press Institute warned in a statement that the law "may have severe implications for the Polish media," and urged the government to reconsider the legislation, which "appears imprecise and unclear."

"The new law is extremely divisive and risks opening up fresh divisions within Polish society," said Johann P. Fritz, director of the Vienna, Austria-based organization based.

The law is part of a push by Poland's president and prime minister, identical twins and former Solidarity activists Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, to purge from public life those who collaborated with the communist-era intelligence agencies.

That reckoning was largely avoided in the bloodless transition to democracy that began with communism's collapse in 1989.

"By including journalists in this process, the government has created a powerful tool that allows it to determine who may practice as a journalist," Fritz said.

He added that the law "usurps" the right of publishers and broadcasters to make independent employment decisions, "making the government a de facto employer whose decisions may impact upon content, because the exclusion of journalists will deny the public access to certain views and opinions."

The new law replaces a limited 1997 law that required screening for elected politicians and officials such as judges, a group numbering about 28,000.

Under the new law, public-sector workers caught lying would be banned from office for 10 years, while in the private sector, employers would decide.