Return to Transcripts main page


Marking Polish Democracy Anniversary

Aired June 20, 2009 - 10:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST: In print, on air, and on the web, hello, I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Welcome to INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. This month, we're in Poland to mark the 20th anniversary of democracy. It was here that Communism first began to crumble.

Ahead on the program, we meet Poland's most powerful media mogul and speak to two journalists who worked during and after communism. Plus, the shame of Tiananmen Square. Two decades on, Kate 80 will cause reporting on the massacre that China tried to air brush from the history books.

This is a historic Pan Square of Krakow, one of Poland's oldest and largest cities. It's a thriving hub of arts and culture. And for the most part, people do and say what they want.

Two decades ago, though, it was a very different world. The media was handcuffed by the iron steel of communism. Now here in Poland, it's flourishing. An iconic symbol of solidarity. In 1989, the day before Poland held its first reelections, this poster of actor Gary Cooper from the film "High Noon" was plastered around the country. 20 years later, to mark the anniversary of the start of the end of Communism, it's been resurrected high on Warsaw's Soviet style palace of culture building. Under Communism, poster art was a creative method of storytelling or getting a message across.

The media was handcuffed. And mostly state owned and operated. Free speech was just a dream. Journalism was largely propaganda. And censorship was fierce.

Over a period of a few months in 1989, that all changed. The year was an epic chapter in the history of Europe. For journalists, it spelt freedom, the voice of the people could now be heard.

Journalists Adam Michnik helped write the rules of democracy here in Poland and has witnessed the emergence of the country's media as an Independent force.

ADAM MICHNIK, JOURNALIST (through translator): The transformation had many faces in Poland. The state totally withdrew from the press market and step by step private TV stations appeared. So today, we have a pluralist media, which represents very different tendencies.

SWEENEY: Poland's media landscape is booming. It now has at least eight daily national newspapers and dozens of television channels and radio stations, some private, some publicly owned.

Janusz Weychart and Marlusz Walter founded the ITI Group, a leading private media company in Poland. It encompasses numerous television stations, including the news network TBN 24, as well as a home video and new media operations and theatrical production.

JANUSZ WEYCHART, FOUNDER, ITI GROUP (through translator): We are quite an extraordinary multimedia company. Under one umbrella, there's various projects put together. If you'd like to find a similar company in Europe, it might be difficult. The advantage it gives us is the free flow of content and information between all the platforms.

MARLUSZ WALTER, FOUNDER, ITI GROUP (through translator): You could sum it up perfectly with the famous quote once made by one of the most influential authorities in this country. TBN 24 is today a real warranty for democracy in Poland.

SWEENEY: Traditional media has flourished, but like the rest of the developed world, Poland is always embracing the digital age. With three friends, Mach Popowicz set up Nasza-Klasa, Poland's equivalent to Facebook. It's suspect made 25 year old Popovitz one of Poland's youngest ever millionaires. He's also too young to remember what life was like under Communism.

MACIEJ POPWICZ, FOUNDER, NASZA-KLASA (through translator): I'm very glad that I live in these times because we have so many more opportunities than our older friends. So for example, you couldn't manage your own business 20 years ago. Now there's an opportunity to do that. So you can develop your ideas, create your own firms.

SWEENEY: Popwicz's generation takes liberation for granted. They can't imagine the restrictions of the past. Communism and absolute media control my have only been 20 years ago, but in Poland today, certainly for the country's youth and the media, it's a lifetime.

One man who capitalized on Poland's new media freedoms was Zymunt Solorz-Zak. CNN's Antonia Mortensen met the mogul, who helped launched one of Poland's biggest free to air commercial television stations.


ANTONIA MORTENSEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What motivated you to invest and set up Polsat?

ZYMUNT SOLORZ-ZAK, FOUNDER, POLSAT (through translator): Because I have various businesses, one of my associates couldn't pay back a loan. And I had to take over one of the stations. And that's how television started. We started by broadcasting via satellite. And because we still didn't have a broadcasting license in Poland, we broadcast from abroad.

And we were the first television legal television station which broadcast from abroad to Poland.

MORTENSEN: And how have you seen the media landscape change in Poland since the fall of communism?

SOLORZ-ZAK: A lot has changed. We were, in fact, the first television station in Europe which started broadcasting. We were very creative as we started by broadcasting to Poland from abroad, so that no one could stop us.

I remember until this day we used to fly tapes over every day from Warsaw to Holland. And these were the first steps made towards an independent television station in Poland.

MORTENSEN: How would you describe the media landscape in Poland today?

SOLORZ-ZAK: Today, we live in a free country. So we have access to free media. Of course, media is growing and developing. And there are many new TV channels here. And state owned media is losing their share in the market. We can say that the landscape is changing. There are many more broadcasters. Tens of them. So it is changing.

MORTENSEN: What do you think are the biggest challenges for journalists and owners like yourself today in Poland?

SOLORZ-ZAK: Well, for journalists, they have freedom of speech, which is very important. As we encourage our journalists to always tell both sides of a story put forward an objective view, I don't think we're successful in this.

MORTENSEN: One of the things that most, if not all television networks are faced with today is the growing importance of the Internet. How is Polsat adapting to these changes in our modern world?

SOLORZ-ZAK: Polsat has invested in the Internet in various distribution networks. We've made a strong move in this direction. The Internet was not so popular in Poland before. So now we have started various portals like E-play, for example, where you can watch our programs online.

MORTENSEN: When you meet with your staff in your newsroom, what message do you give them about the future of journalism in Poland?

SOLORZ-ZAK: That they should be unbiased in their reporting and to show all sides of a story, and for them to be independent in their thinking.


SWEENEY: Still to come, silenced by censorship, now free to speak. We hear from two Polish journalists about their very different careers.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. You're watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. 1989, the year the Berlin wall came down. These images flashed around the world became the symbol of the end of communism. But it was really on Polish soil that the seeds of great change were planted. The country's first free elections 20 years ago this month became known as the bloodless revolution.

Since then, Poland's media has changed beyond recognition.


SWEENEY: What was it like being a journalist before communism fell?

MACIEJ WIERZYNSKI, TVN24: Yeah, it was really a tough job because the current media was very strictly, very meticulously controlled by special government body control called the office of Control of the Press, media and entertainment industry.

Basically, the problem was lack of freedom. And control was (INAUDIBLE) that even some hard data like number of traffic accidents were forbidden to publish.

SWEENEY: Journalists did try to get their message out past the censor. How did you do that?

WIERZYNSKI: By, no, it was, you know, it was the time when the feature journalists was blooming because you can use the meta for (INAUDIBLE) not just a straight message, but using some sort of literature and device instead of straight news.

SWEENEY: At some point during martial law in the `80s, you went to America, where you worked as a taxi driver. How did that feel to be away from your homeland and unable to be a practicing journalist?

WIERZYNSKI: Oh, you know, it was-I was so actually fed up with practicing journalism for 20 years in such awful circumstances that I felt sort of relief driving a cab.

SWEENEY: When you return, what kind of situation did you find? Was the transition from a censored press to a free press relatively easy?

WIERZYNSKI: The government grasp of the - and control of the media was step by step less and less effective. So at the very end, this censorship office still existed but they couldn't perform the job. So the communists and was, you know, completely falling apart. So it was the process slow gradual process of getting from strictly controlled press to a free press.

SWEENEY: The journalists who totally cooperated with the state during communist times, what happened to them?

WIERZYNSKI: Some of them, they were able to adjust to the new situation, but some of them, they - they're out of the job and there's a tremendous generation change. And I must say even generation gap. There are current journalists in Poland. It's journalists of quite young people as you can see in this studio. I'm like Dina's or.


SWEENEY: Macai Mesur is one of Poland's new, younger breed of journalists. Polish media's obviously gone through some huge changes in the last 20 years. Has it lived up to the ideals of the media when communists first fell away?

MACAI MESUR, TVN24: I think our fathers struggled for freedom of the speech here. And the trouble is what we are struggling is a commercially something in the Polish media, which means the - we also have it as freedom of the speech. We can say almost what we want.

SWEENEY: But it's (INAUDIBLE) by the bottom line, money?

MESUR: Yes, exactly. But I think it's a common problem for the whole media in the free world, isn't it?

SWEENEY: Perhaps it is, but I'm wondering in terms of the huge transition, the media across the world and say the Western world has been basically a free Western press. That's evolved over a period of time. The Polish media has evolved over a relatively short of time.

MESUR: Twenty years.

SWEENEY: Has it been too fast or has it been managed well?

MESUR: It depends for whom. I think for the younger people, who didn't live in the communist era, it was quite easy to adopt this new setting of the new media. But for the older journalists, it could have been much worse.

SWEENEY: Uh-huh. Where were you in 1989? Did you always want to be a journalist?

MESUR: I was 12, actually. So I didn't think of becoming a journalist. But as I remember, the communist television resembled a theater.


MESUR: Which means that there was a play that everyone knew that was fake. The journalists and the audience as well. So I don't think I want - - to work for such a station.

SWEENEY: At what point did you realize you wanted to be a journalist and the kind of media that was evolving in Poland was the kind of movie that you thought you could work in?

MESUR: I think it was experience of watching CNN, actually, because probably you didn't know that even in the communist television, two or three last years of communists, that newscasts of CNN were transmitted. Of course with a little bit of censorship in their main evening show, in the second program of communism television. And I had-when I was watching it, when I was watching Peter Arnett in 1991-

SWEENEY: In the Gulf War?

MESUR: Yes, exactly, in the Gulf war, and I was watching and I thought my goodness, that's what I want to do really. That's what I want to do. And I wonder if we could even have such media. But now, we got it. Of course not so powerful like CNN or like the other international networks like BBC, for example. But I think our media are still in the process of huge development, but actually, the main focus, the freedom of speech, we've got it for granted.


SWEENEY: Still to come, China's media crackdown. While Polish journalists enjoy free speech, elsewhere in the world, reporters are still heavily censored.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. You're watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS from Poland. 20 years ago, on the 4th of June, the media here relayed the peaceful birth of democracy. On the very same day, however, in in China, journalists were witnessing pure horror.


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN HOST (voice-over): Several hundred civilians were killed by the Chinese military in its bid to crash pro democracy protests. The demonstrations described as the greatest challenge to communist Chinese since the 1949 Revolution coincided with a visit to Beijing by the Soviet leader Mikail Gorbachev. The BBC's Kate Adie reported on the massacre in 1989. 20 years later, she returned to China.

From a personal point of view, why was it so important for you to go back?

KATE ADIE, BBC: I've never reported on such a story before since. When an army moved in and mowed down its own people, the one extraordinary thing was the disbelief that was in their faces. They stood their ground. And they shouted. And they sang. And they didn't run away, which is probably one of the reasons for the high death toll. And I wanted to find out what that had done to the country.

SWEENEY: I actually want you to remind us of what brought you to Tianaman Square and when you really began to feel that this was a story?

ADIE: It had been an extraordinary story for weeks and weeks as hundreds of thousands were in the square. And many of them camped there. And the demonstrations grew from students and spread to the workers and to ordinary citizens, which is what everybody, not just the journalists, picked up as the thing that was beginning to really rock the boat. It's a country which is built on the idea that the mass is important. When they started protesting, then the people in charge, the small number of old men who were there in 1989, they really got worried. And that tipped things.

We went on to the streets, away from the square. And not until we came down a narrow alley towards one of the main thoroughfares which leads directly to Tianaman Square. And I saw the soldiers. And they weren't sitting in the truck. They were standing. And more than that, they were facing towards us down the alley. And they were firing. And there were people beginning to drop on the street all around us.

SWEENEY: There was certainly it seems a degree of freedom of movement for you and your crew at the time?

ADIE: There had been in those weeks leading to the square an unprecedented access. There were foreign crews, filming everything, interviewing people. The sort of journalism we really had always wanted to do. It was a kind of flowering of this is what it can be like. You can listen to ordinary Chinese. They can talk to you with confidence. It was fascinating.

That night, though, everywhere we went, everybody was coming up to us and saying careful, careful. The secret police will get you.

SWEENEY: Were you fearful then at that point?

ADIE: They were terrified. We were more frightened of being shot just by the army. The army was raking the city.

SWEENEY: You said that you didn't realize at the time the boundaries that you were crossing in terms of danger.

ADIE: We'd have been taken to a hospital. There were corpses all over the floor and we were wading through blood. It was dreadful. And at that point, I thought that our chances they're surviving weren't good. And I crossed the line as a reporter, which is I haven't ever done before or since. I felt that, and I knew in the back of my mind, that the Chinese would rewrite history. They would deny this. They would challenge anybody's version. And I had to get evidence. And I genuinely felt that. So we stayed out and got more evidence of what they did.

SWEENEY: Danger is danger, be it in Tianaman Square or be it in Chechnya or be it in Iraq.

ADIE: The greatest danger to journalists is posed by their own government. If you're going to be killed, if you're going to be injured, tortured or locked up, it's going to be your own government's statistic team that does it. We take risks, but it's not our government. And we can always return home. And the other thing to remember is that we are not ordered in for journalism like soldiers into battle. We do have a choice. And we do have to get the story back.

SWEENEY: Were you able to speak to Chinese journalists?

ADIE: We spoke to journalists, lawyers, activists, campaigners, dissidents, bloggers, all sorts of people. And those also who lost sons and daughters in the massacre. I was staggered by the fact that they spoke to us. The journalists are much more cautious, because they're controlled much more so. I mean, you know, their government knows how deliver censorship.

SWEENEY: This interview we're conducting may well be blocked by the authorities by China when it's aired on CNN.

ADIE: What is specific I think to the Chinese is the meticulousness with which they pursue individuals whom they decide are a problem. I give you an example with journalism. A year ago, one of the people who was Tianaman Square 20 years ago as a farming student saw the massacre. 19 years later, he felt he must do something. And he said to his local newspaper for the classified ads column a one line remembrance, which said remember the 4th of June, 1989. The two journalists who dealt with that classified ad were fired and will never work again as journalists.

SWEENEY: But when you were there recently, there were obviously incidents where it wasn't particularly liberating for you to be able to travel freely, but by and large, you were able to get the interviews with those dissidents that you wanted? ADIE: Only by contacting them secretly via mobile phones, which are difficult to monitor and through dissident contacts. Also, we held all of our meetings in back rooms of anonymous places where we all arrived separately. In two instances, we failed to make contact, actually three, we had to try again. We swapped taxis. We made another rendezvous. We did an enormous amount of work to make sure that they wouldn't be picked up by the security people meeting with us and that also that we could actually talk to them unhindered. It was a cat and mouse game.

SWEENEY: Do you think it was a major learning curve for the Chinese authorities back in 1989 in terms of dealing with journalists such as yourself?

ADIE: When you see what they have been doing, when people have tried to commemorate in Tianaman Square and thugs who have been beating up people, people have been arrested, hauled away, foreign journalists who went to the square were given a hard time. They shunted them back. No one was allowed on the square. And the Chinese authorities must have known that we were looking at China. And did they behave well and decently? No, they didn't.


SWEENEY: And don't forget if you want to see any part of the program again, log on to our website. You'll find at

That's all for this month. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney in Krakow, Poland. Thanks for watching.