'It is quite normal in Poland for a journalist to get no answer'
In 1993 a delegation of twenty Polish journalists came to the Netherlands to nose around in the relationship between government and journalism. The study visit taught the Poles that in the Netherlands it really is the journalists who decide what is news. Meanwhile there has been a return visit. An international conference on Journalism in Poland took place near Warsaw in May.
Poland is a post-communist country that is still in the full throes of transition to a free market. That also goes for official information. Politicians and civil servants with little understanding of the importance of open government are facing a growing host of young, relatively inexperienced journalists.
The Polish Journalists Training Programme was developed in The Netherlands to support the Poles in this social development process. It has produced concrete results, including cooperation on training, help with setting up a trade union and exchanges between media. The first part of the Polish Journalists Training Programme comprised a working visit to the Netherlands by twenty Polish journalists and two advisers from the Polish Government Press Office.
A series of selection interviews took place in Warsaw prior to the invitation to take part. From these interviews it turned out that the average candidate had no more than four years’ experience in professional journalism. Over 30% of the journalists were women. According to some interviewees, the proportion of women in journalism in Poland is so high because of the low salaries.
Only a handful of Polish journalists had met colleagues from the West before. Many participants said that the most important problem in the media field was the transition from a state-run media establishment to a free-market model with both public and private media. This produced uncertainty both in the area of legislation and that of ownership relationships.
The greatest stumbling block for professional practice, according to the interviewees, is the difficult relationship between the press and government advisers. Those interviewed felt that the advisers curried favour with their bosses too much and did not release all the facts.
From the evaluation of the study visit, which took place in The Hague in the presence of the Polish Ambassador, it appeared that the Poles had found their contacts with Dutch colleagues useful. Points that they mentioned as typical differences between their country and the Netherlands included the fact that advisers in the Netherlands tend not to interfere in what is being written, in the Netherlands it is the journalist who decides what is news, and that Dutch advisers have a duty to answer a question adequately, whereas journalists in Poland are still fobbed off quite often. They were also struck by the fact that Dutch government advisers are not replaced after an election result which brings about political change.
The Dutch said that advisers and journalists are partners in the day-to-day work. This creates a clear division of responsibilities, where one party respects the other. The Polish delegation countered that by saying that Dutch advisers tended to function as a wall between the politician and the journalist, while it was precisely the direct contacts which were very good in Poland. The Poles also thought that there were a lot of advisers and PR officials in proportion to journalists in the Netherlands.
The second component of the Polish Journalists Training Programme was a conference held in the small town of Pultusk to the north of Warsaw on 19 and 20 May 1995. The conference title was: JOURNALISM IN POLAND, The development of a profession: Principles, Skills & Organisation. The meeting included two press conferences, presentations and workshops. Over sixty Polish journalists attended the conference, of whom seven had been on the visit to the Netherlands. The other participants were chosen from the regional media in Poland. On the Dutch side, members of the Steering Group for Public Information on Central and Eastern Europe, took part.
Jacek Kuron, author and one of the leaders of the dissident movement under the communist regime, appeared at the first press conference. Kuron has put himself forward as a candidate in the coming presidential elections. In his introduction, Kuron talked about a theme which did not interest everyone to the same degree: the stagnating communication between different population groups in Poland, especially between Poles, Ukrainians and Germans. Only a couple of journalists took the opportunity to ask questions. The Poles hardly asked any further questions in response to Kuron’s answers and Kuron failed to answer some questions.
In the evaluation The Dutch participants were critical of the noncommittal way in which the Polish journalists had approached Kuron. The Polish colleagues reacted to this with irritation saying that the western media is often too ‘aggressive’. One of the participants even said that it is not unusual in Poland to get no answer to a question. While one might suppose that, at Kuron’s press conference, the subject was not of great interest to those present, this argument certainly does not hold good for the subsequent pressconference with Marek Borowski, Minister of Public Affairs. Impending government reform in Poland would have seemed to be an ideal subject for them, but it still did not produce provocative questioning. You have to conclude therefore that the ‘shortcomings’ mentioned earlier are structural in nature. The Poles’ attitude reflected a certain deference toward authority. Perhaps a journalist from the national press had it right when he said that journalism and information had made much more progress in Warsaw over the last five years than i in the regions.
Training program of Polish journalists
The Polish Journalists Training Programme is a joint Dutch-Polish project financed by the Foreign Office in The Hague. The Foreign Office has allocated resources to it from the MATRA Programme, whose purpose is to support the social transformation of former communist societies in Eastern Europe which are on route toward a western model of democracy.
The general aim of the Polish Journalists Training Project is to make a contribution to ‘the perfection of the role of journalism as an essential communication resource in Polish society as it continues its process of internal reform and democratisation’. The project is being implemented by the PR consultants Van Dantzig & Lichtenveldt B.V. in conjunction with Gijbels Communicatie & Advies in close cooperation with the ministerial information services, the Public Information Board/National Information Service and the Steering Group for Central and Eastern Europe of the Public Information Board.
The journalists project was preceded by the Project for Government Information, organised within the framework of the Programme for Cooperation with Eastern Europe (PSO). Within that framework a group of seventeen advisers came to the Netherlands in the autumn of 1993, and in December 1993 an international symposium took place under the title Government Information in Transition.
This article was published in Dutch in the magazine 'Communicatie', October 1995.
Feico Houweling was involved, as a freelance journalist, in the implementation of the project in the Netherlands and in Poland. He has written this report as a private individual.