The man who dared question the pope

Poland’s criminal prosecution of a
journalist who insulted the Pope raises issues of freedom of
expression, but the journalist in question is no ordinary hack, as
Gillian Sandford reports from Warsaw.

A
RECLINING nude fondles her breast and stares out from a massive picture
that dominates the office of Poland’s most provocative and
controversial journalist, Jerzy Urban.

The 72-year-old is
infamous for a career that has seen him ride the tides of fortune in
Warsaw and always remain both in the headlines and close to the centre
of power.

His most recent brush with notoriety came after he
wrote an article about the pope in the satirical magazine Nie (No),
which he has edited and published since 1990. Entitled “Travelling
Sado-Masochism” it castigated Pope Jean Paul II for continuing in
office, dubbing him “the Brezhnev of the Vatican,” “a living corpse”
and using lavatorial references to underline his humanity and frailty.

He
says: “I wrote about the pope being too old and too ill to be the
centre of public show. I said it creates a bad impression when people
can’t understand his speech. That was spiteful, as far as the
uncritical cult of the pope is concerned. I wanted to break the taboo
of the pope that is in Poland.”

The piece would probably have
passed unnoticed in Britain; and indeed, after the papal father’s most
recent bouts of illness, several journalists have raised questions
about the appropriateness of his remaining in office.

But in
Poland such thoughts are anathema, and Urban’s vitriolic piece, written
well before the pope’s recent illness – led to a state prosecution in a
criminal court using a law last used in 1936. The case dragged on for
three years and finally ended last month. Urban was found guilty of
insulting the head of a foreign state.

He was spared a possible
jail term – much to the disappointment of the many Poles who loathe him
– but fined more than £3,000. This is peanuts to Urban – a wealthy man
– but a massive fine to most Poles, many of whom earn less than £6,000
in a year.

The court case immediately raised concerns across the
European Union about the state of press freedomin one of its newest
members. Critics pointed out that, instead of allowing the Vatican to
pursue a civil case if it so wished, Warsaw actually pursued a criminal
case against Urban on behalf of the Polish state.

The case led
the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to write a
letter of protest to Polish Justice Minister, Andrzej Kalwas.

Reporters
without Borders and the International Press Institute supported Urban.
But in his native country, only one of the two Polish journalism
organisations, backed him. And to most Poles the judgment was, if
anything, too lenient for what they view as a piece of atheistic smut.
Urban is devoid of remorse. “The main idea of the pieces I write is to
express ideas and attitudes which are the opposite of those prevailing
elsewhere,” he says.

He vows to appeal against the judgment to
the highest possible court. “I will win the appeal. But I don’t know
whether I will win in Poland or in the European Human Rights in
Strasbourg.”

In this deeply Catholic country, for anyone to
insult any pope would be unacceptable; but to insult Pope John Paul II,
the first Polish pope and the former Archbishop of the historic and
religious capital of Krakow, is unthinkable.

Karol Wojtyla became
the Catholic world’s spiritual leader at a time when his home country
was still bridled by communism. The trade union Solidarnosc,
(Solidarity), drew moral strength from his papacy, which helped open up
Poland to the world. To most Poles, this pope is already a saint.

In
contrast, Urban is known up and down the country and several different
people have described him as, “evil”. For Urban was, for decades, the
public face of the communist regime, first as minister without
portfolio dealing with the media, and later as spokesman for General
Wojciech Jaruzelski, who from 1981 to 1983 imposed martial law.

So Urban’s blasphemy sticks in the gullet of much of the Polish nation and has resonances that are both political and religious.

Ironically, his sentence rallied some old critics.

According
to Urban, an editorial in the national centre-right newspaper, Gazete
Wyborcza made clear that it didn’t like the article, but stated that it
could not support the prosecution.

The paper’s editor, Adam
Michnik, was a leading intellectual in the anti-communist Solidarnosc
movement – and so, a historical foe of Urban.

But Urban is not so reckless as to characterise himself as a champion of press freedom.

“I’m
not a fighter for freedom of speech, I’m just using it – and I’ve been
doing that for most of my professional life,” he says.

He started
out as a journalist working on an opposition magazine, he says. It was
legal, but nevertheless opposed the regime. Then in 1957, the Communist
Party closed it. Urban says he wasn’t able to write for six years and
was unable to have stories by-lined for a further three.

Then he
became a minister. His period as an apparatchik still fuels debate,
because he was at the forefront of a process that led to the controlled
release of information. It was unprecedented at the time but he says
other countries later followed his model.

He says: ” On the one
hand, I supported the system that limited freedom of speech and fought
the opposition which aimed to open up freedom of speech; but on the
other, I created a model of press conferences where journalists and
reporters could ask any questions they wanted and I answered every
question.”

But the landmark press conferences, although welcomed
by journalists at the time, were also viewed by many as pragmatic
politics, deliberately aimed at keeping the communist regime in power.

Now under a new regime, Urban continues to flourish.

He
has succeeded in publishing; he has succeeded in making headlines and
he has succeeded in making himself the most vilified journalist in
Polish history.

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