Arts, Culture & Media

Fighting for press freedom with the Polish national anthem

It’s not news that the Trump administration hasn’t been on friendly terms with the media.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

There’s been no shortage of labels applied to the mainstream press from “fake news” to “the opposition party.” Not to mention the "enemy of the American people."

“A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people. And they are the enemy of the people,” President Donald Trump said at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week.

But for all of the insults, the press in the US remains free. This isn’t a given around the world.

One year ago, the Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a new media law. This law gave his treasury minister the power to hire and fire the heads of state radio and television, something that used to be handled by a separate media supervisory committee.

This change did not sit well with Kamil Dabrowa. He was program director for Polish Radio 1.

Kamil Dabrowa

Kamil Dabrowa and his wife Urzsula Prussak-Dabrowa at their home in Warsaw.

Credit:

Kim Amor

“The new media law was bad for freedom of speech and pluralism in Poland,” he says.

Dabrowa refused to be silent about the law. He gathered the directors of music and news programing at his station and they responded the only way they knew how.

Starting Jan. 1, 2016, every hour Radio 1 played the Polish national anthem ("Mazurek Dabrowskiego") or "Ode to Joy," the European Union’s anthem — a dig at Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party, which is extremely critical of the EU.

The station played the anthems again and again and again.

“It was big, big reaction in Poland. When you play anthem in Poland it’s a special situation. It is a very, very special situation. Listeners asked, ‘Is this war?’” says Dabrowa.

Even before the new media law was passed, Dabrowa says he and his colleagues were feeling the creeping influence of the Law and Justice party over their coverage.

After just a month or two under a new government, he says, his radio hosts and producers suddenly started receiving phone calls from government officials. The authorities would ask questions about content, and make comments on what the stations were reporting about, trying to influence what went on air.

For eight days Dabrowa blasted the airwaves in protest. Every hour on the hour the Polish national anthem or "Ode to Joy" until Jan. 8.

His last anthem was on the air at 3 p.m. At 3:15 he was fired.

He says he was summoned to the office of the board of directors. The board President Barbara Stanislawczyk had just been appointed by the government.  She asked Dabrowa one question.

“‘Are you guilty of this special action?’ My response was, I was not guilty because in my opinion pluralism and freedom of speech in Polish media are [under] threat,” Dabrowa recalls saying.

Hearing Dabrowa say that “the media are under threat” didn’t exactly please the president of the board. She fired him without severance.

Dabrowa was out of work for a year. He and his wife laugh about the incident now, but losing his job was rough for their family. They have two young daughters, and now one more on the way. Kamil’s wife Urszula Prussak-Dabrowa also worked in state radio as a program director for the music station RDC.

“[The] new president of the board said that ‘Dabrowas’ won’t work anymore in radio,” says Kamil. His wife was let go from her job shortly after he was.

A year has passed since Kamil Dabrowa’s protest. The new media law remains in place. And the ruling Law and Justice party continues to try to restrict press freedoms. This past December, the party tried to limit journalist access in the Parliament. This resulted in large protests in the country and a monthlong sit-in by opposition lawmakers. Ultimately, the ruling party backed down.

Kamil and Urszula are still hopeful for the future of press freedoms in Poland.

“We have to be, we have a third daughter on the way,” Kamil says laughing.

He now works for a French-owned private radio station in Poland. The format is oldies, he tells me with a bit of a pained expression. He’s optimistic that that might change as well.