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Anti-semitic Polish Radio Station Lands Itself in Fresh, Political Trouble

April 25, 2006
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A Polish radio station previously censured for its anti-Semitic content has landed in fresh controversy. Nine years ago, after repeatedly airing anti-Semitic broadcasts, Catholic-run Radio Maryja was told by the head of the Polish Church to clean up its act. Even Polish-born Pope John Paul II expressed his displeasure with the station, run by the Redemptorist order.

Then in March 2006, a commentator on the same radio station, Stanislaw Michalkiewicz, accused Jews of “trying to force our government to pay extortion money disguised as ‘compensation payments’ ” for property lost during and after World War II, and referred to the restitution efforts of Jewish groups as “Holocaust business.”

Little has changed since 1997. Or has it?

Back then, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, the radio’s founder and director, was unrepentant, and he continued to broadcast anti-Semitic content. But in early April, Rydzyk, under pressure from Polish Church officials, made a public apology for Michalkiewicz’s remarks.

“You cannot imagine the meaning this has, this man apologizing for an offense to Jews,” said Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska, advisor on Jewish affairs to Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz. “This shows things are changing.”

In another first, the Polish Media Council, a non-governmental group supporting ethics in journalism, lambasted Rydzyk for the broadcast and said it “contained anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism is evil.”

It is, however, standard partisan fare that has caused the most trouble of late for Radio Maryja.

A few days before Michalkiewicz’s broadcast, the Vatican’s representative in Poland sent a strong warning to the station, telling it to stay out of politics.

In February, a letter from the head of the Polish Catholic Bishops Conference called on the station to stop supporting political parties and fall in line with the principles of the Catholic Church in Poland.

“Yes, that means not having anti-Semitic content,” Josef Kloch, spokesman for the Bishops Conference, told JTA. “But the main content of the letter was about how the station shouldn’t be involved in politics.”

Radio Maryja, with some 4 million to 5 million listeners, mostly elderly, in a country of 38.6 million, was sometimes characterized as a fringe station.

That changed when Law and Justice, a party whose main media supporter is Radio Maryja along with the newspaper and television station run by Rydzyk, took the presidency and the premiership in last year’s elections.

Law and Justice is led by Catholic conservative Jaroslav Kaczynski, whose twin brother Lech, now president, has promised to return the country to “Christian values.”

“Radio Maryja is able to create or destroy a political leader, which accounts for the fact all the main right-wing politicians love to participate in its broadcasts,” said Rafal Pankowski of Never Again, an anti-racism watchdog group in Poland.

“At the same time, the station is shamelessly anti-Semitic. Radio Maryja has been consistently promoting anti-Semitic propaganda for years already, and that includes outright Holocaust denial. Meanwhile it has become a mainstream medium for the government. You can actually say the Radio Maryja movement has taken over the government,” he said.

The prime minister and president have offered Jewish-friendly, pro-Israel stances, but appear on Ryzdyk’s programs.

“I guess they are more interested in keeping that ultra-conservative bloc of voters” than in seeing how their ties to Ryzdyk could offend Jews, an anonymous government official told JTA.

In a country where hate speech is illegal, many observers have wondered why no one at any of the Ryzdyk media outlets has been prosecuted.

The Council of Europe cited some of the station’s broadcasts, and the government’s lack of prosecution of hate speech, in its 2005 European Commission against Racism and Intolerance report on Poland.

The only governmental condemnation of the Radio Maryja March broadcast was a mild rebuke by the speaker of the Parliament, who went on in a recent interview with Gazeta Wyborce to praise the station’s Catholicism-inspired programs.

Piotr Kadlcik, chairman of the Union of Religious Jewish Communities in Poland, said he was not surprised at the timing of the Church’s attack on the station.

“Pope Benedict is coming to Auschwitz in May. This is something I am sure he would like dealt with before then,” Kadlcik said.

There will be a meeting of all the bishops in Czestochowa, ordered by the pope, just before he visits Auschwitz.

“I know that Radio Maryja will be a topic of this meeting,” said Kloch of the Bishops Conference. “There will be a big discussion about politics and anti-Semitism, and I think it will be a big step to bringing the station in line with the bishops.”

As to why the Church has not reined in the radio station before, Archbishop Stanislav Gadecki of Poznan told JTA in January: “The Catholic church is not this monolithic thing where someone gives an order and everyone then follows it. There may be a structure, but in the end people do what they want,” he said.

Pankowski said that within the Polish Catholic hierarchy, there has never been a consistent view among the bishops over how to treat Radio Maryja.

“It seems the bishops are quite divided on the issue and rather unable to reach a common strategy,” he said.

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