Polish court fines satirist for mocking name of the Pope

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The Independent Online

The Polish satirist Jerzy Urban has been convicted and fined for "illegally insulting" his fellow countryman Pope John Paul II, in a case which has set secular liberals against the country's powerful Catholic Church.

The Polish satirist Jerzy Urban has been convicted and fined for "illegally insulting" his fellow countryman Pope John Paul II, in a case which has set secular liberals against the country's powerful Catholic Church.

The ruling was made yesterday by a Warsaw court, which used Poland's controversial media laws to rule that Urban was guilty of insulting the head of a foreign state by mocking the Pope's poor health in a magazine he edits.

The verdict has raised fears that although Poland has entered the European Union, its attitude towards press freedom has yet to become fully westernised. Reporters Without Borders warned that Poland was violating EU guarantees of freedom of expression by fining Urban for mocking the Pope.

As recently as last year, Polish media law was used to gag two mainstream publications, Rzeczpospolita and Poland Monthly, from reporting on an alleged fraud case.

Polish law also requires journalists to give sources authorisation on demand before they can be quoted.

Yesterday, Miklos Haraszti of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, based in Vienna, wrote to the Polish Justice Minister Andrzej Kalwas saying he feared press freedom in the former Communist country was being curtailed by Mr Urban's case. In his article, published in Nie magazine in 2002, Mr Urban described the Pope as "the Brezhnev of the Vatican" and an "impotent old man".

Since the fall of Communism, having formerly worked as a spokesman for General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who controlled the country under martial law in the 1980s, Urban has become a colourful figure in Polish publishing, launching his satirical publication and declaring himself a champion of free speech.

In a calculated affront to Catholic sensibilities, the reception desk of his magazine is decorated with a pornographic sculpture and his magazine has repeatedly ignored taboos of all kinds. But no previous article has achieved the same shock value as the attack on the Pope.

"I did it not only to get media attention, but also to provoke protests," Urban told reporters after the verdict. "The point was to not allow the Church and the Pope to be free from criticism in Poland."

The Warsaw ruling is also being seen in the context of a wider power struggle in Poland between the Church and ex-Communists, many of whom have, like Urban, developed business and political careers since the democratic changes that swept the country in 1989.

Pope John Paul II is a national hero in Poland, and consequently almost any negative remarks about him in public cause complaints. His first visit to Poland as Pope brought thousands of worshippers onto the streets in a mass demonstration of defiance against the Communist authorities who had opposed the trip. The visit was followed by a massive upswing in the self-confidence of ordinary Poles, who began returning to church as a political statement.

The court at the trial of Mr Urban rejected the prosecution's plea for a 10-month suspended jail sentence on top of the fine.

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