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Warsaw's EU bid tainted by 17m euro media bribery claim

Polish prosecutors questioned the editor of the country's leading paper yesterday at the start of an inquiry into bribery allegations that could bring down the government.

The investigation turns on allegations that a film producer, who worked on Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, acting for senior government figures, sought a ¤16.7m (£11m) bribe from the newspaper in exchange for changes to a contentious media ownership bill.

Lew Rywin, who also co-produced Roman Polanski's The Pianist, was accused of soliciting the bribe by Gazeta Wyborcza. Poland's biggest- selling daily reported that Mr Rywin approached its editor, Adam Michnik, in July and asked for the money in exchange for his help in lobbying the government on media ownership laws that privately owned media in Poland oppose.

The paper published what it said were secretly taped transcripts of the meeting in which Mr Rywin claimed to be acting on behalf of Leszek Miller, Poland's Prime Minister. Changes to the law could be achieved, Mr Michnik said he was told, if Gazeta toned down its criticism and handed over ¤16.7m. So far Mr Rywin has not commented on the allegations.

Yesterday Mr Miller told Polish radio that the allegations were "grotesque" and false. Bribery carries a prison term of up to three years. The Prime Minister said he had discussed the case with President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who also viewed the claims as "grotesque".

But the row generated by the corruption claims, coming only a year before Poland's accession to the European Union, could inflict long-term damage. Poland is the largest of 10 mostly former Communist bloc countries invited to join the EU in 2004. Poland's membership has been championed by Mr Miller's centre-left government but Polish voters have yet to be consulted in a referendum.

Mr Michnik is one of Poland's leading intellectuals. A dissident in the Communist period, he spent years in prison. He was a leader of the Solidarity movement and founded Gazeta in 1989. The paper has gone from being the first independent daily newspaper in the Soviet bloc to one of the biggest commercial successes of the new Europe, with a circulation in excess of 400,000.

But the paper has been outspoken in its criticism of Mr Miller's media ownership bill, which would prevent publishers of national newspaper titles from owning national broadcasters. Agora SA, the owner of Gazeta Wyborcza, wants to buy Polsat, a nationwide commercial television channel. Why the paper waited for five months before publishing the allegations has not been made clear.