11 July 2022
Breaking the News - Breaking the Law
As part of the events programme accompanying our current exhibition 'Breaking the News' curators from the European, Americas and Oceania Collections department took part in an online 'Meet the Curators' event to introduce some stories about news media in the countries they cover. This blog post is based on one of the talks given at that event.
Living in 1980s Poland meant being surrounded by a graphic persuasiveness of visual communist propaganda. However, in this forest of policy-inspired art and slogans a perceptive passer-by could notice discrepancies: a leaflet handed over discreetly, posters popping up mysteriously during the night, often offering the familiar red discomfort of the favourite communist colour, but conveying a rebellious message. If you were curious and brave enough to risk your own comfort, and sometimes life, you could have access to a clandestine news network which functioned as an alternative to the official one-sided narrative of the communist government. A lot of these samizdat productions were prepared by members of Solidarity.
This organisation started as a trade union in the then Polish People’s Republic and evolved into a broad anti-authoritarian social movement that helped to build the foundations for overthrowing communist rule in Eastern Europe by means of civil resistance. One of the goals for Solidarity’s members was raising the nation’s civil awareness by fighting censorship and providing access to independent media.
A poster advertising the University of Poznań Solidarity journal Serwis Informacyjny Komisji Zakładowej NSZZ «Solidarność» przy UAM w Poznaniu. Sol. 764
This advertisement for the Solidarity journal edited by the students of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan is the perfect example of such civil resistance. The image of a man sitting on a clearly useless TV set reading the Solidarity magazine was self-explanatory to Polish citizens of the era. At the time television had only two channels and the state-owned broadcaster was a mouthpiece for the communist government. All news was meticulously censored before release and had to be approved by the General Office for Control of Publications and Spectacles. The agency’s main role was to suppress the freedom of news and free speech.
The relentless efforts of censors resulted in a backlash. Grassroots movements started spreading information coming to Poland from abroad and disseminating true stories of what was going on in and outside of the country. Samizdat books and the so-called ‘second circulation’ of illegally printed press flourished. Spreading pro-democracy news was dangerous and could result in imprisonment and torture – just like in today’s Belarus. Nonetheless, the oppressive situation only fuelled samizdat’s spread. Pamphlets such as this instruction manual made mockery of the government’s efforts to stop the circulation of independent news.
Przemiennik częstotliwości: z RWE na co dzień ('An RF radio frequency converter: for your daily dose of Radio Free Europe'; Warsaw, 1984), Sol. 215x
The manual teaches how to build your own radio frequency converter to listen to Radio Free Europe, as the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries were jamming Western radio broadcasts. In a foreword to the manual the author criticizes the West for not doing enough to support pro-democracy movements and a lack of technological investment that could counter Soviet efforts to block news. However, it is the author’s opinion on wider Western policy that makes contemporary readers take pause: ‘the supremacy of economy over politics in the West means that the West will purchase Soviet gas and construct pipelines as this lies in their interest. By doing so they are playing into Soviet hands – one frosty winter the Soviet Union will be able to turn off the tap and cut off heating in the entire West Germany.’ For those who broke the law to break the news recent headlines are no news at all.
Olga Topol, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections
For more information about the Solidarity collection, read our blog posts giving a general overview and focusing on satire in the collection. You can also read about some sensational news stories from interwar Poland here.