Friday, November 30, 2007

Poland's "Homosexual Problem"

The fish rots from the head.

It’s a Polish expression. I heard it through the simultaneous translation at the “Bridges of Tolerance” conference in Krakow November 27-29. The interpreter told me it’s a common Polish expression when talking about problems in politics or society. I take it to mean that if you’re thinking is corrupt, your actions will be corrupt as well.

I was invited to the conference to provide an “American” perspective on how the media covers gay and lesbian issues. Of course, there is no monolithic “American” perspective but I did my best.

The topic is especially sensitive in Poland, which is deeply Catholic, unlike Ireland with its strained distrust thanks to ongoing priest and nun abuse accounts which continue to pop up, and unlike the United States where many American Catholics are quite happy to break to with the Vatican on birth control, abortion and accepting gays and lesbians without believing they are sinning.

In Poland, the Catholic Church is the symbol of resistance against the Russians and before them the Nazis, and before the Nazis, the Russians again. Pope John Paul II was Polish, and involved in the underground during World War II, so Poland has a special relationship with the Vatican, and have a deserved pride (although few Poles would comment on the Vaticans conspicuous silence during the Spanish Civil War, the 20th century’s bloody Catholic fratricide from which the Vatican stayed away.)

But what they refer to as the “homosexual problem” in Poland has caught them, and the rest of Europe, off guard. The country is not only traditional but homogenous, so when gays and lesbians flexed their free expression muscle by putting on a gay pride parade in Warsaw in 2005 without permission from the city, it was the country’s first experience with a minority demanding to be recognized. And like many other countries before them, it was met with resistance.

The Vatican is quite clear about how it regards homosexuality, and Poland takes its cue from Rome. But it has now become an issue for many gay and lesbian activists who say they are discriminated against. They won a small victory the summer of 2006 when the city of Warsaw allowed a gay pride parade, but gays and lesbians face a much tougher opponent: Polish national identity, which many feel threatened by entry into the European Union, and the introduction of the euro by 2012.

The Polish press is a mirror of this confusion about how to address “the homosexual problem”. And I think that’s quite normal, as I said on this panel about how gay and lesbian issues are covered in the media. Participating in a democracy, whether as a journalist watch dogging government and powerful organizations, or whether as a private citizen marching in a gay pride parade, or advocating for restricted recognition of gays civil rights, is messy, and often times unpleasant. But it’s the anti-perspirant on the stench of corruption and injustice, and without an independent media and press, the foulness of the fish head rotting would creep deep into the roots of Polish society.

The more the topic is debated in Poland in an independent media and press, the more I think gays and lesbians will be recognized as a part of Poland. The door has opened, and the church is right to think now it will lead to greater demands. But that is the natural progression of a society that values freedom of assembly and freedom of expression and the rule of law – the smell of rot disappears once the fish grows a new head.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The German Media Landscape: Destruction of a Free Press?

The front page of der Tagesspiegel last week had a hefty center piece on the train strike, which is taking a toll on Germany's import and export system, which relies on the trains to bring and deliver goods to the country. An important national, if not European, story for Germans. 

But another story, also on the front page, but pushed off to the left hand margin, was an article about der Tagesspiegel's discovery that the police had intercepted their reporters' mail and eavesdropped on their interviews with source. Similarly, NDR, the public broadcasting station learned that not only reporters, but an editor, had been caught up in the surveillance of suspects during the course of interviewing them for a story. 

The director of NDR, Jobst Plog was clear about the ramifications for a free press in Germany if it is confirmed that a district attorney gave the go ahead to conduct the surveillance as part of an investigation of alleged left wing radicals. 

Surveillance in Germany takes a different tone than in the United States. Most Americans haven't felt the fear or paranoia of being spied on by the government. We've had a few moments: the McCarthy era, and blackballing people for alleged Communist affiliation. J. Edgar Hoover's almost Nazi like obssession with keeping files on everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Robert Kennedy to Abbie Hoffmann. 

But they were not ordinary people leading ordinary lives. They took risks, they antagonized. An FBI file is almost a badge of honor, because it indicates that you raised to the level of importance that the government ought to know what you were doing. 

Not so in Germany. During the Nazi regime, students regularly reported on their parents comments at the dinner table to teachers, who reported it to the local Gestapo. Anyone who criticized Adolph Hitler at a private party could be arrested; anyone who spoke out against the government even in passing to a friend could be detained. And anyone could be listening: your neighbor, your teacher, your aunts and uncles. It was a regime that turned people on each other. 

When the country was split, the Communist Erich Honecker, after 9 years imprisoned by the Nazis, took lessons from the Communisty Party head and eventually lead the most notorious secret service in the world: the Stasi. After the wall fell, and people burst into the basements of the Palast der Republik, they found millions upon millions of files. The Stasi had kept records on everyone, East and West Germans. And they had lists of informers, some paid, some "informal". When the German government received the Stasi files from the CIA in 2000, the BBC reported on the concern about exposing former West Germans as Stasi agents. Families are learning that a beloved relative was in fact an informer; wives learning that husbands were spying on them, and vice versa. As an individual you can request your file and look at it, but it's so sensitive, even 17 years after the wall has come down, that no one except journalists or researchers, are allowed to look at the Stasi files. Journalists are prohibited from publishing or broadcasting information from the Stasi files that were collected through secret methods, like taping a conversation without someone's knowledge or taking their picture without them knowing. But of course, the Stasi was all about secrecy, and the majority of the information was collected secretly. 

That was chilling enough. One of the first things the U.S. did when it "denazified" Germany after the war was building up an independent press. It has served the country well, from the undercover reports of Guenther Walraff on living as a Turkish factor worker to the exposure of the Hitler diaries as a fake. Germans are engaged in their democracy, proud of it, and they should be. They, and the rest of the world, paid a heavy price for it. 

When the press learns that it's government has been spying on them, spying on their whereabouts with sources, how can Germans begin the road to trusting each other, and reporters? In so many ways, it is a young democracy, a young nation state, and it is an infant in trusting the stewards of its democracy - the press - to safeguard the promises of the German constitution, one of which is the right to privacy. German privacy laws are very strict, and when you think about the history, you understand why. The press cannot function effectively if the government is spying on reporters in the interests of national security. The press cannot safeguard the freedoms demanded in the constitution when a government deploys its powers to secretly collect information. That is a step in the direction of a military junta, of a type of dictatorship. It's not of an individual, but it's of an entity, like the Nazis, who pass laws and exercise them for the "safety" of the country. The Nazis were democratically elected, and within two years, stripped Germany of its democratic practices. The country has come so far, and it's a leader for other European nations. It's time to leave the secrecy behind, and let the sunshine begin to heal the sores of government chafing.