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Andrzej Borzym: Reporting Poland’s Many Revolutions In 1989

Andrzej Borzym at his desk at RFE, Munich 1984. Photo: W.Poncet
Andrzej Borzym at his desk at RFE, Munich 1984. Photo: W.Poncet

RFE/RL interviewed Andrzej Borzym, a broadcaster and editor at RFE’s Polish Service, about the role and impact of RFE in Hungary during the events of 1989.

RFE/RL: Was there any one broadcast, or any one moment that stands out from your time at RFE? Any specific programs from 1989?

BORZYM: There were many moments that stand out from my time at RFE. I started working in Munich in January 1981 at the height of the political and social upheaval related to the Solidarity movement. And this kept on and on – through martial law, Pope John Paul II pilgrimages to Poland, Gorbachov’s reforms, the round table talks, the election in June 1989, the first noncommunist government in Poland, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and so forth, to the end of my service in RFE in June 1994. To me, as a journalist, the constant stream of news was exciting, though sometimes exhausting. As a Pole, I was proud and grateful I could actively take part in those important and crucial events for my country. Frankly speaking, I thank God and the U.S. that they made it possible.

As for the specific program, I would like to single out “Europe Without Borders,” a program dedicated to European integration. I single it out not because I was co-author and editor of this program, but because I do believe this subject was really fundamental to the integration of Poland and other Eastern European countries after 1989 – and still is.

European integration was always important for RFE from the very beginning of the organization. You can find it stressed in the ‘Policy Handbook’ from 1951, in several guidelines from different years, and in the speech of Admiral H.B. Miller at the inauguration of the Polish program in Munich on May 3, 1952. In the Polish department’s schedule, there was almost always time dedicated to the special program on Europe, or at least regular news and commentaries about the ideas and changes in integrating Europe. In the 80’s, we had no separate program on Europe; apparently there was too much domestic breaking news and we did not have enough airtime and resources to produce it. After 1989, when the political situation in Poland began to stabilize, the time came to think also about the future of the country. So, I and colleague of mine Jarek Sadowski proposed to the then-director of Polish BD, Marek Łatyński, a new program “Europe Without Borders.” Łatyński agreed at once, asking only: ‘Why are you coming to me with it so late?’

Eventually, the program started in March 1990, scheduled once a week on Saturday afternoons. The program had a good audience rating, and we, the editors, got the RFE President Award for it. How important this subject was and is for the reviving societies of Eastern European countries, and how far-reaching are the consequences of neglecting it until later by the Polish public media, we can see today.

A.Borzym is decorated by Polish President Bronisław Komorowski with the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta (Order of the Rebirth of Poland), Warsaw 2010.
A.Borzym is decorated by Polish President Bronisław Komorowski with the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta (Order of the Rebirth of Poland), Warsaw 2010.

RFE/RL: We have read a lot about the challenges facing RFE and its broadcasters during this time. Which were the most profound challenges in your point of view?

BORZYM: In the 80’s, we had to deal with different revolutions; not only political, but also technical and mental. Those years were the beginning of the acceleration of changes in the world and people’s minds. At RFE, we were affected too. We had to change. For example, shifting from prerecorded programs to live confronted us directly with our listeners, our allies, and our adversaries. One challenge we faced (at least in our department) was the necessity to accept hitherto adversaries – the communists – as partners in political and public life in Poland. It was probably difficult on both sides.

When the round table talks between Solidarity and communists started in the spring of 1989, we began to interview by phone the representatives and speakers of the opposition side. Once, our then-boss Marek Łatyński suggested during the morning staff conference that we should also talk to the representatives of the government side of negotiations to find out what they really thought. This idea provoked hot discussion in the crew. One part of the team was strict against “letting the communists to the RFE microphones.”

Nonetheless, Łatyński gave me the assignment to interview Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a young, smart and ‘liberal’ (for those days) participant of the government side of negotiations. Later, in the 90’s, he turned out to be the president of Poland. I contacted Kwaśniewski’s office and at the beginning there was a positive response to the interview request. Eventually, it was cancelled by Kwaśniewski office, officially because of his ‘other duties’. Until now, I do not know whether this was the real reason. I can only guess it could have been his personal or his party reconsiderations motivated by the uncertainty of the negotiations’ outcome. But it’s also possible he (his party) did not trust their adversaries too.

This approach was operative until the elections in June 89. We interviewed or presented almost all Solidarity candidates (our great success and effort in a very short campaign!), a few independents, but not one communist party candidate, even those more moderate of them. The justification was that Solidarity representatives were ignored by (government) public media in Poland. This approach is understandable with respect to the past and it was a popular stance in the Polish public opinion. On the other side, such an attitude could make it in the future difficult to overcame old animosities in Polish society.

Program conference of RFE Polish editorial staff, Munich 1987. Sitting 3rd from the right: A.Borzym. Photo: W.Poncet
Program conference of RFE Polish editorial staff, Munich 1987. Sitting 3rd from the right: A.Borzym. Photo: W.Poncet

RFE/RL: As RFE was based in Munich at the time, what was it like to be a journalist in exile?

BORZYM: In a sense working for RFE did not feel like living in exile. I felt like I was participating in the political life in Poland. I was in those days very well informed about the situation in Poland, probably better than many people in the country itself. Emotionally, I was constantly at work or at home over there in Poland. We had of course rarely direct feedback about our efforts from the audience and this formed a kind of wall and uncertainty. Compensation for this lack of feedback came to me when I travelled to Poland for the first time after 15 years in exile in the winter in 1989. The Polish border guard, after a few questions and answers, shouted: ‘Hey, I know you! I recognize your voice from RFE! Thank you!’

However, when I came back to Poland for good in the middle of the 90’s, there were sometimes political disputes among colleagues. I have heard a few times, as a clinching argument: ‘You do not understand this. You were not here for many years.’ I did not react to it. Maybe I really did not understand all that happened since I was not there at the time. Maybe it is a price for my exile.

RFE/RL: 30 years later, what are the important lessons learned from the events of 1989?

BORZYM: I think the answer to this question is obvious and clear now. If you want to change the world, even if it is in a really deplorable state, you have to be patient, consequent, and nonviolent. You have to appeal to and respect your adversary and try to find a compromise. These are the preconditions to success. However, your chances are much bigger when you have a strong ally or even better allies behind you, as Eastern Europe had in the 80’s in both the Reagan and Bush administrations and Pope John Paul II. In short, the people of this part of the world have had great determination, but a lot of luck with political circumstances in the world too.

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Anna West