Perspective on Poland

The Polish Ambassador to Canada, Andrzej Kurnicki, complained about a pair of programme segments dealing with his country’s “Holocaust Law.” He challenged the characterization of the law as infringing on freedom of speech and said there was an insinuation that Poland bears responsibility for German crimes. In one instance, in an interview on Ottawa Morning, the government’s position should have been more fully stated. In the case of a piece on The National regarding the backlash to the law there was no violation of policy. Neither piece implied that the Polish people as a whole were guilty.

COMPLAINT

You complained about two different segments on different CBC platforms. The topic covered was the same - the recently passed Polish legislation which criminalizes attribution of Nazi crimes to Poland. The first segment, broadcast on February 5 on Ottawa Morning, was an interview with Prof. Jan Grabowski, a Polish-Canadian academic and expert who teaches at the University of Ottawa. In that instance you stated you were deeply disappointed “with one-sided, false and unjust opinions presented during this programme by Professor Jan Grabowski.” He said he thought the true purpose of the law was to shut down legitimate academic inquiry and that it was an attack on researchers like him who examine the controversial aspects of the history of the relationships between some Poles, Jews and Germans.

You emphasized that the Polish legislation exempts opinions delivered as part of a scientific or artistic activity. You thought he had implied that the Polish Nation was in complicity with the German occupiers in carrying out the murder of Jews:

I strongly disagree with Professor Grabowski’s insinuation about the Polish Nation’s (as a whole) complicity in the Holocaust. We have to remember that there was no free Poland during the World War II. Poland, unlike many, was never an ally of Nazi Germany and never had a collaborative regime. On the contrary, Poland was actively fighting against Nazi Germany from the beginning of the war in 1939 to the very end. Polish Underground State provided intelligence reports on German atrocities against European Jews and appealed to stop the Holocaust.

You added that there were instances of “villainous acts” but the Poles and the Polish nation should in no way be blamed for the German actions to exterminate Jews.

The National broadcast a report from Jerusalem a few days later entitled Poland’s Holocaust Legislation faces fierce backlash.” Once again, you believe Prof. Grabowski quoted in this story is misrepresenting the purpose of the new Polish law:

The purpose is to restore the historical truth about the German Nazi concentration and extermination camps located on the territory of then occupied Poland and prevent defamation of Poland. The provisions of the amended act are not intended to limit freedom of speech, research, discussions on history or artistic activity. Opinions delivered as part of scientific or artistic activity have been excluded by the legislators.

You also challenged a statistic quoted by a spokesperson for the Centre of Organizations of Holocausts Survivors who stated that 200,000 Jews died at the hands of Poles during World War II. You said it is impossible to know what it might be because “all historians and researchers have are small portions of data.” You said taking this estimate at face value was a disservice - “unfair insinuation and accusation.”

You stated the piece lacked balance because it lacked the point of view of Polish authorities.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jonathan Whitten, the Executive Director of News Content for CBC News, replied to your concerns. He said that the Ottawa Morning piece “might have more clearly set out the government’s view.” Having said that, he did not fully agree with your statement that the law had been misrepresented, that Prof. Grabowski had set up a false premise. He said in his reading of his comments, he understood that academics and artists would be exempt, but he believed the law would have a “freezing effect” on researchers - especially those who have an interest in studying groups of Poles who were involved in actions against Jews. He called it an attack on those who wish to study history.

He also replied to your concern that Prof. Grabowski was ascribing guilt to the Polish nation. He pointed out he referred to civilians, not the Polish government:

But, again as I understood him, I don’t think Prof. Grabowski is saying the Polish state was complicit. In fact, at the beginning of the interview, he specifically pointed to “Polish civilians”, who he said after the occupation, “became complicit in the mass murder of their Jewish co-citizens”. It was a point he returned to several times during the interview. At another point he said that after the liquidation of the ghettos in 1942, many Jews escaped to the countryside where it was up the Poles living there to decide their fate. Later he referred to “certain segments” of Polish society that were “complicit in the German genocide plan.

He added that while this is a relatively new field of research, he and other historians are basing their statements on facts.

He also addressed your concerns about the second piece, the one on The National. Jan Grabowski was featured in this one as well, and he noted you once again took issue with his contention that the purpose of the bill is to limit free speech. Mr. Whitten noted the purpose of this segment was the fact that the passage of the bill had created quite a bit of controversy. He said the quote from the Polish Prime Minister conveyed a different point of view:

To illustrate those conflicting views, the story began with a voice clip of Poland’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, speaking in Munich, a couple of days before the broadcast report, in an effort to clarify the law’s intent. But some continued to disagree, daubing crude graffiti on the gates of the Polish embassy in Tel Aviv.

In the report that followed, CBC News Middle East correspondent Derek Stoffel began by explaining that the Polish law makes it illegal to say that Poland bore responsibility for the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany. But, he continued, Israeli leaders and advocates for Holocaust survivors say the law is “plainly an attempt to re-write history”. Critics say the legislation is too broad and could be used to limit discussion of what happened during the Nazi occupation.

He explained this was the context for Mr. Grabowski’s remarks - it is his opinion that the purpose of the law is to shut down the kind of research he is doing on those segments of Polish society who were involved in the persecution of Jews.

He told you that Ms. Avital, who used the 200,000 number of Jews killed by Poles, was a credible expert source and that viewers could draw their own conclusions. He said that her source was likely Mr. Grabowski’s book “Hunting the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-occupied Poland,” published originally in 2011 and published in Hebrew by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial authority in Israel, in 2017.

He put these two items in the context of the array of treatments given to this topic across all CBC platforms and programmes. He said that there were other reports from Poland which relied on Polish authorities for their views of the law and its purpose, and that CBC policy allows for achieving balance over time.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic policy is committed to balance and fairness over time:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

The policy also makes a commitment to “invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience.” That can become extremely challenging when the very facts are in dispute, and that is certainly the case in the coverage of this Bill.

The Polish government has clearly stated its goals for the passage of the law, formally known as the amended “Act on the Institute of National Remembrance.” The original legislation imposed fines or up to three years in prison for those who denied or belittled German and Soviet crimes during the Holocaust and the Soviet invasion. The new version imposes the same penalties for those who attribute German crimes to the “Polish Nation or the Polish State.” It also penalizes the use of the phrase “Polish concentration camps.” You stated that the purpose of this law was to “restore the historical truth.” Therein lay the basis for much of the controversy around the bill.

Critics were concerned that there was a narrow definition of what the historical truth is. Historians have pointed out it is complex and nuanced. Critics are also concerned that there is some ambiguity in the wording of the law, and how it will apply to academic and journalistic inquiry.

The Ottawa Morning interview focused on what some of those criticisms might be. You stated Prof. Grabowski misrepresented the purpose of the legislation. He gave his interpretation of it. It is his belief that the driving force behind the legislation is to stop historians from examining the historical record regarding the extent to which Poles assisted Germans in rounding up or exterminating Jews or did so themselves.

Ms. Cottnam did, in several instances, attempt to state the position of the Polish government. She challenged Mr. Grabowski’s assertion that the law will shut down legitimate research:

The Associated Press is reporting that Poland’s Prime Minister says this bill is being misinterpreted. He says it penalizes accusing Poles as a nation but not “someone who says it somewhere in some village some place a Jewish family or a Jewish person was murdered.” Does that ease your concerns?

This helps but it does not go far enough. I agree more care and time should have been given in this instance to presenting the perspective of the Polish government and what it is officially saying about the purpose of the law, and how it will be applied.

Ms. Cottnam also quoted the Prime Minister as stating that the Poles, like the Jews, were victims and it is important for Poles to make that clear and defend Poland against those that blame it for events of World War II. The debate partly centres around how profound that misreading of history is, and what is the best remedy for addressing it.

While CBC policy calls for balance and fairness over time, in controversial matters there is an obligation to provide the predominant views in as short a time frame as possible. I also observe that Prof. Grabowski has had a lot of air time on CBC programmes. While this is understandable because he is Canadian and an acknowledged scholar on this topic, it is incumbent on CBC News to ensure some balance to his views, and to clearly articulate the position of the Polish government. Mr. Grabowski has been interviewed at least three times on CBC programmes. If he is to be used, then there is an obligation to include other voices at least some of the time. The Ottawa interview should have been one of those times. As I mentioned in another review on this subject, programming that would shed light on the historical background and present political reality would provide important context for Canadians to better understand the situation. Mr. Whitten told you that other Polish scholars appeared on CBC programmes, and this is the case. All of them were critical of the legislation but were also clear that they did not condemn Poland or consider it responsible for the atrocities committed by Germans. It is important to distinguish between their reasons - that they fear a chilling effect or that there are more effective ways to correct or explain the historical record. There is a further complicating factor, and that is that many of the critics not only see this legislation in an historical perspective, but very much as a result of current political issues in Poland. Those concerns are the basis for much of the criticism. For this reason, as well, it is important that the position of the government be well represented in the coverage.

It is also your contention that Mr. Grabowski was blaming the Polish state. He is careful to limit his remarks to parts or segments of society. This is what he said:

Well, it is indeed an attack on the study of history, especially on the study of history of the Holocaust, and more particularly it’s an attack on people who want to study the more, let’s say, controversial parts of Polish/Jewish/German history and these parts, when Polish civilians, once the Polish society became complicit in mass murder of their Jewish co-citizens, which, of course, it’s an historical fact, something which today’s nationalistic authorities want to deny.

As Mr. Whitten pointed out, later in the interview he elaborated saying that Poles are not facing up to an aspect of their history, because they prefer to see themselves only as victims, but that the reality is “certain segments of Polish society” collaborated with the Nazis. That is not a condemnation of an entire people and is a legitimate avenue of discussion. The historical research, including Prof. Grabowski’s, is relatively new - there may be dispute about some of the conclusions or particular facts, but presenting them is a valid choice.

The piece on The National was not an examination of the Bill itself, but rather the controversy it had attracted, particularly in Israel. It made sense then that the focus was on objections to it.

Having said that, the item included a statement from the Polish Prime Minister, and Mr. Stoffel summarized the purpose and intent of the law:

It's now illegal to say that Poland bore responsibility for the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, implying that the Polish nation was complicity in the Holocaust could lead to fines or up to three years behind bars. Israeli leaders have criticized the Polish law.

He then goes on to document events in Israel in opposition to the law, and points out that it might be having the opposite effect to restoring Polish reputation. There is no violation of policy. You also questioned the use of the figure of 200,000 Jews being murdered by Poles. Mr. Whitten stated that reporters interview experts and let viewers know who they are so they can form their own judgement about the validity of the information. That is true, but in cases where there is some doubt, it is helpful to give more attribution. You are right, there is no agreement about the precise numbers - scholarship going back to the 1970’s indicates the number could be higher. The fundamental difficulty seems to be a rejection of any discussion of pockets of society and institutions who did abet Germans. That does not take away from the fact that thousands of Poles risked their lives to save Jews, and that there are more Poles than any other nationality named as “Righteous among the Nations” at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel. That was not the focus of this story, and it is not realistic that at every mention of one part of the history the other also has to be mentioned. In other treatments of this subject there were citations of the heroism and the suffering of the Polish people. The piece stands on its own merits.

In summary, the Ottawa Morning interview failed to live up to CBC Journalistic Standards because it did not provide a clear or extensive enough perspective in support of the legislation. The issue is compounded by the fact that the same critic is used so extensively in CBC coverage. There were individual segments which, while having a critical voice, did provide overall balance. I did not find in any instance that references to Poles involved in the rounding up or murder of Jews implied or stated that this was a condemnation of the Polish state. The caution is to ensure that the beliefs and assertions of the Polish government and those Poles who support this legislation is clearly stated.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman