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Polish publisher punished for poke at pope

A court Tuesday convicted the publisher of a satirical magazine of insulting Polish-born Pope John Paul II and fined him $6,500.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A court Tuesday convicted the publisher of a satirical magazine of insulting Polish-born Pope John Paul II and fined him $6,500.

The ruling against Jerzy Urban, a onetime spokesman for the former Communist government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, sparked cries of “Too little!” from opponents of the publishers. Jaruzelski’s government had imposed martial law to try to crush the Solidarity freedom movement.

The court ruled that Urban, founder and publisher of the weekly magazine “NIE” — Polish for “no” — illegally insulted the pope when he printed an article making fun of John Paul’s age and frailty before a visit to Poland in 2002.

“The court has no doubts that intending to ridicule the church, Jerzy Urban ridiculed and derided the pope,” Judge Barbara Laskowska said, reading the verdict.

He was found guilty of violating a law that bans publicly insulting foreign heads of state. The court noted that the pontiff heads the Vatican, formally an independent state.

Urban, 71, had professed his innocence, saying he only exercised the right to free expression. Prosecutors had asked for the fine and a 10-month suspended prison term.

Violation of Western-style liberties?
Prosecutor Maciej Kujawski brought the defamation charges in September 2003, after Catholics and other organizations accused Urban of offending the much-admired pontiff.

The decision is likely to deepen concerns abroad that Poland is violating Western-style press freedoms. Earlier in the day, an Austrian-based media watchdog called the recent criminal convictions of journalists a cause for concern.

Miklos Haraszti of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, wrote a letter to Polish Justice Minister Andrzej Kalwas, saying he fears press freedoms in the ex-communist country are being curtailed, citing Urban’s case.

Last week, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, warned that Poland would violate European Union guarantees of freedom of expression if it sentenced Urban for defaming the pope.

Urban earned a reputation for his sarcasm and acid tongue in the early 1980s when he served as spokesman Jaruzelski’s government. After the fall of communism, he became a successful and wealthy businessman.