Image of Catholic icon in pop culture magazine causes fresh debate on media freedom in Poland

Polish pop culture magazine Machina has hit the stands again after a three year absence. And its return did not go unnoticed. The cover features the Black Madonna icon, Poland's revered religious painting, but it appears with the superimposed picture of pop star Madonna. The published image has led to protests by Polish Roman Catholics. And it has raised ethical questions concerning media freedom not unlike those involving the Danish Islamic caricatures.

The much-revered Polish icon of the Black Madonna, held by believers to be associated with several miracles, was put on the front cover of Machina with the face of the pop star Madonna superimposed on it. The monks of the Jasna Gora monastery in Czestochowa, southern Poland, who are guarding the icon, soon published a statement saying they were shocked to see the miraculous icon of the mother of God used in a profane way for business and advertisement.

Following this statement, ultra Catholic daily newspaper Nasz Dziennik declared this publication to be "another act of profanation of sacred symbols". Piotr Metz, editor-in-chief of the Machina, explains that he "did not intend to offend anyone's religious feelings".

"I can of course understand their position. I'm not going to discuss this statement in detail, because there are some points in it that are controversial or hard to understand. It's a complete misinterpretation of our original intention. I'm surprised. When we were trying, last October, to find a theme for our cover story for the sample issue, we realized that Madonna is releasing a new album. And Madonna is in my opinion the icon of modern pop culture. That's why this cover was born. Machyna is going to be a magazine of pop culture trends, probably also breaking the rules. But it's not going to be an anti-religious magazine."

Even if the intention was not to offend anybody, it happened even so. Adam Szostkiewicz, of the prestigious Polityka weekly stresses that in these matters, it is important to consult with "religiously literate" persons, if just for the sake of keeping one's sponsors. Though censorship should never be applied, an editor should nevertheless handle these questions with certain prudence. Adam Szostkiewicz:

"I think the editors of Machina were not very lucky to go on with this at this particular point in time. For two reasons: Firstly, it was just a few days ago when we had this re-publication of the infamous Danish cartoons, and the second reason is that we now have a conservative Catholic government."

It will be interesting to see to what magnitude these protests may reach and what will come of them. Media analyst Andrzej Krajewski thinks that this is a whole other story than the Mohammad cartoons controversy. The freedom of press is very important to the still new Polish democracy. There have been rumours that a state run media monitoring bureau might be introduced in Poland.

"I hope it will not be a big thing. What is sad, that probably in the new times under the new government, some advertisers are afraid and they are trying to withdraw from Machina, which is their right of course. I hope that there will be others, who will jump in because our culture is not the same as the culture of Islam. Some people might get offended, but I don't think there will be any demonstrations and I don't think that any authorities will try to ignite them. Very often in the media, you have a clash of two values, the value of freedom of speech and honouring religious feelings. And of course it is up to the editor and up to the title to decide every time which value is more important to them."

This issue is not likely to be of the magnitude of that of the Mohammad cartoons, but it still brings the question of freedom of press and opinion versus being sensitive to religious feelings closer to home...even when you're addressing young adults in a pop culture magazine.