A simple and coarsely written satire in a German newspaper aimed at the twin brothers who now head the Polish government has sparked a cross-border feud over the role of the press and shaken an already delicate relationship between the two neighbors.
An article in the left-leaning Tageszeitung newspaper poking fun at President Lech Kaczynski of Poland and his brother and prime minister, Jaroslaw, has incensed the men, moving their government to demand apologies and even threaten defamation charges against its author, Peter Koehler.
"We were wondering why there is no reaction from the German public opinion" after the "very brutal attack," in Tageszeitung, a Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman, Andrzej Sados, said in an interview. "This was not an attack on the Polish politicians, but on a third person, on the mother of the president."
The article, which appeared May 26 in the paper's satire section under the headline "Poland's New Potatoes: Rogues Who Want to Rule the World," poked fun at what it called the Kaczynski brothers' myopic view of the world and ended with a dig at Jaroslaw Kaczynski for still living with his mother -- "but at least without a marriage certificate."
Bascha Mika, who since 1999 has edited the Taz, as the German newspaper is known, said that "controlling power is the mandate of the press, and to poke fun at power is also the job of the press."
She added: "Those are all concepts that don't seem very self-evident to the Kaczynski brothers."
In the last month, the newspaper's office in central Berlin has received a stack of letters from Polish readers. One insults Mika, and another writer says that her paper "will get what's coming to it."
Lech Kaczynski, during a radio interview, called the newspaper a "dirty rag" and said that the satire "crossed all boundaries."
On July 21, the Warsaw prosecutor's office announced that it was investigating whether to file charges against the author of the article. Should the case make it before a judge in Poland, the prosecutor's office could seek a EU arrest warrant for Koehler.
Politicians across Europe have often gone to court to put an end to slights and insults volleyed at them by national publications. But a media lawyer in Berlin, Johannes Weberling, said that he was troubled by the prospect of a foreign prosecutor going after a German newspaper.
"It's got a new quality to it," he said. "And it's a quality that runs contrary to the idea of a common group of values that Europe is currently striving for."
Political observers say that Poland's foreign policy has assumed a nationalist tone, complete with a return to what some see as the traditional suspicion concerning the country's powerful neighbors, Russia and Germany.
In Poland, hard-line Catholic media outlets like Radio Maryja and the conservative newspaper Nasz Dziennik typically obtain exclusive government access, while traditional media get the cold shoulder, said Vincent Brossel, a spokesman for Reporters Without Borders, a group based in Paris.
In the current dispute, media outlets loyal to the government have used the opportunity to further what Mika, the editor, says is a push toward nationalism by the Kaczynski government.