Opponents of Poland’s populist government are staging a new protest in Warsaw, gathering outside the presidential palace in an appeal to the head of state to protect the young democracy’s constitutional order from a series of government steps they deem anti-democratic.
Saturday’s protest reflects rising political tension over ruling party policies under chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski and follows a large spontaneous demonstration on Friday outside parliament.
The protests were sparked by a government plan to restrict the access of journalists to MPs in parliament.
In the biggest parliamentary crisis in years, opposition politicians protested that plan on Friday, blocking a vote on the state budget. Governing party members then voted in another hall, which the opposition says was illegal. Opposition parties want a repeat vote.
Rules proposed by the head office of the Sejm, the lower house, would ban all recording of parliamentary sessions, except by five selected television stations, and limit the number of journalists allowed in the building. They are due to take effect next year.
Mobilised by the civic movement, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy, or KOD, the crowd began gathering on Friday chanted “Free media!” in the cold winter weather.
Radoslaw “Radek” Sikorski, a former foreign minister, was among government critics who addressed the protest, harshly denouncing Poland’s political direction under Kaczynski, the most powerful politician in Poland and chairman of the ruling Law and Justice party that is introducing many sweeping changes.
Earlier on Friday, inside the parliament’s session hall, a large group of liberal opposition MPs protested against the new media rules by standing on and around the speaker’s podium for several hours. They blocked a vote on the 2017 state budget.
The budget vote was eventually taken by ruling party MPs in another hall, but the opposition questioned its legality. It was the most serious crisis in Poland’s parliament for many years.
“The political crisis has grown more aggravated,” Law and Justice MP Tadeusz Cymanski said.
In the 27 years of Poland’s democracy, journalists have been a constant presence in the parliament’s halls. Though banned from the main assembly room, they can grab politicians for interviews in the halls.
The ruling party, which is under European Union scrutiny for policies deemed anti-democratic by opponents, is planning new rules starting on January 1 that would drastically limit reporters’ access to parliament.
‘No democracy without media’
Agnieszka Wisniewska, editor of Krytyka Polityczna, told Al Jazeera that the proposed measure was “the easiest way to cut media freedom”.
“You cannot have democracy without media,” Wisniewska said, adding that she expected further protests. “This is a way to cut media from information.”
Ruling party leader Kaczynski denounced the obstruction of parliament as “hooliganism” and threatened protesters with consequences.
“We will not allow ourselves to be terrorised,” he said.
He said the proposed changes to media access are no different from those in many other European nations. Respected journalist Seweryn Blumsztajn, a dissident under communism, called the plan a “return to communist-era practices”.
Monika Olejnik, of TVN, a Polish television network, said that journalists had gone too far sometimes, such as trying to accost politicians heading to the toilet. But she, too, denounced the planned new rules, saying ruling party MPs wanted “to protect themselves from uncomfortable questions by journalists.”
“But this is in violation of the constitution and of parliament rules,” Olejnik said.