Thousands protest new media restrictions in Poland

Angry Warsaw residents block parliament as they rally against measures that would limit journalist access.

People demonstrate against new restrictions for media at the Polish Parliament in front of the Parliament building in Warsaw,
The march saw angry protesters block the parliament [Franciszek Mazur/Reuters]

Thousands of Warsaw residents joined a spontaneous demonstration in front of Poland’s parliament to protest against a plan by the conservative ruling party to limit journalists’ access to legislators.

The march, which began on Friday, continued into the early hours of Saturday, with crowds blocking the parliament for hours. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the ruling party, finally left the building after police forcibly removed protesters blocking the exit.

Protesters had blocked politicians’ cars, preventing them from leaving the parliament area. Opposition politician Jerzy Meysztowicz said police used tear gas to disperse them.

A new protest was called for Saturday at noon in front of the Presidential Palace.

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 and waved white-and-red national flags and chanted “Free media!” in cold winter weather.

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 lawmakers 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.

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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 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.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies