Polish Protests Roil Parliament as Media Freedom in Question

  • Police remove protesters blocking parliament overnight
  • President Duda offers to mediate, ruling party to meet media

Poland’s political crisis escalated as protests over curbs on media freedom led to tumultuous scenes inside and outside parliament.

Police forcibly removed demonstrators blocking exit routes from the legislature overnight, while inside the chamber, opposition lawmakers delayed proceedings by refusing to yield the podium. As thousands again took to the streets of Warsaw and other cities to protest, President Andrzej Duda urged both sides to help restore calm and offered to mediate, while ruling party officials seek a meeting with media representatives.

People block the exit from the Polish Parliament during a demo on Dec. 16.

Photographer: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

In power for a little more than a year, the Law & Justice party has been accused by the European Commission of eroding the rule of law and its power grab triggered Poland’s first ever credit downgrade by S&P Global Ratings. Lawmakers passed new curbs on public gatherings this week and plan to overhaul non-governmental organizations and to limit reporting in parliament, adding to concerns over democratic standards 27 years after the collapse of communism.

“I was concerned and worried when watching yesterday’s events in parliament,” Duda said in a statement. “All changes should be introduced after consulting all news outlets concerned in order to avoid an impression that the covering of parliamentary work is being limited.”

Rallies Continue

Chanting “we won’t give up democracy,” demonstrators appealed to Duda not to sign the law that could limit the right to hold protests, which was passed by Law & Justice this week. Ryszard Petru, the leader of the Nowoczesna party, urged supporters to maintain the protest in coming days, saying the opposition will keep blocking the podium in the chamber.

“I urge you to keep the watch in front of parliament until the New Year or maybe longer,” Petru said. “If it turns out we can’t agree -- we need early elections.”

Petru’s criticism was echoed by the European Union President and former Polish Premier Donald Tusk, who said he had to change the text of an earlier planned speech in Wroclaw, Poland, to address the events in Warsaw.

“Democracy in which one deprives people of access to information and imposes one style of life upon them becomes as unbearable as a dictatorship,” Tusk said during a rare speech dedicated to Polish politics. “The European democracy won’t survive by itself. It requires our tenderness as it’s more fragile than it had been when we were watching it from behind the Iron Curtain. The question if the European model of democracy will survive is no longer rhetorical.”

According to state newswire PAP, Kaczynski asked Senate Speaker Stanislaw Karczewski to organize meeting with the media representatives to help agree “rules of cooperation.”

Television showed police removing dozens of anti-government demonstrators around 3 a.m. on Saturday to clear a path for the motorcade of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Voting ended some five hours earlier, but politicians couldn’t leave the parliamentary complex as exit routes were blocked by protesters, who chanted “Free media” and “We don’t want dictator Kaczynski.”

The row was sparked by the ejection of Maciej Szczerba, an opposition lawmaker, from deliberations over the 2017 budget bill for “insubordination.” Szczerba held a sign in support of free media while trying to ask a question about the fiscal plan. After his removal, dozens of opposition officials surrounded the podium, forcing lower house Speaker Marek Kuchcinski to abandon deliberations.

A few hours later, Kuchcinski reconvened the budget debate in an auxiliary chamber in parliament, where votes were counted by hand instead of the usual electronic system and with hardly any opposition lawmakers taking part in the ballot. He said the fiscal plan was passed with 234 votes for and 2 against, and will next go to the upper house.

No Media

In an unprecedented move, journalists weren’t allowed inside to film the vote, and news of the ballot was solely broadcast on the official parliamentary website. Three opposition parties issued a joint statement saying that the budget vote was “illegal,” should be repeated and pushed Poland deeper into a constitutional crisis.

Opposition lawmaker Borys Budka, a former justice minister, told Bloomberg that the questionable status of Friday’s vote could endanger the inflow of European Union funds next year, which the government is counting on to rejuvenate Poland’s $475 billion economy.

The new media regulations, which Kuchcinski wants to impose from January, will mean that only the television recordings made by parliament will be available to journalists, and most reporters will be forced to work from a media center instead of roaming the building in search of comments from lawmakers as they do now. Kaczynski will meet journalists on Sunday to discuss new guidelines.

While Kuchcinski says the planned changes, the biggest curbs on reporting since the end of communism in 1989, will “guarantee more professional and comfortable working conditions,” private broadcasters and newspapers say the move amounts to censorship. One of the measures that has drawn censure from the EU’s executive is a law that allows the government to directly appoint executives to public broadcasters.

The Committee for the Defense of Democracy is holding a scheduled protest at 12 p.m. in Warsaw to honor Constitutional Tribunal President Andrzej Rzeplinski, whose term ends Monday.

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