Poles protest at new attacks on press freedom

Jane Whyatt

Polish journalists have been banned from entering the national parliament for two days after protestors on the streets of Warsaw, Wroclaw and other Polish cities. They were demonstrating against new rules limiting journalists’ access to the parliament (Sejm). In Warsaw the demonstrators blocked the street in front of the parliament building. Inside, Opposition MPs staged a sit-in.

Protest Poland Poland protests: Crowds renew calls for press freedom (screenshot: twitter)

Chair of ECPMF’s Executive Board, Henrik Kaufholz, says the PiS government’s latest actions are worrying: “This latest move by the Polish government is another proof that it gives priority to its own interest in staying in power and not to a democracy based on checks and balances.“

The Polish Journalists’ Association SDP is mediating between journalists and the government on the question of how many parliamentary reporters should continue to get access and accreditation to the Sejm. SDP spokesperson Dorota Zielinska told ECPMF: "Krzysztof Skowronski, President of SDP, attended today’s meeting with the Senate Speaker, Mr.Karczewski. Mr. Skowronski is quite sure that the problem will be solved soon and the journalists’ rights to report from parliament will not be violated. Till the end of January, the rules for parliament reporters will be settled in co-ordination with the journalists’ community."

Earlier this year, the trade union’s press freedom committee CMWP held a conference about proposed restrictions on parliamentary reporters, and sent opinions to both the Sejm and the Senate (upper house of parliament).

The position of SDP is clear – journalists have a right and an obligation to cover how the parliament works“, says Dorota Zielińska."

Live footage of the protests was carried on private TV network TVN. However, the Polish national broadcaster TVP did not cover the demonstrations live. The main opposition newspaper, Gazeta Wyborczka, deputy editor in chief Piotr Kasiński told ECPMF „These changes amounted to severe infringement of media freedom, prohibiting them from reporting freely on the works of the Parliament; and thus - from informing citizens on what the rulers actually are doing and plan to do.“

The timing of the ban, just before the parliament was due to vote on changing the Constitutional Tribunal, indicates that it is these controversial reforms, and not a permanent curb on press freedom, that lie at the heart of the matter.

Fact finding mission

This is the latest in a series of legal and constitutional moves that have caused concern for human rights and the rule of law in Poland, and which prompted the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom to send a fact finding mission to Warsaw and Wroclaw in January 2016. The European Federation of Journalists and International Press Institute were also on the fact finding team. And the EU Commission also started an official Dialogue with the Polish government under the Rule of Law regulations that exist to defend constitutional rights in Member States.

On behalf of Europe’s journalism unions, Mogens Blicher Bjerregård – himself an ECPMF Board member – comments:

Journalists should be provided with enhanced access to MPs and facilities ensuring they can move freely within the parliament. I fully agree with the statement signed by Poland’s largest independent news outlets on Friday. Such a restriction not only limits the freedom of journalists, but also the rights of citizens to be fully informed about the activities of their parliamentarians.”

In Wroclaw, the local organiser of the pressure group KOD (Committee for the Defence of the Constitution) Michal Korczak (pictured) has called for daily protests to continue every evening. Chanting “Constitution, constitution“, the demonstrators heard a speech by Professor Ludwik Turko. In 2015 he was awarded the Cross of Freedom and Solidarity however, refused to receive it, on the grounds of the activities of President Andrzej Duda in a dispute concerning the Constitutional Court.

European values

European Council President Donald Tusk (formerly the Liberal Platform party Prime Minister of Poland 2007-2014) was in the city as large crowds gathered on the evening of 17th December. He was there in his official capacity to declare the ending of Wroclaw’s year as European Capital of Culture. However he included in his speech a plea that „People, values and rights should be accepted.“

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