December 17, 2016
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands of Warsaw residents joined in a spontaneous protest in front of Poland’s parliament against a plan by the conservative ruling party to limit reporters’ access to legislators.
Mobilized by the civic movement, the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, or KOD, the crowd on Friday waved white-and-red national flags and chanted “Free media!” in cold winter weather. Radek Sikorski, a former foreign minister, was among the government critics who addressed the protest, harshly denouncing Poland’s political direction under Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the powerful chairman of the ruling Law and Justice party that is introducing many sweeping changes.
Earlier Friday, inside the parliament’s session hall, a large group of liberal opposition lawmakers protested 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 the ruling party’s lawmakers in another hall, but the opposition questioned its legality. It was the most serious crisis in Poland’s parliament in many years. “The political crisis has grown more aggravated,” Law and Justice lawmaker Tadeusz Cymanski said.
The crowd blocked lawmakers’ cars, preventing them from leaving the parliament area. After a few hours, police had to make way for them, as the crowd chanted “We will win!” A new protest was called for Saturday noon in front of the Presidential Palace.
At the heart of the issue was free access to information. In the 27 years of Poland’s democracy, journalists have been a constant presence in the parliament’s halls. 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, plans new rules starting Jan. 1 that would drastically limit reporters’ access in parliament.
Ruling party leader Kaczynski denounced the obstruction of parliament as “hooliganism” and threatened protesters with consequences. “We will not allow ourselves to be terrorized,” 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 acknowledged that journalists have 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 lawmakers want “to protect themselves from uncomfortable questions by journalists.”
“But this is in violation of the constitution and of parliament rules,” Olejnik said.
Associated Press writer Vanessa Gera contributed to this report.