'This is a constitutional crisis': Protesters demanding press freedom block Polish parliament

Thousands of Warsaw residents joined in a spontaneous protest on Friday in front of Poland’s parliament building, rallying against a plan by the ruling party to limit reporters’ access to legislators.

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 crowd waved white-and-red national flags and chanted “Free media!” 

Radek Sikorski, a former foreign minister, was among the government critics who addressed the crowd, harshly denouncing Poland’s political direction under Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the powerful chairman of the ruling Law and Justice party.

The budget vote was eventually taken by the ruling party’s lawmakers in another hall, but the opposition questioned its legality. Media was blocked from recording the vote.

“The sitting was illegal, period. This is a constitutional crisis,” Grzegorz Schetyna, head of opposition party Civic Platform, said on social media. 

Poland Media

Opposition lawmakers occupy the podium to protest in the lower house of parliament in Warsaw on Friday. The ruling party later moved the vote to a new location and blocked media access. (Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press)

It was the most serious crisis in Poland’s parliament in many years. 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. Although banned from the main assembly room, they can mingle freely and grab politicians for interviews in the halls.

The ruling Law and Justice 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.

Private TVN24 broadcast the commotion in parliament with a message on the screen: “We will not be able to show this” after Jan. 1.

‘Return to communist-era practices’

Kaczynski denounced the obstruction of parliament as “hooliganism.”

“We will not allow ourselves to be terrorized,” the ruling party leader said.

He said the proposed changes to media access are no different from those in many other European nations, but respected journalist Seweryn Blumsztajn, a dissident under communism, called the plan a “return to communist-era practices.”


Placards read ‘Free Media!’ and ‘Freedom of Speech’ as protesters demand the ruling party rescind new rules that would limit reporters’ access to lawmakers. (Agencja Gazeta/Przemek Wierchowski via Reuters)

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.

Exits blocked 

Protesters blocked all exits from the Polish parliament Friday after the ruling party passed the budget outside the media’s view. The parliament was surrounded by hundreds of police, some of whom were carrying rubber bullet guns.


Protesters’ placards read: ‘Free Media!’ (Agencja Gazeta/Przemek Wierchowski via Reuters)

The protesters called on Kaczynski to come out and face them.

But Kaczynski left parliament in the early hours of Saturday morning after the police forcefully removed protesters blocking the exit, driving away in a convoy with the car of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and several other vehicles.

Opposition lawmaker Jerzy Meysztowicz told broadcaster TVN24 that police used tear gas to disperse the protesters who tried to prevent the cars from leaving.

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