WARSAW Poland's opposition, sections of the media, and rights campaigners on Thursday accused senior officials of using law enforcement agencies to try to stop a magazine publishing secret tapes that are embarrassing for the government.
With even some of his own supporters criticising how he has handled the tapes affair, Prime Minister Donald Tusk said one option was to call a snap election - though it was not clear if he could get the required approval for this from parliament.
Late on Wednesday prosecutors and officers from Poland's internal security agency raided the offices of the Wprost weekly magazine that has already published some of the recordings and is planning to release more next Monday.
The audio tapes - and the government's response to them - have tarnished the image of Poland, the European Union's biggest eastern economy, as a model post-communist democracy.
In the tapes already released, central bank governor Marek Belka and Interior Minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz were recorded discussing the removal of another minister and ways to put pressure on a private businessman. [ID:nL6N0OZ2FH][ID:nL5N0OV15J] Belka and Sienkiewicz have said their words were taken out of context and they deny doing anything illegal.
A member of parliament with Tusk's Civic Platform party told Reuters: "I think the prime minister made a serious mistake by not dismissing minister Sienkiewicz." He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal party business.
Tusk told a news conference he was committed to respecting freedom of speech but there was also a need to track down any as-yet unpublished tapes to stop them being used to blackmail officials.
"It may happen that the only solution will be earlier elections if the crisis in confidence is so deep," Tusk added.
Poland's zloty currency was little changed but volatile on Thursday and credit default swaps - the price of insuring Polish debt against default - were stable.
Parliament can trigger an early election if two-thirds of lawmakers vote in favour, but no bloc in parliament controls that number of votes. An official with the main opposition group, Law and Justice (PiS) told Reuters the party's focus was on the election taking place late next year as scheduled.
Photographs of the raid on the magazine's offices posted on Twitter showed officials trying to wrestle a laptop out of the hands of Sylwester Latkowski, the editor-in-chief of Wprost magazine. He later said he had managed to hold on to the laptop and also a thumb drive containing the additional recordings his magazine planned to publish on Monday.
Reuters reporters who visited the offices of Wprost magazine late on Wednesday, after the raid, said a door to the editor-in-chief's office had been ripped off its hinges. Inside, pieces of torn paper were strewn across the floor.
Tusk said law enforcement agencies had conducted the raid on their own initiative, without political interference.
Prosecutor-General Andrzej Seremet told reporters prosecutors acted lawfully and there was no intent to restrict freedom of the press.
But Adam Bodnar, a Polish lawyer, said the separation between the government and law enforcement was blurred, first because the head of the internal security agency, whose officers were on the raid, is subordinate to Tusk, and second because Sienkiewicz himself had helped trigger the prosecutors' actions.
Staff at Wprost's offices showed Reuters copies of a document they said prosecutors presented to them during the raid to justify their actions.
The document states that prosecutors were acting on the basis, among other things, of a motion filed by Sienkiewicz about illegal eavesdropping. A spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office, and a spokesman for the interior ministry, both confirmed that Sienkiewicz had filed that motion.
"Just a few days ago I was of the opinion that at the central level in Poland we don't have a problem with freedom of speech and abuses by the government, but this situation changes my opinion totally," said Bodnar, who is vice president of the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.
Poland is highly sensitive to any hints of media being gagged because of its history of censorship during Communism.
An opinion poll conducted since the tapes emerged showed that the conservative opposition Law and Justice party led with 32 percent support. The poll, by Millward Brown, put Tusk's centrist Civic Platform (PO) at 25 percent, down from 28 percent in May, the last time the pollster conducted a survey.
It is not known who made the tapes featuring Belka and Sienkiewicz, recorded last year in the private room of a Warsaw restaurant, or how the magazine obtained the recordings.
In one exchange, Sienkiewicz asks Belka if the bank would help the government with the economy in the event that Tusk's party was heading for electoral defeat. Belka replies that if the finance minister were to be removed, he would then tell the prime minister "very much is possible".
Both men have since said they were talking about hypothetical scenarios which never materialised.
At celebrations earlier this month in Warsaw to mark 25 years since Poland's Solidarity trade union movement ended Communist rule, guests including U.S. President Barack Obama hailed Poland as a beacon of democracy and economic reform.
Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, a dissident jailed by the Communists, said the government today was not living up to those ideals.
"In all highly developed countries Belka and Sienkiewicz would have left their posts a long time ago," said Frasyniuk, who helped negotiate the end of communist rule. "Arrogance and insolence, a belief in your moral superiority and that one can do anything, are unacceptable."
(Additional reporting by Michal Janusz; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Gareth Jones and Giles Elgood)