Opposition protest brings Polish parliament to a halt

WARSAW (Reuters) - A protest by opposition lawmakers against a plan to curb media access to the Polish parliament brought the chamber to a halt and forced the postponement of a key budget vote on Friday.

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The demonstration began when a lone opposition MP ascended the parliamentary podium with a placard reading “free media” and was excluded from further debate or votes by speaker Marek Kuchcinski, who is from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Other opposition members then joined MP Michal Szczerba on the podium, chanting “free media” and “no censorship”, in the first such protest in the chamber for a decade.

As their occupation continued on Friday afternoon, the head of the PiS, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, told reporters those taking part would face consequences.

“We will not be terrorized. With utmost certainty we will pass the budget,” Kaczynski said. Szczerba is from the centrist Civic Platform party, which lost power to PiS in elections in October 2015.

Rules proposed by the head office of the Sejm, the lower house, would ban all recording of parliamentary sessions except by five selected television stations and limit the number of journalists allowed in the building. They are due to take effect next year.

“This restriction, first of all, does not hit journalists, but the rights of citizens to be fully informed about what people elected by them to the parliament do,” said a statement signed by Poland’s largest independent news outlets on Friday.

Since coming to power, the PiS has tightened its control over public news media and state prosecution and moved to weaken the country’s highest court.

“I don’t believe there is anything wrong here, I don’t believe this restricts the rights of journalists,” Beata Mazurek, a spokeswoman for the party, was quoted by Polish media as saying on Thursday.


The Sejm’s office said the proposals were partly “inspired” by how journalists were regulated in the European Parliament and other countries’ assemblies.

According to a document published on the Sejm website, 300 permanent and 200 temporary media accreditations have been issued this year, and when the Sejm is in session up to 300 daily passes are granted.

“The changes will not only increase the safety and professionalism for both journalists and politicians, but will also improve the image of Sejm and Senat (the upper house),” the document says.

“The Polish parliament has been very open to journalists for 27 years (since the first democratic election),” the leader of the opposition Polish Peasant Party, Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz, told Polskie Radio 24 on Friday.

“It has served the development of democracy in Poland, it has served to ask tough questions. Now, there will be one message. This is not good for the public opinion.”

Additional reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko and Pawel Florkiewicz; Editing by Andrew Roche