In Poland, Media Freedom Fears Persist as New Plans Restricting Journalists’ Access to Parliament to be Unveiled in January

By William Horsley, CFOM International Director

In many parts of Europe the freedom of the media is under serious threat not only from restrictive laws but also from a wide range of administrative and informal constraints and pressures. In Poland the government has already enacted a law to take direct control of the governance of public TV and Radio and is accused of interfering with the independence of the country’s constitutional court. The past 10 days have seen a fierce dispute erupt over proposals to impose drastic new restrictions on the media’s access to parliament and the ways in which  parliamentary business can be reported. Krzysztof Bobinski, an independent journalist and writer based in Warsaw, says the issue may not yet be settled, despite a public climb-down by senior government and parliamentary figures.

This article was first published on the website of the Association of European Journalists www.aej.org and is re-printed here with the author’s permission.

Poland’s governing Law and Justice party appears to be intent on pressing ahead with a modified set of restrictions on access for print and electronic media journalists to parliament, despite concerted protests by opposition politicians, media leaders and pro-democracy demonstrators which have continued since December 15.

Initial plans which were presented on December 14 sought to place new restrictions on what until now has been free access for journalists to plenary and committee meetings as well as to individual members of parliament in Parliament’s corridors and restaurants. The plans envisaged that journalists would only have access to parliamentary proceedings through a video feed to a ‘conference room’ located in a building which is far removed from the main parliamentary activities. Access to the public gallery would in future be limited to media representatives who notify parliament in advance of their intention to attend.  These new rules were criticised as reversing decades of practice which are enshrined in Poland’s constitution giving the media free access to parliament. Critics expressed acute concern that they would create conditions under which access to parliament could effectively be limited to members of the media who are deemed friendly by the government, putting critical media at a serious disadvantage.

The official plans were opposed, at meetings with parliamentary officials, by representatives of all the main media organisations in Poland, regardless of their political orientation. Subsequently the original proposals were set aside. But on Tuesday the Speaker of the Senate, Stanisław Karczewski, announced that what he called new proposals to “improve the conditions under which the media operate in parliament” would be unveiled on 6 January. Mr Karczewski denied that the intention of the authorities was to restrict media access to parliament, adding that the proposed new press centre would be equipped with internet and computers and would include what he called ‘a social room’. But media representatives remain seriously concerned at the prospect that significant restrictions to access, albeit modified ones, are still likely to be imposed. The past year has seen the new governing majority in parliament pass controversial laws late at night, avoiding close scrutiny and giving rise to opposition claims of illegitimacy. Government supporters have also expressed irritation that reporters are free to move around the  parliament building freely and to ask questions at will. Fears have been expressed that the planned restrictions could constrain the role of the parliamentary opposition in future law-making, and limit media coverage of proceedings to pro-government media.

The initial plans, announced by Marek Kuchcinski, the speaker of the Sejm, were as follows:-

1.       Each media oganisation is to be allowed to accredit two representatives

2.       Journalists will be allowed to report on Parliament from one location

3.       Journalists will not be allowed to record plenary proceedings from the public gallery, or to record meetings of Parliamentary committees.

4.       Journalists will be permitted to enter Parliament’s public gallery only after „prior notification” to the Parliament’s administration.

5.       Journalists will be permitted to watch transmissions of proceedings in plenary session and committee meetings from the conference room in building F (building F is far removed from the main Parliament buldings)  

The plans to restrict access by print and electronic media to both chambers of Poland’s Parliament and thus to limit journalists’ ability to approach members of Parliament freely have sparked public protests in Warsaw and other cities. Journalists protested outside Parliament on December 15. The next day saw a major all day picket outside the main Parliament building lasting late into the night, which ended in scuffles as protesters sought to prevent members of Parliament from the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) from leaving the Parliament building. Another picket consisting of several thousand people lasted well into the evening of December 17.

Meanwhile Mr Kuchcinski banned all journalists from Parliament buildings until Tuesday December 20, while the main Sejm meeting chamber was occupied by opposition members of Parliament protesting against the Speaker’s actions.