Polish parliament lifts media ban but opposition demands more to ease crisis

World Tuesday 20/December/2016 18:25 PM
By: Times News Service
Polish parliament lifts media ban but opposition demands more to ease crisis

Warsaw: Poland's lower house of parliament lifted a temporary ban on media access on Tuesday in a gesture to defuse protests over the alleged undermining of democracy by the right-wing government, but opposition leaders said more needed to be done.
The clampdown on media access was among a raft of measures by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party that critics say has eroded the independence of the media and the judiciary. Fears of an authoritarian drift in Poland have brought many thousands of protesters onto the streets over the past year and alarmed European Union partners.
Despite the removal of the media ban, opposition lawmakers extended their occupation of parliament's debating chamber into a fifth day. They vowed to stay put until a debate and vote on the 2017 budget they say was held illegally in a side room on Friday to avoid protests and reporters is re-run with all MPs.
Planned curbs on media access to the Sejm announced last week by PiS Speaker Marek Kuchcinski triggered demonstrations outside parliament and an occupation of the Sejm's podium and the speaker's chair by opposition MPs.
In response, Kuchcinski temporarily barred all reporters and moved the vote to a side room.
The Sejm's press office said on Tuesday the ban had been scrapped but rules on media access were still likely to change. That was an allusion to an earlier proposal to reserve all recording of parliamentary sessions for five selected TV stations and limiting the number of journalists allowed in parliament would be limited to two per media outlet.
"We want, however, to assure that these changes will not be introduced without broad consultations and agreements with reporters," the Sejm press office said in a statement.
The opposition welcomed the move but demanded the lower chamber also re-run the disputed budget vote.
PiS officials replied that the vote was legal and would not be repeated.
"PiS is retreating," the leader of the liberal Nowoczesna party, Ryszard Petru, said on his Twitter account "Another debate on the budget is a key issue."
It is the most serious political stand-off for years in Poland and the sharpest escalation in tension between opposition parties and the PiS since it won election in October 2015.
The eurosceptic PiS came to power promising more generous welfare benefits, stronger Roman Catholic and national values in public life and a tougher stance towards EU headquarters in Brussels and historical adversary Russia.
The PiS government has since placed state media and prosecutors under its direct control, passed legislation making it more difficult for the constitutional court to issue verdicts and approved a bill critics say will limit freedom of assembly.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker put the question of Poland's media restrictions on the agenda of Wednesday's meeting of the EU's executive.
The changes to Poland's constitutional court led the Commission to open an inquiry into the rule of law in Poland, previously seen as a model for the transition from communism to democratic rule and a market economy.
The PiS's moves have alienated much of the more liberal urban population, kindling widespread protests earlier this year and accusations from foreign peers that the PiS has undermined democracy.
But the largely small town and rural voter base of the PiS has remained largely intact thanks to a far-reaching child benefit scheme and rise in the minimum wage and reduction in the retirement age, helping ease poverty.
Opposition lawmakers said that in conducting the budget vote in a side room to avoid the sit-in in the plenary chamber, the PiS violated the constitution because they may have lacked the quorum of lawmakers required to clear such legislation.
They said the room was too small to accommodate all 460 lawmakers even if opposition deputies had chosen to take part.
"This is a parliamentary crisis and the most serious issue we have to resolve," Senate Deputy Speaker Bogdan Borusewicz of the opposition Civic Platform said on Tuesday.