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Visit the halls of government in most developed countries. You’ll see politicians at work. You will also see journalists. They document the decision-making with cameras and computers. But for five days in 206, the Polish parliament’s debating chamber banned journalists altogether. Polish parliament’s media ban was lifted on Tuesday. December 20, 2016. So reported Marcin Goettig for Reuters. But questions about the fate of the country’s free press remained.
The temporary ban was lifted after Poles took to the streets. They protested. Tensions flared after the ruling Law and Justice Party announced that most journalists would be banned from entering the Sejm. It is the lower house of parliament. This was supposed to start in 2017. This was what Goettig and Lidia Kelly reported.
Journalists would be required to interview officials from a separate building. Recording of parliamentary sessions would also be banned for most media outlets. The announcement of the changes caused tensions to flare inside the Sejm. An MP stood on the podium. He held a sign that read “free media.” He was joined by others. Parliament was brought to a halt.
Then, the Law and Justice-dominated parliament did something unusual. They kicked all reporters out of the building. Then they went to a side room and held what the opposition says was an illegal vote. It was on the 2017 budget. That prompted widespread demonstrations just days after the government began cracking down on public gatherings.
The timing was sensitive for Poles. December 13 marked 35 years since the country’s communist government had imposed martial law. It jailed and killed its opponents. The target of the crackdown was Solidarity. It was a trade union that became a movement to democratize Poland. During a year and a half of martial law, Poland’s journalists were targeted. So freedom of the press has remained a critical issue for Poles. They remember a time when voicing opposition could cost you your life.
That freedom had already been challenged by the Law and Justice Party. The far-right party is now the most powerful party in Poland. It took power after running on a platform that promised Poles a return to conservative values. And it promised resistance to globalization and refugees. Soon after taking office, the party began to “reform” Polish journalism. It took over public broadcasting and it took over the hiring and firing of some journalists. The new government also spurred an ongoing constitutional crisis. It did so by overlooking existing laws that dictated how the country’s highest court should function.
The nationalist Law and Justice Party has been criticized for its attempts to control how journalists characterize Polish history. Smithsonian.com’s SmartNews reported in 2016, that the parliament had moved to ban the term “Polish death camps.” This was a move some claim minimized the role Poles played in the Holocaust. But for many Poles, closing the door on lawmakers’ once-public debates was a step too far.
Members of the opposition staged a five-day sit-in on the floor of the parliament. It continued even when their opponents turned off the light and heat inside the building. And outside, thousands of protestors gathered in the chilly December weather to make their voices heard.
The ban was lifted, but it still wasn’t clear what the Law and Justice Party’s next move would be. As Goettig notes, the party still has support due to a rise in the minimum wage. It was also due to other social reforms. Onlookers continued to keep a close eye on the situation. This included the European Union, which conducted an investigation. It was of Poland’s rule of law since summer 2016. The world watched Poland. They will continue to do so, that is, if the cameras and computers stay on.