A new political crisis erupted in Poland on December 16 over proposals from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) to limit media access to parliament.
The conflict, featuring accusations of dictatorial behaviour by the government and large protests, was sparked by events in the lower house. Street protests erupted in Warsaw and other cities, and continued for a third day on December 18.
The crisis broke out when parliament Speaker Marek Kuchcinski excluded opposition MP Michal Szczerba from taking part in the sitting after Szczerba held up a banner calling for “free media” while he took the floor to make a statement.
In response, the opposition blocked the parliamentary rostrum. PiS moved the sitting to another room, where the ruling party continued voting on a number of bills, including the 2017 budget.
Opposition MPs had trouble accessing the room, while the media were banned altogether. That sparked a new controversy as doubts mounted whether the voting was legal. It remains unclear whether PiS had the quorum to carry on or who exactly voted. Barring journalists from coverage was illegal as well, it is claimed.
The events peaked in late hours of December 16, when first street protests began outside parliament. Demonstrators blocked PiS MPs from leaving the parliamentary premises, which led to the police eventually clearing the way with force in the early morning, after several hours of standoff.
Initially, PiS explained that the proposal on changes to the media presence in the parliament was meant to organise work better. However, as opposition MPs began occupation of the plenary and street protests intensified, the narrative changed to accusing the opposition of “destabilising the state.”
“The orchestrators of these [protests] must hear it clearly: you are doing wrong, you are harming Poland. You want to build identity of conflict and resentment. It is an enormous mistake,” Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said in a televised speech on December 17.
Opposition MPs occupying the plenary room said they were not going to leave until media restrictions and Szczerba's suspension are lifted. Poland has hardly any regulations concerning media access to the parliament, a reaction to decades of censorship under the communist rule.