December 19, 2016 / 9:42 AM / in 10 months

Polish opposition say they are defending democracy as standoff continues

WARSAW (Reuters) - Polish opposition lawmakers occupied parliament’s debating chamber for a fourth day on Monday in protest at plans by the nationalist-minded, eurosceptic PiS government to restrict media access to the Sejm.

Demonstrators gesrure and hold Polish and EU flags during the third day of a protest outside the Parliament building in Warsaw, Poland December December 18, 2016. Agencja Gazeta/Franciszek Mazur/via REUTERS

The plans are among a raft of measures designed to increase government control over the media and the judiciary that have brought hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets of Polish cities over the past year, and worried Poland’s partners.

“Something has gone wrong with Polish democracy,” Grzegorz Schetyna, leader of the biggest opposition party, Civic Platform (PO), told the private radio station RMF FM.

Other PO officials demanded the resignation of parliamentary speaker Marek Kuchcinski and said they had asked prosecutors to investigate Friday’s vote to pass the 2017 budget, which was moved to a side room with no media access to avoid the protests.

But Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak, of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, said the protests were intended “to block the state budget, to create a political crisis”, the state-run PAP news agency reported.

President Andrzej Duda, who is backed by the PiS, met opposition leaders on Sunday, and on Monday held talks with Kuchcinski and with PiS chief Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who wields enormous influence on policy.

A temporary ban on all media entering parliament, imposed last week after the protests began in the chamber and were picked up by demonstrators outside, remained in place despite talks between media and the PiS.

WELFARE AND VALUES

The PiS came to power in October 2015 promising higher welfare, more Roman Catholic values in public life, and a tougher stance towards Brussels and Russia.

While it retains its largely rural voter base, it has alienated much of the more liberal urban population, and critics at home and abroad accuse it of undermining democracy with its programme.

Changes to the Constitutional Tribunal led the European Commission to open an investigation into the rule of law in Poland, previously seen as a model for the transition from communist totalitarianism to democratic rule and market economy.

The government has also moved to exert more control over state prosecutors and approved legislation that human rights groups say will curtail freedom of assembly.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker put the question of Poland’s media restrictions on the agenda of Wednesday’s Commission meeting, a spokeswoman said in Brussels.

The PiS’s proposals would reserve all direct recording of parliamentary sessions for five selected television stations, while the number of journalists allowed in parliament would be limited to two per media outlet.

The government has already tightened control over public news media and critics see the curbs as an extension of that.

A poll for the daily Rzeczpospolita on Monday found that 68 percent of Poles think curbing media access would limit their ability to know what parliament is doing.

PO officials said lawmakers who spent the night in parliament had been made to endure cold and darkness as the hearing and lighting were turned off.

Street demonstrations continued at a lower level on Monday.

“Free media are the basis of democracy,” said 38-year-old IT manager Bartlomiej, one of those protesting outside the Sejm.

“I can see radicalisation on both sides. This is dangerous because it will make more difficult to come to terms later.”

Financial markets have reacted calmly to the standoff. The zloty currency was little changed on Monday at 4.41 per euro, while the main stock market index WIG was flat on the day.

Reporting by Marcin Goclowski, Justyna Pawlak and Pawel Sobczak in Warsaw, Paul Carrell in Berlin, Andrew Callus in Paris and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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