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Thousands protest in Poland over new conservative government's media laws

Warsaw, Poland: Opposition groups have massed in demonstrations across Poland, enraged by the new government's efforts to exert its influence on the nation's media supervisors and top courts.

The protests, which were organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy, drew about 20,000 people in Warsaw on Saturday, while other gatherings were reported nationwide.

A demonstrator seals his mouth during a protest over media freedom at the Polish TVP News headquarters in Warsaw.
A demonstrator seals his mouth during a protest over media freedom at the Polish TVP News headquarters in Warsaw. Photo: AP

"If journalists cannot keep an eye on the powerful, then people will not know what the government is up to," committee leader Mateusz Kijowski said at a rally in the central Polish city of Lodz.

The conservative government, which took power in November, has angered many with the new measures. The changes give newly installed conservative judges a greater say on the nation's highest court and let the government install a political appointee to head public broadcasters.

The government had said the media law was necessary, since state media became too biased during the eight years before the new administration took over.

However, opponents said officials from the ruling Law and Justice party routinely boycotted media programs and did not respond to invitations.

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"The demands of the [Committee for the Defence of Democracy] have nothing to do with reality," Treasury Minister Dawid Jackiewicz said. "The people who march down on the street didn't see that the public media was in the hands of a political group."

The media law came into effect on Friday and new officials were named almost immediately.

A new head of the public broadcasting agency is to be named on Monday.

On Friday, Poland dismissed European Commission concerns that the new law on state-run media threatened media freedom, warning Brussels not to interfere in its affairs on the basis of "biased and politically engaged" reports.

The European Union's executive had written to Poland, asking how the new law tallied with EU rules on media freedom; a sign of disquiet in Brussels that the eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party policies could undermine democracy.

The PiS has long aimed to overhaul rules on public broadcasters to ensure they defend what it defines as national interests. The party has signalled earlier plans to "depoliticise" the state media.

Replying to the letter, the Foreign Ministry said Poland fully recognised media freedom and the European Commission might have been provided with misleading information with a bias against the Polish government.

"Exposing the Polish government to interventions inspired by unjust, biased and politically engaged enunciations might have an undesirable effect, which is to be carefully avoided," the Polish Foreign Ministry said.

The European Commission is to discuss the issue in Brussels on January 13.

The new Polish law has drawn criticism from within the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Isabel Santos, who heads the human rights committee of the OSCE parliamentary assembly, expressed alarm at "measures that undermine the independence and impartiality of media" in Poland and called on its leaders to repeal it.

PiS, which ousted the governing centrist party by a wide margin in the October election, rejected such criticism.

It said it had a broad mandate to redesign the country to reflect its Catholic values and independence from the European Union in Brussels.

In December, the EU executive expressed concern over an overhaul of the rules governing Poland's constitutional court, demanding their introduction be postponed.

DPA, Reuters

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