Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in cities around Poland on Saturday (9 January) to protest against a new law giving the conservative government control of state media.
The biggest demonstration took place in the capital Warsaw where around 20,000 protesters gathered outside the public television headquarters, according to city hall estimates.
The protesters waved Polish and European flags, shouting “Free media, free Poland” as well as anti-government slogans.
The demonstrations organised by a citizens’ initiative, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), were held in around 20 cities mainly outside the regional offices of the TVP public television network.
Polish President Andrzej Duda on Thursday (7 January) had signed the controversial bill into law which allows the treasury minister to appoint — and sack – senior figures in public radio and television, who will no longer be hired through contests organised by the National Broadcasting Council.
Duda, a former MEP, is coming on his first visit to Brussels as head of state on 18 January.
Critics see the move as the latest bid by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) to consolidate power and render ineffective any organ that could keep it in check since taking power late last year after eight years in the opposition.
The PiS said earlier it planned to turn the PAP news agency and public television and radio – all currently state-owned businesses – into national cultural institutions like the opera or the national museum.
Several international press organisations criticised the law as did the Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights watchdog.
French Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin said Poland’s new media legislation “profoundly goes against” Europe’s “underlying values”.
In an unprecedented move, the European Commission is set to debate the state of rule of law in Poland on 13 January, which could lead to potentially punitive measures.
Yesterday, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski summoned the German ambassador in Warsaw because of “anti-Polish comments by German politicians”, the ministry said in a statement.
Foreign ministry spokesman Artur Dmochowski told reporters that the ambassador, Rolf Nikel, was expected for a meeting on Monday morning.
Dmochowski refused to say what comments had caused offence and which German politician had uttered them.
Since 2009, when the Lisbon Treaty entered into force, the European Commission has been confronted on several occasions with crisis events in some member states, which revealed specific rule of law problems.
Such examples incude the handling of the Roma issue by the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, attempts to impose one-party rule in Hungary, and an attempted crackdown on the judiciary in Romania.
Under Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, serious breaches to the values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights by a member state can result in a suspension or loss of voting rights in the EU Council of Ministers.
If article 7 is activated, this would mean that the country in breach would temporarily lose its EU membership rights. But before such a decision can be taken, the Council shall hear the member state in question and may address recommendations.
But as the Article 7 is described as a ‘nuclear bomb’ which may never been used, the previous European Commission under José Manuel Barroso introduced a "pre-Article 7 procedure", which follows three stages. Those are:
- Commission assessment: As a first step, the Commission collects and examines all the relevant information and assesses whether there are clear indications of a systemic threat to the rule of law. If the Commission makes such assessment, it will initiate a dialogue with the country concerned, by sending its "rule of law opinion". The country concerned then has the possibility to respond.
- Commission Recommendation: In a second stage, unless the matter has already been resolved, the European Commission issues a "rule of law recommendation" to the country concerned. It recommends that the member state solves the problems identified within a fixed time limit and informs the Commission of the steps taken to that effect. The Commission then makes its recommendation public.
- Follow-up to the Commission Recommendation: In a third stage, the Commission monitors the follow-up given by the member state to the recommendation. If there is no satisfactory follow-up within the time limit set, the Commission can resort to one of the mechanisms set out in Article 7 of the EU treaty.
Before the Lisbon Treaty entered into force, the EU imposed sanctions only once against a member state. In 2000, 14 countries of the then-15 member EU reacted to the entrance of Jörg Haider's far-right Austrian Freedom Party into the Austrian government by freezing bilateral relations with the country.
- 13 January: European Commission to decide whether to open a punitive process against Poland.
- 18 January: Polish President comes for first official visit to Brussels.