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Rejecting all amendments proposed by the opposition-controlled Senate, on Tuesday, the lower house of the Polish parliament passed a bill maintaining restrictive measures on the border with Belarus. The updated State Border Protection Act submitted by the ruling Law and Justice party is to effectively replace a state of emergency introduced in September in areas along Poland’s easternmost border.

In October, the state of emergency has been extended for a constitutionally-limited period of 60 days. To ensure seamless continuity of the measures already in place, President Duda signed the bill into force on the same day, thus authorizing the Minister of the Interior to introduce a de facto state of emergency in parts of the country, provided he consults the decision with the Chief of the Border Guard.

The Act reads: "where it is necessary to ensure the security or public order in the border area in connection with a threat to human life or health or to property resulting from crossing the state border in violation of the law or an attempt to do so, or a justified risk of committing other prohibited acts, a temporary ban on staying in a specific area in the border zone adjacent to the state border which is an external border within the meaning of the Schengen Borders Code may be introduced".

Ministry of the Interior extends restrictions for another three months

Shortly after the bill has been signed into law, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Administration announced the extension of border restrictions for another three months, effective until March 1, 2022. The first provision introduced by the Interior Minster concerns "a temporary ban on staying in a specified area in the border zone adjacent to the state border with the Republic of Belarus".

The second one introduces a temporary ban on carrying firearms and moving them "in an unloaded state in the area of Podlaskie and Lubelskie regions adjacent to the state border with the Republic of Belarus". The ban is effective starting December 1 and applies to 183 towns and villages so far covered by the state of emergency. 

The third provision concerns the armament of Border Guard officers. It allows them to use hand and backpack throwers of incapacitating chemical agents and tear gas grenades.

Strict rules for journalists

- Movement restrictions will be introduced in places where the state of emergency is currently in force, i.e. in an area stretching over 183 towns and villages near the border with Belarus- deputy head of the Interior Ministry Błażej Poboży told the Polish Press Agency earlier.

The ban will not apply to, among others, local residents and business owners, or those taking part in religious worship or running official errands. Moreover, emergency medical services and official state authorities such as policemen and soldiers on duty will also be allowed to move freely.

All the others, including journalists and representatives of humanitarian aid organizations, will need special permission issued by the commanding officer of the local Border Guard unit.

Speaking about the new rules for media representatives during a press conference on Wednesday (December 1), the Deputy Minister of Interior said that the accreditation system is supposed to ensure the safety of journalists and border authorities.

- Reporting will be organized under the protection of the Border Guard because the safety of journalists is an absolute priority for us here. It will take place via organized forms of entry. Journalists will indicate the area they want to visit and the time they intend to spend there.

According to the Deputy Minister, Border Guard commanders "are supposed to gather" groups of incoming media representatives in order to "ensure full plurality of views". He said that each group will include representatives of 5-6 media outlets.

- We will try to have representatives of radio, television, internet media, and press agencies in each group - he enumerated.

Such one-time visits are to be organized every day. In turn, a press center will be set up outside the restricted area. Journalists are to undergo appropriate training before entering the zone and sign declarations (the exact content of which is unknown at the moment).

The Deputy Minister stated that granting access to representatives of non-governmental organizations and politicians is not planned at the moment. He also added that the rules of entry into the restricted zone for journalists will be modified depending on the situation on the border.

"The State Border Protection Act violates the constitution"

According to both the Senate Legislative Office and the Commissioner for Human Rights, the State Border Protection Act is unconstitutional, as it restricts the right of Polish citizens to freely move within their own country and restricts their right to information.

Moreover, the legislation provides the Minister of Interior with greater power than the President - after consulting his decision with the Chief of the Border Guard, he can impose a de facto state of emergency in parts of the country without any restrictions.

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Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about Polish politics and society, keeping a critical eye on the ruling camp’s persistent assault on democratic values and the rule of law; the growing cultural tension between religious fundamentalism and human rights; and the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. Our journalists are on the front lines in 25 Polish cities, reporting from the streets, hospitals, and courtrooms about issues that move public opinion.

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