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From Kraków to Gdańsk, from Białystok to Szczecin, from Warsaw to Wrocław and everywhere in between, thousands of people in cities and towns across Poland have taken to the streets on Sunday to protest the contentious anti-US media law unexpectedly passed by the parliament two days prior.
Taking the opposition, experts, and transatlantic allies by surprise, during the last, pre-holiday parliamentary session on December 17, the Law and Justice-controlled Sejm decided to pass a dormant media bill forcing Discovery, Inc. to sell its majority ownership of TVN - Poland's most popular private TV network and the owner of TVN24 - the country's largest news TV channel.
In August, the ruling camp managed to pass the media bill targeting the American-owned network TVN with the narrowest of margins, and only after violating parliamentary procedures. Yet, the opposition-controlled Senate had successfully vetoed the bill in September. It appeared that the government decided to discard the legislation following statements by President Andrzej Duda and his representatives who openly criticized the bill in the form presented by the ruling coalition.
In a Tweet published on Friday shortly after the passage of the media bill by the Sejm, Bix Aliu – US chargé d’affaires in Warsaw, addressed the Polish president, writing that "the United States is extremely disappointed" and expects "President Duda to act in accordance with previous statements to use his leadership to protect free speech and business".
Indeed, the fate of the contentious media law now depends on President Andrzej Duda who, starting Friday, has 21 days to issue his veto. Since the president expressed his criticism of the media bill in the past and hinted that he might indeed veto it, protesters who gathered on Sunday called on Duda to use his presidential power and strike it down.
In Warsaw, a crowd of protesters gathered in front of the Presidential Palace.
- I am devastated by what is happening in our country. I know that they have already pushed through various laws. But when they attack the media, it becomes dangerous. First Orlen bought out local and regional outlets, now they want to strangle TVN - says Piotr, a local resident, who came to the protest with a sign: "Free media. Down with PiS".
He immediately corrected himself: - I’m wrong in saying "them" because this is not the government’s decision, nor even the decision of the ruling party. It’s the decision of a single man, Jarosław Kaczyński. We will see whether we still have a president and if Duda will veto it.
Government critical media figures and opposition politicians were on site, too.
- I don’t want to speak to President Duda, but to you – Donald Tusk, the leader of Civic Platform, Poland’s largest opposition party, began his address to the protesters. - I would like us to think about and always keep in mind those of us who can barely make ends meet because they can't cope with the rising prices. We should remember those who have no access to free media because they live under the occupation of the public broadcaster TVP Info. We will remember you, just as you remembered us. I would like to dedicate these words of Czesław Miłosz, which the shipyard workers in Gdańsk chose to cite against the authorities at that time. Today, they have chosen the same words with respect to today's authorities. I address them to the inhabitant of this palace and his superior. "Do not feel safe. The poet remembers./ You can kill one – but another is born./ The words are written down, the deed, the date. / And you’d have done better with a winter dawn/ A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight". Remember these words of the poet and be aware of what awaits any authority that betrays their homeland.
- We will chase this government away! – he concluded.
Jarosław Kurski, first deputy editor in chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, also took the stage – An organized crime group has taken over our country. They have conquered all elements of public life. What’s left is free media, and they want to have them. Why? Because independent media are the guarantor of free and fair elections, and they don't want free and fair elections. The last presidential election has taken place on an uneven field. It was not fair game. The ruling camp wants the outcome of the next election to be predetermined. We cannot allow it to happen. We have to stay in solidarity, trust each other, cooperate. We must speak with one voice. On behalf of you, the citizens of this country, we the journalists must put pressure on the democratic opposition not to waste perhaps the only opportunity we still have left to speak with one voice. Democracy is at stake in this election. And finally, an appeal to journalists who didn't make it here today: as Stefan Kisielewski once wrote, "Don't make yourselves at home in this ass".
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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