Rights groups decry Poland’s ban on media at Belarus border

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Sokolka, Poland – Human rights groups have condemned Poland’s government for continuing to ban journalists, lawyers, and aid workers from accessing the country’s border with Belarus, as thousands of migrants and refugees have gathered on the Belarusian side hoping to cross into Poland.

For two months now, no media professionals have been able to access the Polish side of the border. As media attention intensified this week on the escalating geopolitical dispute, journalists were still unable to approach the Polish border fences.

Polish media as well as Reporters Without Borders, which has called the restrictions “arbitrary and disproportionate,” are calling for the ban on media presence to be lifted in order for accurate and transparent information to be relayed from the area.

An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 migrants and refugees are camped out at the Belarusian side of the border with Poland after being denied entry to the EU nation. Human rights groups have raised concerns for their safety amid harsh winter conditions and a spate of deaths on both sides of the border.

The EU accuses Minsk of encouraging migrants and refugees to try to cross into the bloc in retaliation for sanctions penalising Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko’s government for cracking down on dissent after a disputed August 2020 election which handed the president a sixth term.

Checkpoints span the length of the Polish-Belarusian border which is currently under a state of emergency lasting until the beginning of December. Kilometres from the razor wire fences where thousands of Polish border guards are now stationed, anyone driving in the area is pulled over in the roadblocks formed by the military and police. Journalists have reported being detained and only those who can provide documentation proving that they live in the restricted area can enter.

Pavol Szalai, the head of the European Union and Balkans desk at Reporters without Borders (RSF), told Al Jazeera that it was essential that journalists were allowed to report from the border.

“Although it is legitimate for the Polish authorities to declare a state of emergency on the border due to security issues, the imposed press freedom restrictions are arbitrary and disproportionate,” he said.

“The overall ban for journalists to work in the border zone is contrary to Poland’s international press freedom commitments which state that press freedom may be restricted only with a legitimate goal and proportionally to the threat in question.”

Szalai added that at least two media crews have so far faced prosecution for violating the ban on entrance to the area.

“Considering the prosecution as arbitrary, we have denounced it and called for it to be dropped. As the state of emergency expires on December 2, RSF renews its call on the Polish authorities for all press freedom restrictions to be lifted. Only then will reporters be free to cover subjects of not only Polish, but also of European public interest, given that Poland’s border with Belarus is a Schengen border.”

Earlier this week Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that media at the border would only harm the situation saying that media would be “susceptible to the influence of Belarusian and Russian fake news”.

Polish media have repeatedly denounced the ban. In an open letter written in September and signed by 30 national media and journalistic organisations they said that the lack of access ran “contrary to the principle of freedom of speech, and manifests the unlawful obstruction of journalists’ work and suppression of press criticism”.

“The state of emergency, introduced by the government, on the entire length of the Polish-Belarusian border, rules out the activity of the media. The regulations allow free movement of people and entities providing various services and conducting economic activity there – with the exception of journalists and social organisations. This is a clear signal that our presence is inconvenient for the government. This must raise objections.”

“Our only goal is the realisation of the journalists’ right to work for the public, ensuring that the truth about the events, especially those so interesting to the public and crucial for democracy, reach the society.”

Journalists and rights groups have said that absence of reporting from the Polish side of the border has enabled disinformation to thrive.

“You don’t fight Belarusian disinformation with censorship,” said the General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists Ricardo Gutiérrez.

“On the contrary, journalists should be allowed to document the situation as it is. We cannot accept that a government should encourage this kind of ban on journalistic coverage as soon as a sensitive situation arises. We believe that the state of emergency was introduced mainly to prevent the public from witnessing questionable activities along the country’s border with Belarus. Critics have accused the Polish authorities of violating international law by pushing asylum seekers back across the border.”

Polish journalist Wojciech Bojanowski said on Twitter that the restrictions on Polish and international media meant that allegations circulating on Russian and Belarusian media that Polish security forces were tear gassing children were impossible to verify or debunk.

Piotr Skrzypczak, from human rights organisation Homo Faber Association said that restricted access was harmful to all areas of society, including journalists as well as lawyers and aid organisations trying to help displaced people, who could face criminal charges just for entering the restricted area.

“We know that if we go into the zone, we could have very big criminal problems,” he said “transparency is very important in these situations”.

“What we need is independent and verified information about these issues of public interest on the border,” said Szalai “This can only be provided by the independent and professional media. On the contrary, the Polish government – on whose goodwill the national and European public currently depends – has shown it has difficulties providing trustworthy information in general and about the border issues in particular.”

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