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), stated 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,” he continued.
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.” he said.