THOUSANDS of people formed a human chain in the streets of the Hungarian capital Budapest on Sunday, in protest at what they say is a takeover of a top arts university by the country’s right-wing nationalist government.
Demonstrators fear a new board at the University of Theatre and Film Arts, led by an ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, will ruin its autonomy.
Students have occupied the campus for the past week.
Orban supporters allege the arts are dominated by liberals and left-wingers.
The university is the seventh institution to be transferred to the control of private foundations where the board of directors are selected by the government.
The government denies claims that it is limiting freedom of expression, and claims the privatisation of this and other universities will make them more competitive.
The student occupation of Budapest’s University of Theatre and Film Arts and the Orban government’s new financial restrictions undermining solidarity dominated the headlines last week in Hungary.
Last Monday night, after a peaceful street demonstration, students occupied the building and declared they would not let anybody in, demanding the resignation of the new board of curators and the restoration of the autonomy of the university.
‘We will stay on until our conditions are met, and will fight until the very end,’ announced Mihaly Csernai, the leader of the students, in a radio interview.
The backdrop to the occupation is the government’s strategy to assert more control over the nation’s cultural sphere.
Due to legislative changes, the university now belongs to the recently established Theatre and Film Foundation, chaired by Attila Vidnyanszki, the director of Hungary’s National Theatre, who has close ties to the Orban government.
Students fear that the Film Foundation under Vidnyanszki, who has an unmistakable national-conservative world view, will exert ideological pressure on their education.
A number of renowned Hungarian theatre and film directors who also lecture at the university have tendered their resignation in protest at the government takeover.
The University of Theatre and Film Arts has long been a thorn in the side of the government. It is regarded by those on the right as a leftist-liberal institution, where lecturers and students are ‘not sensitive enough to national themes’.
After consolidating its position in politics and business, the ruling Fidesz party launched a kulturkampf (cultural war) in 2015, to influence and gradually dominate the intellectual sphere in Hungary.
The circle is slowly closing. The Central European University has been effectively chased out of the country, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has been stripped of all its research institutes, and all universities are being taken under the control of the government.
Media and culture are the next steps, and Fidesz is evidently not afraid of taking bold steps.
Remarkably, though, in both the case of the popular news site Index.hu and the University of Theatre and Film Arts, Fidesz has had to face massive resistance, and previous strategies of a silent takeover have failed.
Meanwhile, political revenge characterises some of the government’s recent decisions to withdraw state funding from two organisations that are active in helping the poor and needy.
The Ministry of Human Resources informed the Real Pearl Foundation last Tuesday that it is cutting its state support by half for this school year.
Since 2000 the Foundation has been organising art programmes for disadvantaged or problematic children, after-school activities, and community development in rural and deprived areas of Hungary.
The ministry claimed that money had to be spent on tackling the economic consequences of the coronavirus, and withdrew 8.5 million forints (24,000 euros) out of the 17 million forints awarded to the Foundation.
The same has happened with the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, which operates nurseries, schools, elderly homes and homeless shelters in Hungary. It is to lose 95 million forints (271,000 euros) this year and will receive nothing from next year. The government kindly offered to take over all the Fellowship’s schools’ should it find financing difficult’.
The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship – a small Methodist offshoot – was stripped of its church-status in 2011 and so lost generous state funding. Although the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled the decision unlawful, its status has not been restored.
It receives some support in exchange for providing services, like maintaining schools or homeless shelters. The Fellowship’s pastor, Gabor Ivanyi, used to be on good terms with Orban – he even baptised two of his children – but relations soured when he refused to embrace the authoritarian turn of the prime minister. Since then, his church has been an outcast.
Just to highlight where the government’s priorities now lie, it granted an immediate 2.5 billion forints (seven million euros ) to the Hungarian Tennis Association from central reserves, in order to bail it out after the previous management managed to post a loss of 3.5 billion forints.
A number of press freedom, freedom of expression and journalists’ organisations have urged the European Commission to act on several complaints that the Hungarian government has violated EU state aid rules as a means to undermine media pluralism.
A joint letter from 16 organisations – including Reporters Without Borders, the International Press Institute and the Committee to Protect Journalists – was published on 26th August and comes after a decade of attacks by the Orban government on the independence of the country’s media.
This has resulted in ‘a degree of (state) media control unprecedented in an EU member state’, according to Reporters Without Borders, and the country falling to 89th place out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index.
The letter calls on Competition Commissioner Margarethe Vestager to act on complaints that the Hungarian government has violated EU state aid rules by manipulating the media market through the weaponisation of state resources ‘to punish critical media and reward government mouthpieces.’
The letter’s authors highlight their serious concern that the European Commission has not acted on two State Aid complaints (No. 53108 and No. 45463) lodged in 2018 and 2016.
State Aid complaint No. 53108, lodged in November 2018, alleges bias in the distribution of state advertising to media outlets in Hungary.
By way of example, the signatories cite the case of Index.hu, Hungary’s largest independent and most popular online news site, which, in the years prior to last month’s mass resignations over threats to its editorial interference, received virtually nothing in state advertising, despite being a market leader, while its main competitor, the pro-government Origo.hu, benefited heavily.
State Aid complaint No. 45463, lodged in 2016, concerns the Hungarian public service broadcaster (PSB), which, the signatories claim, has long since ceased to meet the definition of public service broadcasting, with news coverage presented in a way that shows deliberate and clear bias in favour of Orban’s ruling Fidesz party.
The European Commission’s failure to act on these complaints, the letter notes, ‘allows for the further decimation of independent media in the country.’
Hungary’s government has, indeed, an impressive track record of killing critical media outlets, shrewdly concealing most as some kind of neutral business decisions.
The process of co-opting state media into government mouthpieces, the centralisation of all regional daily newspapers, and the takeover or closure of several government-critical news sites and newspapers culminated in almost all government-loyal media outlets being centralised under KESMA (the Hungarian acronym for Central European Press and Media Foundation).
This merger, which was clearly in breach of all the country’s competition laws, could not be investigated by the Competition Authority, as it was branded of ‘strategic importance’ by the government. This move was later ruled legal by the country’s pliant Constitutional Court.
‘The creation of the KESMA foundation in late 2018, which united pro-government media and was exempted from normal competition review, further undermined media pluralism in Hungary and has facilitated a centralised system of content control,’ the letter said, continuing:
‘By the end of 2018, according to independent research, an estimated 80 per cent of the market for public affairs news was being financed by sources determined by the Fidesz party.
‘This means KESMA now controls over 470 media outlets in Hungary.’
The letter concludes by urging the European Commission take action to defend the right of the Hungarian public to access free and pluralistic sources of news.
‘This must include responding to all complaints related to the misuse of state aid in Hungary. Addressing these issues is essential to defending media freedom, media pluralism and the rule of law both in Hungary and within the EU as a whole,’ it said.