Hungary: Democracy in freefall

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Several hundred students of the prestigious University of Theatre and Film Arts (SzFE) in Budapest occupied a campus building on Monday amid a struggle with the government over the university’s autonomy.

SzFE leaders – including the acting rector, deputy rector, and the heads of each of the university’s faculties – resigned on Monday in protest over a new government-imposed management model which saw the university’s democratically-elected senate stripped of its powers, and replaced with a board of directors stacked with government appointees. 

The leaders argued that the restructuring occurred without any consultation with the university, and that the government had rejected all the university’s nominees to the new board of directors.

?Following a demonstration on Monday, around 250 students occupied the university’s Budapest campus, saying they would not allow any members of the new leadership to enter the building. The students’ list of demands includes:

–guaranteed autonomy for the university

–the revocation of the law which alters their university’s management model

–the resignation of the new board of directors

–reinstatement of powers to the democratically elected senate 

–rejection of the new method of appointing university leaders and board members

–continued state funding of the university

–that the administrative rights over the university not be transferred to the foundation.

At a press conference in front of the building on Tuesday, a delegation of students said they would only allow current staff and students to enter the building until further notice. According to an internal poll taken by the university’s Students’ Union (HÖK), 100 percent of student respondents rejected the restructuring, and nearly 70 percent believe its true aim is the “long-term, ideological and political occupation of the institution.”

As a result of the restructuring, key decision-making powers will be exercised by the board of directors of the foundation, including adoption of operational regulations, budgetary decisions and development plans, as well as the selection of the rector and the appointment of department heads. Members of the new board of directors include two executives of the state-owned energy company MOL. The chairman of the board is Attila Vidnyánszky, a former director of the Hungarian National Theatre who has routinely made derisive comments about SzFE and its faculty, and is considered to be a close ally of the ruling Fidesz party. 

As we reported in June, university leaders and students have argued that the transfer of ownership of the 155-year-old state-run university to a private foundation is an attempt to place it under political control and centrally dictate its operations and cultural output. Some observers also predict that the quasi-privatization of SzFE and other Hungarian universities will result in further state divestment from higher education while reducing the universities’ autonomy.


Free press organizations call on EU to take action against Hungary’s use of funds to undermine media freedom

A group of 16 press freedom organizations has called on the European Union to take action against Hungary for alleged violations of EU state aid rules to undermine media pluralism.

In a letter to EU Competition Commissioner Margarethe Vestager, the organizations wrote that the Hungarian government “has pursued a strategy of deliberately manipulating the media market, bending rules designed to prevent free and fair competition and weaponizing state resources to punish critical media and reward government mouthpieces”.

The letter cites two state aid complaints, filed with the European Commission in 2016 and 2018, that concern Hungarian media freedom. The first involved Hungary’s public broadcaster “showing deliberate and clear bias in favour of the Fidesz party,” while the second presented “extensive evidence around the government’s market-distorting practices” in distributing state advertising in media outlets. The letter claims that the distribution of such advertising “follows no market logic” and is “almost exclusively geared toward propping up pro-government media”.

“We are seriously concerned that the Commission’s failure thus far to respond to these complaints perpetuates the Hungarian government’s market-distorting practices and allows for the further decimation of independent media in the country,” the letter reads. “The turmoil at shows clearly that the situation will continue to worsen. The Hungarian public’s access to sources of balanced news and information is in greater danger than ever before.”


*!!444!!! InsightHungary, is one of the few independent media beyond the control of autocrat Viktor Orbán. 03.09.2020