By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest, Hungary
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– The United States on Tuesday, March 19, condemned Hungary’s decision to award the highest state award for journalism to a man who openly expressed hatred towards Jews and Gypsies, also known as Roma.
“The Government of Hungary’s decision to award a national prize to Ferenc Szaniszló, an individual who has publicly engaged in hate speech, is deeply disappointing,” said the U.S. Ambassador to Budapest Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis.
“Honoring those who espouse intolerance, along with the government’s failure to decisively condemn racist remarks by a founding member of its own political party, casts a shadow over positive steps the government has taken to combat racism and hate speech,” she added in a statement to BosNewsLife.
“It is highly regrettable that according to a statement issued by the Ministry of Human Resources, the government has not yet found a way to revoke this troubling award.”
Her remarks came shortly after Israel’s Ambassador Ilan Mor said in seperate remarks that Szaniszló’s award was given “to the wrong person for the very wrong reasons.”
“His ideas do not belong in a free and democratic society like the one in Hungary,” Mor added.
“While Israel and Hungary are cooperating in fighting against antisemitism, such awards might cause (a) negative impression and lead us to the wrong direction.”
Journalist Szaniszló of Echo TV, a media outlet close to the increasingly autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, was among several perceived Jews haters receiving the prestigious Táncsics prize, named after 19th century Hungarian writer, educator and journalist Mihály Táncsics.
The journalism award was given by the center-right government Friday, March 15, to commemorate the 1848 Revolution against Habsburg-rule.
In comments made on his show on Echo TV in 2011, Szaniszló said Gypsies — or Roma — are monkeys and suggested that Jews and Roma have carried out anti-Hungarian activities.
Szaniszló also said that garbage, or szemét in Hungarian, covers the entire country and should be cleared from the country, playing with similarity in the words “szemét” and “szemita.”
Though the country’s media authority, staffed with government allies, fined Echo TV over the remarks, Hungarian Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balog claimed not to be aware of Szaniszló’s anti-Semitic declarations.
Hungarian commentators have their doubts. “Hard to believe. Instead, one must look upon this list of recipients as a gesture from the Orbán government toward [the] Jobbik [party] and the extreme right,” wrote Hungarian Spectrum, a respected website on Hungarian politics, economics, and culture.
Orbán has been accused of flirting with the populist far-right, including Jobbik, to compensate for dropping poll numbers of his rightist Fidesz party, ahead of the 2014 elections.
Minister Balog, a former Reformed pastor, said he “regretted” the decision to award the controversial journalist but added there there was “no legal recourse” to strip Szaniszló of his award.
A dozen Hungarian journalists, all former Táncsics award winners, have returned their prize to authorities to protest the decision.
Other personalities receiving awards last Friday, March 15, included guitar player and singer János Petrás of Karpatia, a neo-Nazi rock band calling for the violent return of territories Hungary lost after World War One.
Karpatia also composed the official anthem of the Magyar Gárda, or Hungarian Guard, a Jobbik-backed paramilitary group marching in uniforms and with flags resembling the Nazi-era.
Another prize recipient was Kornél Bakay, an archaeologist, who reportedly claimed that Jesus was not a Jew, and that Jews in general were slave traders. He denies the very existence of ancient Israel and has accused Jews of being responsible for the loss of Hungary against the Turks in the 16th century.
Bakay also organized an exhibition that was seen as an adulation of the Hungarian far right in the 1930s.
The latest controversy over the awards come amid growing antisemitism in the country. Last week, stickers were distributed in the Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), Hungary’s largest university, saying: “Jews! This university is ours, not yours.”
In February, ELTE caused an outcry after revelations that its student council drew lists of presumed Jewish students. Referring to Jewish origins, a 2009 list shows the letters I of the Hungarian word Igen (“Yes”) and N for Nem (“No”). The practice resembled prewar Hungary, which introduced Europe’s first anti-Semitic legislation as early as 1920.
While the student council was suspended, questions have remained how much the university leadership knew about the practice, which lasted several years. There have been similar calls made for Jewish lists in Hungary’s Parliament. Other recent anti-Semitic incidents included attacks against Jewish people, Jewish graves and Holocaust memorials.
Hungary’s roughly 100,000-strong Jewish community is East Europe’s largest outside Russia, but some 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust and many fled to Israel after World War Two.
Pressure on Hungary’s government to distant itself from the far-right comes at a time of controversy over an amendment to the constitution that critics claim consolidates the power of Orbán and his allies over previously independent institutions including churches, the media, judiciary and central bank.
Orbán denies wrongdoing, saying his ruling Fidesz party replaced “a Stalinist constitution” with a ‘Fundamental Law’ that respects Christian and family values in this European Union nation.
Help BosNewsLife to be the voice of the voiceless. Click here for a subscription