By Lydia Gall, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Lydia Gall is the Eastern Europe and the Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are her own.
A prominent columnist calls for a “final solution” for Hungary’s Roma population. A member of parliament calls for drawing up a list of Jewish people involved in Hungarian politics. Two-thirds of those asked in an opinion poll say they wouldn’t let their child be friends with a Romani child. Another poll suggests a similar number believe Jewish people have too much influence. One doesn’t have to be a student of history to be worried about the growing climate of intolerance in Hungary.
The hatred clutching Hungary has deepened since the present government took office in 2010 and made a gradual shift to the right. The ongoing campaign by Fidesz, the ruling party, to undermine the rule of law and its clampdown on human rights has contributed to the current state of chauvinistic attitudes in the public domain toward minorities and other vulnerable groups. Government silence has allowed right wing parties such as Jobbik to accelerate hate speech against minorities as well as people within its own ranks, while paramilitaries close to Jobbik carry out intimidating marches through Roma settlements.
The latest example came on January 5, when Zoltan Bayer, a member of Fidesz and a close friend of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, wrote a column in Magyar Hirlap, a right wing paper with close ties to the government. The article was a response to the stabbings of two Hungarian youths on New Year’s Eve, allegedly by Roma assailants. Bayer wrote:
"A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. When they meet with resistance, they commit murder. They are incapable of human communication. Inarticulate sounds pour out of their bestial skulls. […] These animals shouldn't be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved - immediately and regardless of the method."
Bayer’s column was widely condemned. The deputy prime minister, Tibor Navracsics, spoke out against it shortly after, and EU Commissioners Viviane Reding and Neelie Kroes condemned Bayer’s statements. But there was no official condemnation by Fidesz or crucially from Orban himself. The newspaper initially distanced itself from Bayer’s statement before changing tack, supporting Bayer’s right to free speech and calling on readers to support the government.
Racist speech even finds a platform in parliament. In November, Marton Gyongyosi, a Jobbik member and vice chairman of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, made headlines when he asked for a list of Jews in government and parliament as they may “present a national security risk to Hungary.” One week later, Orban finally condemned Gyongyosi’s statement.
The Hungarian government has included the works of openly anti-Semitic writers as obligatory reading in public schools, and is paying tribute to Hungary’s interwar regent Admiral Miklos Horthy by allowing statues of him in public space and keeping silent at right wing attempts to rehabilitate him. Horthy was responsible for the deportation of 400,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz.
In August 2012, the government’s initial silence was deafening when Hungarian supporters were chanting “Dirty Jews” during a friendly game between Hungary and Israel, an incident for which FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) penalized the Hungarian football federation. It took the government a week to issue a condemnation of the anti-Semitic chants, though condemnation should have been immediate and uncompromising.
While the government is doing precious little to curb the downward spiral of intolerance, the all-powerful and politically appointed media council is busy trying to silence opposition voices in the media who could speak out against people like Bayer. It has tried repeatedly to deny Klubradio, a leading independent radio station, a license. The state broadcaster, MTVA, has fired hundreds of journalists, officially due to financial cutbacks. But it’s not hard to conclude the real reason is to rid itself of critical voices. Journalists working for the state broadcaster report that editorial interference is the norm.
While freedom of expression is a cornerstone in any democratic society, it also follows that democratically elected governments must guarantee that freedom to everybody without discrimination and not only to media outlets loyal to the government. Yet, freedom of expression is not absolute, and the government should publicly condemn at the highest level speech that incites discrimination or hostility toward specific groups and dissuade others from following suit.
With violence and discrimination against Roma a pervasive and longstanding problem, and anti-Semitic attacks on people and memorials increasing, there is an urgent need for the Hungarian government and prime minister to address these alarming trends and for Hungary’s international partners to impress upon its leaders that the situation is not acceptable. In May, unknown assailants scrawled slogans on a Jewish monument in Budapest, such as “This is not your country, dirty Jews” and “You are going to be shot here.” In October, a Jewish leader was attacked in Budapest. During a demonstration on the national holiday in October, Jobbik supporters burned Israeli flags and chanted “Dirty Jews!”
If the Hungarian government fails to firmly distance itself from and condemn speech inciting hostility and discrimination toward the country’s most vulnerable minorities, vigilante groups and right wing parties could interpret the silence as tacit consent to further whip up ethnic tensions. That would deepen the climate of intolerance and risk wider – potentially fatal – violence.