Europe

Hungarians return awards over 'racist' journalist

Screengrab from Hungarian news website 24.hu Image copyright 24.hu
Image caption The award to Zsolt Bayer (L) and the medal protest in response have been headline news in Hungary

Prize-winning Hungarian mathematicians, artists, philosophers and religious leaders have been handing back their state honours as a protest against a government decision to give a controversial journalist a medal.

Journalist and activist Zsolt Bayer is best known for his xenophobic views and close ties to the ruling party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

In a matter of days around 80 leading Hungarian intellectuals have declared that they want nothing to do with Mr Bayer, who was recently awarded the Knight's Cross, the country's third highest state medal.

A petition calling for him to be stripped of the award has garnered more than 4,000 signatures.


Who is Zsolt Bayer?

Image copyright hvg.hu
Image caption Mr Bayer (R) has led several pro-government rallies

Mr Bayer is a long-term ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and a founding member of the governing Fidesz party. He has organised numerous mass rallies to express support for government policies.

He also writes a regular column for conservative pro-government newspaper Magyar Hirlap in which he frequently makes anti-Roma, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments, often couched in extremely crude terms.

The US Holocaust Museum says his statements are as extreme as those emanating from Hungary's racist, ultranationalist, and xenophobic Jobbik party.

His newspaper has twice been fined by the state media authority for publishing articles deemed to constitute hate speech. In 2013 he wrote a vitriolic piece about Roma, and in 2015 he said all refugee boys over the age of 14 were "potential terrorists".


The Knight's Cross was conferred on him by President Janos Ader on the occasion of Hungary's national day, 20 August.

The government gazette said he had been honoured "in recognition of his exemplary journalistic activity" in bringing to public attention a number of "national causes", including the fate of victims of communism and the situation of the ethnic Hungarian community in Transylvania.

But there was immediate anger. Former ethnic rights ombudsman Jeno Kaltenbach was first to hand back his own honour to the president.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Bayer (L on poster) has often come in for criticism for his anti-Roma and anti-Semitic remarks

In an open letter to the president, Mr Kaltenbach explained that giving the Knight's Cross to a "purveyor of hatred" such as Bayer "dishonoured" the award.

Other eminent Hungarians soon followed suit, issuing their own statements spelling out why they did not wish to be associated in any way with Mr Bayer.

News website 24.hu said Mr Bayer had once shown great promise as a writer but was now better known "as someone who spews out obscenities as if there were no tomorrow, calls entire ethnic groups animals and urges his followers to spread conspiracy theories".

The opposition party Together described him as "the most foul-mouthed journalist of the last 25 years", according to the newspaper Nepszabadsag.

The government has shown no sign of acceding to the protesters' demands. Mr Bayer himself has said that he will only consider handing back his award once 1,450 out of the 1,500 recipients of state honours have returned theirs.

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