Award Given to Writer Fined for Racism Sparks Furor in Hungary

  • Journalist has been censured for remarks against Roma, Jews
  • More than 50 recipients of same honor return their awards

Viktor Orban.

Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

More than 50 laureates of one of Hungary’s highest honors have returned their awards after Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government decorated a journalist who’s been repeatedly censured for inciting hatred against refugees, Jews and the Roma.

Zsolt Bayer, a founding member of the ruling Fidesz party and a close ally of Orban, received the Order of Merit of the Knight’s Cross on the weekend for his “exemplary journalistic work,” according to the official gazette Magyar Kozlony. The recipients who returned their awards included academics, writers and actors, according to a list compiled by news website 444.hu.

Andras Heisler, the head of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary and a previous recipient, handed back his award, saying he didn’t want to be “in the same community with a person who is racist, antisemitic, and whose display of ardent hatred for the Roma is contaminating Hungary.” The opposition Socialist Party issued a statement calling the choice of Bayer “a shame” and two other opposition parties called for the medal to be revoked.

The granting of the award, Hungary’s second highest, underscores Orban’s contentious position in Europe’s growing debate over ethnicity and culture that was brought to the boil last year by the arrival of more than a million refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East, as well as terrorist attacks in France and other countries. Orban was one of the first of several European leaders who have refused to accept Muslims into his country, building a barbed-wire fence and sending police to the border to prevent immigrants from entering.

‘Destructive Animals’

Bayer has been repeatedly fined by Hungary’s media regulator for antisemitic and racist comments, including calling members of the Roma community “destructive animals” and writing that all migrants over the age of 14 are potential murderers.

He has also attacked Member of European Parliament Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Hungarian politician Andras Schiffer, who are Jewish, writing that “unfortunately they weren’t all buried up to their necks in the Orgovany woods.” The comment was a reference to a 1919 killing of dozens of people suspected of being communists, many of whom were Jews.

Bayer rejected the criticism of his detractors.

"I don’t really understand how some people can be so locked up in their closed, narrow, and sad world," Bayer told commercial TV station RTL Klub, in reaction to others handing back their awards.

Antisemitic and anti-Roma comments are also not unusual in Hungarian right-wing media, and in 2013, the government asked television journalist Ferenc Szaniszlo to return a state award after drawing international criticism for such remarks.

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