Campaigners fear the new legislation will be used to strip funds from productions that do not sit well with the ruling Fidesz party.
The Hungarian parliament has passed a package of laws which afford great control over cultural activities across the country, prompting outrage from critics, opposition politicians, and theatres.
The law places culturally important institutions throughout Hungary under the discretion of the country’s central budget and establishes a National Cultural Council to oversee such institutions.
The law places local-run theatres under this financing scheme, though they will be able to request a mixed operating structure from the government.
Tamas Jordan, director of the Weores Sandor Theatre in Szombathely, a city on Hungary’s western border with Austria, was quoted as saying “every Hungarian who has a clear conscience” must take a stand against the culture bill.
Fidesz has held a constitutional majority in the Hungarian parliament since 2010. Critics say the government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has limited freedom of press, instituted anti-immigrant policies, limited the independence of the judiciary among other accusations, in its bid to create an “illiberal democracy”.
The new law on cultural institutions is widely viewed by critics as a continuation of these policies.
Before the law was passed, the Katona Jozsef Theatre organised a large demonstration, which culminated in downtown Budapest. Sandor Kemecsei, a demonstrator in his thirties at Madach Square, near the city’s transportation hub, told TRT World he’s growing tired of “Fidesz trying to control everything.
“It’s been almost ten years of Fidesz control,” Kemecsei continued. “Almost everything we see in the media, every building that’s constructed in Budapest, it’s all because they said so. Now we will have to get their approval for the theatre.”
Large protests against government policies are not common in Hungary, but events over the last year have embolden demonstrators.
Last December, students and labour unions joined to protest as the Central European University, funded by George Soros, was “kicked out” of Budapest due to laws passed by the government in 2017.
Simultaneously, the parliament passed a series of bills that counter protesters called the “Slave Laws”, which made it easier for companies to arrange overtime hours without immediately providing overtime pay to alleviate Hungary’s labour shortage.
“I think the protests and other actions have motivated us to go to the streets, and to vote”, Kemecsei said.
In October, Budapest elected an opposition mayor, Gergely Karacsony, unseating the Fidesz incumbent.
The new mayor froze all construction in the capital after his election – much of it carried out by companies close to Fidesz – pending review.
Karacsony’s election was seen as a warning to Fidesz that support for its policies were beginning to wear thin among Hungarians.
Karacsony said the law was payback for losing the capital at the demonstration which TRT World attended.
“The capital will protect its theatres, artists and its freedom,” Karacsony said at the rally, which was organised by Hungary’s Independent Performing Arts Association and three prestigious theatres.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Hungarian government told TRT World that the press had made Hungarians believe things that weren’t true, partly due to reporting on versions of the law that were later amended.
“The only newly created body was the Cultural Council, a key instrument through which the government in office can gain a complete overview of Hungary’s cultural sphere in a horizontal manner and receive really continuous feedback from the leaders of cultural institutions on cultural strategy.”
The spokesperson stressed that if an institution is funded by a local government, the national government has “nothing to do with it”.
The inverse is true when an institution is funded by the national government. In that case, the local government has no say, they continued.
The arrangement is also in “the interest of theatres, as in this contract we can provide long-term, predictable financing”, the spokesperson said.
Regarding accusations of possible censorship, “regulation states clearly and distinctly, that the artistic freedom of theatres must not be interfered with at all,” the spokesperson said.
“If, however, an institution funded by a local government, in this case a local government-funded theatre, wants to receive large amounts of public funding from the government budget, we believe – and the Gothar affair only reinforces our view – that the state must conclude a contract with the municipality of Budapest, or with a city [with similar status]”, and these contracts should have “basic operational criteria”, the spokesperson said.
The “Gothar affair” involved Peter Gothar, a liberal, award-winning director and writer who admitted to sexual harassment in November, igniting a national debate.
Gothar works for the Katona Jozsef Theatre, one of the organisers of the protest. The theatre did not respond to requests for comment, but the director has apologised for his actions.
The government has expressed desire for there to be consequences for the controversy surrounding Gothar.
While the government feels the outrage is overblown, Hungarians are continuing to express concern.
A petition against the culture law started by Hungary’s Alliance for Independent Performing Arts has gained over 55,000 signatures. Cultural demonstrations against the bill are expecting to continue.