The Blog

Hunger Strike Speaks of Downward Spiral in Budapest

A hunger strike sparked by one blurred face on national television has captured the wave of discontent spreading across Hungary, a country in the heart of Europe but far from the minds of its neighbours.

A hunger strike sparked by one blurred face on national television has captured the wave of discontent spreading across Hungary, a country in the heart of Europe but far from the minds of its neighbours.

"It has become a symbol of resistance against any kind of dictatorial rule," says Balazs Nagy Navarro of the protest camp, pitched outside the office of state-funded MTV.

The camp -- a clutter of Thermos flasks, blankets and printed news reports from around the world -- was set up on 10 December, in response to a news report that blocked out the face of Zoltán Lomnici, former head of the Supreme Court.

"We knew that behind the scenes there was systematic manipulation and distortion of information but normally it's much harder to detect. Everyone knew that something was wrong," says Navarro, accusing the broadcaster of seeking to erase Lomnici from the public domain.

Within days an inquiry was called and concluded by MTV; three journalists were reportedly held to account. But as the head of the television and filmmakers union TFSZ, Navarro took members' complaints to the top, demanding a new inquiry: "The three journalists said they didn't admit to anything; they had just been asked in general how they made the news report. The people they held responsible had minor roles, because the reporter did everything under instruction," he explains.

With their demands refused, Navarro and his colleague Aranka Szavuly went on strike, surviving on tea, juice and soup in Hungary's bitter winter. Navarro speaks of a "character-killing campaign" that swiftly followed, with statements issued by MTV to the press and within the broadcaster's building.

Five days into the hunger strike Gábor Élő, the director of news for MTI, the newswire that serves MTV, was fired. The head of news for MTVA, which oversees the state-funded channels, was given a different job within the organisation. Navarro himself lost his job on 27 December; he says he was given a host of reasons, from creating a conflict of interest to violating strike laws.

But the 44-year-old journalist does not dwell on his unemployed status; instead he has called for the sacking of four senior employees at MTV:"The people they held responsible had minor roles," he says, "There has been some progress because someone has been fired [Élő], although they have never acknowledged official that is because of the hunger strike."

Navarro is adamant that his protest is not born out of "a special hatred against the government", yet says that the situation has worsened considerably since prime minister Viktor Orbán came to power, as leader of the conservative Fidesz party, in 2010.

"There has always been very strong meddling in public media by the government, left or right, using it for propaganda. But what they [the government] has done over the past year and a half has made things worse - it was not just that they tried to influence the news; they have tried to distort information and falsify facts."

"I would say its almost unprecedented -- these are the worst years since the changes in 1991," when the last Soviet troop left Hungary.

Despite some movements at the senior level, MTV has tried to remove the hunger strikers since its inception, according to Navarro.

Now silent, a speaker sways in the air just out of reach of the protesters; for days in December it played a relentless record of festive songs. Behind the glass of the recently-closed entrance to MTV, movable yellow floodlights still stand where the protesters say they were shone on them continuously. MTV staff were not immediately available to comment on the purpose of the speaker or lights.

As the camp has been pitched on private property the police cannot clear it, although one female hunger striker recalls the night men came to fence them in, laughing as she remembers her fellow campers fighting them off in their pajamas.

But behind the humour is a very real fear among Hungarians of the power the state is holding over the media. The 10 or so journalists that have participated on the strike have been joined by more than 20 civilians of all backgrounds, many of which are part of the Solidarity organisation. Some have been on hunger strike for more than three weeks, although Navarro has recently asked his supporters for just a "symbolic" fast of one or two days, fearing the health implications of any longer period.

What started as a two-strong strike has grown far beyond the thirty-something that now take shifts outside the MTV offices; on 2 January tens of thousands of people gathered in Budapest to protest against a new constitution that was criticised as being undemocratic.

For Navarro, the sea change must not only occur at the political level: "The journalist and the whole profession is also responsible for this. There is a need to clear out not just the political sphere, but also our profession."

"I understand you may be scared, but if your boss is telling you to falsify reports, it is your professional consciousness that decides whether you will fulfill these orders or not. It's not a dictatorship -- they won't kill you. You could lose your job, but you could protest -- if more journalists would have done this, we wouldn't have this situation now."