Hungary asks reporter to return award over anti-Semitism row

BUDAPEST Wed Mar 20, 2013 5:04am EDT

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BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A Hungarian government minister has asked a television journalist to return an award he was given last week after he was accused of anti-Semitism by Israel's ambassador to Hungary.

In a clip of one of his programs from 2010, posted on YouTube, Ferenc Szaniszlo said Israel had been created by the West as a bastion against Arab-Muslim countries, but that it would lose its importance once the region's oil and gas ran out.

Israel's Ambassador Ilan Mor accused Szaniszlo of "spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories against Israel". The journalist for private Echo TV denies he made anti-Semitic comments.

Hungary gave the awards to some 200 academics, journalists and artists to mark a national holiday last week.

Human Resources Minister Zoltan Balog said he acknowledged he had made an erroneous decision in giving Szaniszlo the prize and requested the reporter return it as there were no means to force him to do so.

"I primarily intended to acknowledge the work you once did as a foreign affairs correspondent reporting from the former Soviet area and the war in the Balkans," Balog wrote in a letter to Szaniszlo posted on the minister's web site late on Tuesday.

"Only after I made the decision about the award was I informed about your assertions in the past few years, which I cannot identify with as they go against the values that I and the government represent."

It is not the first anti-Semitism row Hungary has had to deal with over the past months.

Late last year, Prime Minister Viktor Orban condemned a call by a far-right Jobbik lawmaker to draw up lists of Jews as "unworthy" of his country, promising he would protect all citizens from any kind of discrimination.

Marton Gyongyosi's remarks caused international outrage and he later apologized.

The U.S. ambassador to Budapest, Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, said it was "highly regrettable" that the government had not yet found a way to strip Szaniszlo of his award.

She said rewarding Szaniszlo, "an individual who has publicly engaged in hate speech, is deeply disappointing. Honoring those who espouse intolerance ... casts a shadow over positive steps the government has taken to combat racism and hate speech".

A dozen former recipients of the Tancsics prize for journalistic excellence have already handed their awards back in protest at it being given to Szaniszlo.

(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Alison Williams)

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