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Thousands of students march with torches in Hungary for academic freedom

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Thousands of students from Hungary’s University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) and other universities marched in Budapest on Friday in a protest against what they see as moves by the nationalist government to undermine academic freedom.

Students organize a blockade as they protest in front of the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest, Hungary, September 2, 2020. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo/File Photo/File Photo

The students have been blockading their university for weeks, saying a government-appointed board will deprive the school of its autonomy. They have declared a “Students’ Republic” and vowed to hold out until their demands are met.

More than 5,000 protesters gathered for the rally, wearing masks against the coronavirus, as the country celebrated the anniversary of its 1956 uprising against Soviet rule.

“We welcome all who want to express their concerns over the threat to universal values in our country ... autonomous higher education is only one of those values,” the students said on Facebook.

Dozens of student held up torches, and banners saying “Free country, free university” and “Art is free,” as they walked across a Danube bridge in twilight towards the university.

“I am really moved, it touches my heart,” said Luca Lukacs, a teacher at SZFE, saying she did not expect so many people to turn out.

The government appointed a new board of trustees in August to the 155-year-old SZFE, prompting its management to resign in protest.

The institution, which has nurtured many of Hungary’s leading directors and filmmakers, has been caught up in a culture war as Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government seeks to enforce a conservative shift to end what it sees as the domination of the arts by liberals.

The ruling Fidesz party has changed the law to force the Central European University, a major graduate institution, out of the country.

The government denies it is limiting freedom of expression.

Reporting by Krisztina Than and Balazs Kaufmann; Editing by Giles Elgood