'Pigs, hands off the theater': Hungarians protest for artistic freedom

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary’s government submitted plans to parliament on Monday to tighten its control over theaters, triggering protests from actors and audiences who feel that artistic freedom is under threat.

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On a cold wet day, about 1,000 to 2,000 people demonstrated against the legislation in downtown Budapest, with banners saying “Pigs, hands off the theater!”.

Leading actors, theater directors and Budapest’s liberal mayor spoke at the protest against the bill which they say could undermine the independence of theaters.

“I am a democrat, and this is a step toward stealing yet another field that belongs to the public: this time the theaters,” said Gabor Timar, 67, a retired bus driver.

The ruling party of nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants to pass the bill in an accelerated process this week.

A public petition urging lawmakers to reject the bill had gathered almost 50,000 signatures by Monday evening. Actors read out the petition at several theaters over the weekend.

In a Facebook video, some of Hungary’s leading actors and theater directors said the plans recalled the communist era, when the state controlled most aspects of national life.

According to the draft law published on parliament’s website, which the government has softened compared with an original version leaked on Friday, a new National Cultural Council will be responsible for the “unified strategic direction of various segments of culture”.

Hungary’s minister for human resources, who oversees culture, would have a say in appointing theater directors at institutions jointly financed by the state and municipalities.

The minister and the relevant municipality would have to sign a deal defining the joint operation of a theater, including how to appoint its director, but this agreement “has to guarantee the artistic freedom of the theater”, the bill says.

Since Orban won power in 2010, his right-wing Fidesz party has rewritten Hungary’s constitution, gained control of state media, and businessmen close to the prime minister and the party have built empires.

After winning a 2018 election, his third in a row, Orban said he had won a “mandate to build a new era”.

A government spokesman told Reuters on Friday that a recent sexual harassment case at a Budapest theater made the changes necessary as the government currently has no power to sack the director of the theater involved.

Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Gareth Jones and Nick Macfie