Journalists protest state award for far-right TV presenter

Several journalists have returned their Táncsics prizes in protest of the government’s decision to give the state’s highest journalism award to TV presenter Ferenc Szaniszló, who has made numerous anti-Roma and anti-Semitic remarks during his broadcasts. Szaniszló, a commentator for the government-friendly station Echo TV, has described the Roma as “parasitic ape-like people” and blamed the loss of Hungary’s Battle of Mohács in 1526 on Jewish bankers. The government also awarded state prizes to singer János Petrás of the far-right music group Kárpátia, considered the “house band” of Hungary’s extreme-right Jobbik party, and to archaeologist Kornél Bakay, who claims that Jews organised the slave trade during the Middle Ages.

Human Resources Minister Zoltán Balog awarded the prize to Szaniszló on March 15, a national holiday commemorating press freedom in Hungary. The prize, which was established in 1990 to honor the top journalist in Hungary, is named after Mihály Táncsics, the imprisoned journalist and writer who was freed by demonstrators on March 15, 1848, the day Hungary declared independence from Hapsburg rule.

Szaniszló is known for espousing anti-Roma and anti-Semitic views on the Echo TV  program “Világ-Panoráma” (“World Panorama”). In 2011, the Media Council fined the station HUF 500,000 (approximately EUR 1,650) after the broadcaster made anti-Roma comments, which the Council found to infringe the media laws’  provisions protecting human dignity and prohibiting incitement to hatred.

Minister Balog said he was unaware of the reporter’s past statements and expressed regret for the decision. “I made the decision without knowing that this foreign-affairs editor and journalist, whose earlier work was of serious professional quality, had recently made statements that violated human dignity,” Népszava quoted Balog as saying. Earlier in his career, Szaniszló gained notoriety for his work as a foreign correspondent, which included his coverage of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s.

According to reports, state culture secretary János Halász recommended Szaniszló for the prize, although the committee responsible for selecting the winner says that they advised against giving Szaniszló the award. In the past, the government named the recipient based on the nomination of various journalist organizations, mainly the left-leaning National Association of Hungarian Journalists  (MUOSZ). This year, a five-person committee composed primarily of conservative editors and journalists was called upon by the cultural ministry to select the prize winner. Committee members were Ágnes Osztovics (Heti Válasz), Alexa Károly (Magyar Hírlap), Beatrix Siklósi (MTVA), Jenő Ács (former chief editor of Börtönújság - “Prison News”), and Zoltán Árpási (former chief editor of Somogyi Hírlap and Békés Megyei Hírlap).

Pro-government weekly Heti Valasz reveals that the prize committee—which was headed by the newspaper’s senior staff member Ágnes Osztovics—rejected Szaniszló’s nomination on grounds that the journalist is “delusional” and “unworthy of recognition.” Along with his anti-Roma and anti-Semitic views, Szaniszló is also known for espousing sensational conspiracy theories, including a report in which he blamed the IMF and NATO for bombing a reservoir and causing Hungary’s red sludge disaster. He also recently reported that in the year 2115 aliens will make contact with humankind through Hungarians.

At least twelve journalists have returned their Táncsics prizes in protest, including former Klubrádió host György Bolgár, former head of Magyar Rádió editorial staff Péter Márványi, Népszava editor Péter Németh, former MTI president Mátyás Vince, and Vasárnapi Hírek deputy editor István Zalai.

Echo TV is owned by Gábor Széles, a top Fidesz-party donor in 2010. Széles also owns the pro-government daily Magyar Hirlap, which recently ran an editorial by conservative commentator and founding Fidesz member Zsolt Bayer claiming that Roma are “animals” and “unfit for coexistence.”