Footballers ignite 'cancel culture' row in Hungary

Peter MURPHY
·4-min read

When a German football club sacked a Hungarian coach for anti-immigration comments, outraged officials in Budapest rushed to defend his right to free speech against "liberal opinion-terror".

But Viktor Orban's right-wing government itself often stands accused of silencing criticism at home as the nationalist premier has sought to shape the country into a "Christian-conservative" bastion against liberalism.

Budapest's muscular defence of free speech after the dismissal of Zsolt Petry by Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin followed its threat earlier this year to regulate social media giants like Facebook for alleged censorship of conservative opinions.

Orban's flagship policies include radical pro-family measures aimed at reversing demographic decline, as well as anti-migration and anti-LGBT legislation that has been slammed by rights groups.

Critics also say the self-styled "illiberal" Orban -- in power since 2010 and likely to seek a fourth straight term at next year's election -- clamps down himself on opinions he doesn't like.

The central European country dropped to 92nd position -- the second lowest in the EU -- in the annual press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders published Tuesday, with the media watchdog calling it a "would-be information police state".

- 'Toxic country' -

In one recent case of free speech under threat, the pro-government media targeted writer and poet Krisztina Toth after she said a classic novel should be dropped from the school curriculum over its old-fashioned depiction of gender roles.

"Hungary has become a toxic country," Toth told the Austrian magazine Falter, adding that she has received death threats and dog excrement in her postbox.

The latest free speech row was ignited February in the world of football, Orban's favourite sport, by RB Leipzig and Hungary goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi, 27, who expressed support for gay rights in a Facebook post.

His solidarity with "rainbow families" came weeks after the introduction of a law that effectively bans gay adoption.

With Hungarian sportspeople rarely commenting publicly on current affairs, the popular goalie sharply divided fan opinion and drew criticism in pro-government media.

In an interview with the main pro-Orban newspaper Magyar Nemzet early this month, Gulacsi's German-based compatriot Petry, a goalkeeping coach at Hertha since 2015, cautioned against sports personalities "stirring up emotions".

- 'Moral decline' -

But asked for his own opinion on social issues Petry, 54, went on to blast Europe's immigration policy which he called the "manifestation of moral decline" of the "Christian continent".

Although Petry said the paper left out comments in favour of "rainbow families" Hertha promptly fired him for "not respecting" its values of multicultural diversity and tolerance.

Orban's cabinet chief compared the dismissal "for expressing an opinion" to Germany's "totalitarian" past, while the foreign ministry summoned a German diplomat over the affair.

According to freelance sports journalist Gergely Marosi, Petry was "most likely used by the government".

"Hertha's clear explanation for his sacking allowed it to run with the 'opinion-terror' narrative," Marosi told AFP.

- 'Cancel culture' -

Fallout from Gulacsi's Facebook message is also believed to have led to dismissals in Hungary itself.

Former Kaiserslautern defender and Hungary international Janos Hrutka was removed from his pundit job by Spiler TV, a sports channel belonging to a media group owned by a pro-government businessman, soon after praising Gulacsi for his "independence".

A commentator on public media was also let go shortly after "liking" the goalkeeper's post.

Administrative and organisational reasons for the removals were cited in both cases.

Unlike at Hertha "nobody in Hungary would ever transparently say someone is out because of a political opinion," Marosi told AFP.

According to political analyst Patrik Szicherle, pro-Orban business and media circles "present a unified worldview to the audience".

"If someone breaks this unity, they risk their jobs... Budapest's criticism of cancel culture only applies to so-called 'liberal dictatorships' not to someone losing their job here for having a different opinion," Szicherle said.

Another prominent football journalist Janos Kele says Spiler TV sacked him as a studio pundit three years ago after he wrote on social media about corruption in sport and a sports firm linked to Lorinc Meszaros, Hungary's richest man and Orban's childhood friend.

"I never got a straight answer why I was fired, but I was later told by the editor-in-chief that if I behaved correctly I might be invited again. Of course it never happened," Kele told AFP.

On Hertha's firing of Petry, Kele said: "We have to keep common sense. So that goalkeeper coaches can remain coaches, and TV commentators as commentators."

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