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Hungarian state broadcaster hit by wave of protests

Several thousand demonstrators gathered to protest a controversial new labour law.

Protesters during a rally this evening in Budapest
Protesters during a rally this evening in Budapest
Image: AP/PA Images

ANTI-GOVERNMENT PROTESTS in Hungary hit the country’s public broadcaster today, with the opposition galvanised by the furious reaction to a controversial new labour law.

Several thousand demonstrators gathered this evening outside the Budapest offices of the MTVA broadcaster after two opposition MPs broadcast footage of themselves being thrown out of the building earlier in the day.

One of the lawmakers had called for people to gather under the slogan: “If they throw us out the door, we’ll come back in through the window.”

The MPs had demanded access to the studios to read out a petition against the government and what they call its “slave” labour law.

MTVA security guards forcibly ejected independent MPs Akos Hadhazy and Bernadett Szel, sparking criticism online.

Visibly shocked by their treatment, the two MPs filed a complaint with police posted in front of the building and said as MPs they had a right to enter the premises of a public establishment.

“This is not a private television station for Fidesz,” the party of rightwing nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, “but the television of the Hungarian people, financed by the people’s taxes,” said the MPs, who streamed the altercation live on Facebook.

An anti-government protest yesterday evening drew 15,000 people, after which Szel and Hadhazy went to the MTVA building with a group of a dozen lawmakers.

The petition the lawmakers wanted to broadcast includes a demand to overturn the labour law – which has stirred protests by relaxing restrictions on overtime.

A third MP was taken to hospital today after another altercation with security at the building.

The rallies were the latest in a wave of recent protests that has seen opposition parties join forces against Orban’s nationalist government in a way not seen in recent years in Hungary.

A fierce nationalist, Orban has riled his EU opponents and domestic critics with a tough anti-immigration stance and populist rhetoric. 

‘Government mouthpieces’ 

The new legislation has triggered days of protests – backed by the opposition – since it was adopted on Wednesday.

Demonstrators have clashed with police over a law they say undermines worker rights.

The opposition petition also demanded the annulment of another controversial law adopted on the same day, which paves the way for new “administrative courts” to oversee cases concerning matters such as public procurement or electoral disputes.

Justice Minister Laszlo Trocsanyi, a close Orban ally, would oversee the courts. That prompted opposition warnings the premier could have near-total political influence over the judicial system.

The petition also calls for more independence and objectivity in Hungarian public media outlets, which the opposition deride as “government mouthpieces”. 

It demands Hungary join an EU public prosecutor’s office, a move the government has rejected.

After the TV station refused to broadcast the petition yesterday evening, some protesters threw smoke bombs at police, who responded with tear gas.

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Around 10 MPs from various opposition parties who also entered the MTVA building said they were still inside later today, pressing staff to read out the petition.

They have been confined to a part of the first floor. MEP Peter Niedermueller from the liberal DK party, himself inside the building, said the protest aimed was at “restoring the freedom of the press”.

“It’s ridiculous that the majority of the country doesn’t even know what’s happening in Budapest because public TV, on all its channels, is only talking about preparations for Christmas,” he said.

“Today we are not just fighting the two controversial laws but the whole of the Orban regime,” ex-Prime Minister and leader of the liberal DK party Ferenc Gyurscany told the private Klubradio station.

Opposition unity 

Unions have also backed the demonstrations against the reforms, which hike the annual overtime hours that employers can demand from 250 to 400 hours and allow payment to be delayed by up to three years.

Tamas Szekely from Hungary’s main confederation of trade unions told the rally today that they would organise a general strike if the reforms are signed into law.

The government says the changes are needed by employers short of manpower and will benefit those wanting to work extra hours.

Over the weekend protestors also gathered in other parts of the country. In the third-biggest city Szeged, the socialist mayor called on businesses not to comply with the new overtime law.

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