Hungary students hold 'freedom' rally on anniversary of 1956 uprising

·2-min read
The demonstration, called "For all of our freedom!", also marked the anniversary of Hungary's anti-Soviet uprising in 1956
The demonstration, called "For all of our freedom!", also marked the anniversary of Hungary's anti-Soviet uprising in 1956

A rally held by students blockading Hungary's top arts university for over 50 days. in protest at a reform by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government, on Friday drew thousands of supporters in Budapest.

Students from the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) led a candlelit march and rally before a crowd estimated at around 10,000 by an AFP photographer.

The demonstration, called "For all of our freedom!" by the organisers, also marked the anniversary of Hungary's anti-Soviet uprising in 1956. 

Speakers accused Orban of restricting academic freedom and pushing through an overhaul of SZFE's structure without the consent of students or staff. 

"You have to talk, accept if others think differently, and listen to others," said Noemi Vilmos, a theatre direction student at SZFE, while the crowd chanted "Free country! Free university!"

The campus blockade began on September 1, a day after it's former management resigned in protest, claiming the government had stripped it of autonomy.

The students at the 155-year-old university, and many staff who went on strike in solidarity, say the government imposed a new board whose pro-Orban trustees are appointed indefinitely. 

The reform is seen by critics of Orban as the latest step in his attempt to reshape Hungary's public life to fit his own nationalist and culturally conservative agenda.

Since the campus blockade began the new board's Chancellor, Gabor Szarka, a former army colonel, has been prevented from entering the building by students blocking the entrance.

Szarka has described the building occupation as "anarchy" and switched off the internet at the building, as well as changing door locks inside.

Last week, the students defied an order by the new management to vacate the premises for "maintenance and sanitation" purposes.

Also Friday a Budapest court ruled that the staff strike is "unlawful".

The new board insists that the changes -- including moving SZFE's ownership from state to private hands -- will improve infrastructural and educational standards.

Earlier this month the government doubled the university's budget for next year.

But the protesters, who guard the building's entrance and hold classes inside in what they call an "educational republic," say they will not move until the institution's autonomy is restored.

The blockade presents a rare physical challenge to the self-styled "illiberal" premier Orban, 57, whose control in Hungary has steadily grown since he won a landslide election a decade ago. 

In 2018 he declared that "big changes" were also afoot for Hungary's cultural and academic scenes, considered in pro-government circles as hotbeds of liberalism.

Since then, laws have reformed how theatres are managed and removed autonomy from the leadership of the prestigious Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

pmu/har