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In Hungary, the arts are being suppressed by the government, a new report says

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban at a press conference in Budapest on Feb. 17.
Attila Kisbenedek
AFP via Getty Images
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban at a press conference in Budapest on Feb. 17.

Updated March 21, 2022 at 12:26 PM ET

A new report says that the leader of Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and his populist, right-wing agenda that centers Christian and nationalist ideas have created "existential crises" among individual artists and cultural institutions in Hungary.

The report's authors say that Orbán and his party, FIDESZ, have achieved this through a combination of consolidated state power and pressure on artists that has resulted in self-censorship.

One example cited is the musical Billy Elliot, which staged at the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest in 2018. The musical tells the story of a young boy in an English mining town who follows his dream to become a ballet dancer. After the Billy Elliot run was criticized intensely by pro-Orbán media outlets, including the newspaper Magyar Idők — which called the musical "pointed and unrestrained gay propaganda" — the opera theater's general director, Szilveszter Ókovács, canceled the last 15 shows.

The report, which is called "Systematic Suppression: Hungary's Arts & Culture in Crisis," was issued Monday by the Artistic Freedom Initiative, an organization that connects international artists at risk with pro bono immigration representation and assistance with resettlement abroad. It was created in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and Columbia University's Harriman Institute.

The report's authors write that over the past decade, "Orbán's government implemented a new cultural policy in order to advance a single nationalist narrative and define alternative viewpoints as anti-Hungarian. This has had the effect of limiting creative expression and diminishing plurality in the arts."

They say that such moves have affected a wide variety of artistic disciplines, including literature, theater and music, as well as what is taught in Hungarian schools, through a combination of consolidated power and increased self-censorship among Hungarian artists.

For example, certain Hungarian authors have been removed from the national school curriculum, including works by Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Imre Kertész as well as contemporary novelist Péter Esterházy, who opposes the Orbán government. According to the AFI report, works by József Nyírő and Albert Wass have been placed in their stead: "Nyírő was a member of the fascist Arrow Cross Party, and Wass was 'an avowed anti-Semite and convicted war criminal.' "

The report also notes that government loyalists have been appointed to key positions at both bureaucratic divisions within the government that oversee the arts, as well as management positions at important institutions.

As NPR has previously reported, Orbán's government has also been tightening its control over the media. Reporters Without Borders' 2021 World Press Freedom Index lists Hungary at No. 92 in its rankings.

The complete AFI report is available to read online.

Although the AFI report is exclusively concerned with Hungary, there are similar concerns at play in other nations with authoritarian or nationalistic leaders. In its own 2020 report, the non-governmental organization Freemuse, which is based in Denmark, specifically highlighted concerns about governmental suppression of artists in Russia, Turkey, China, Brazil, Egypt, Iran, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. Freemuse also included the United States in that report, saying that "artists and artworks critical of President Donald Trump were targeted or censored directly by the president and government agencies."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.