Claims have emerged that current EU president Hungary is trying use the police and media to silence dissenters at home, most prominently 82-year-old philosopher Àgnes Heller– who fled Hungary for Australia in 1977 after decades of political persecution by Nazis and Soviet-backed communists, and who has only returned to her birthplace in recent years.

A project led by Heller, philosophy professor at La Trobe between 1977 and 1986, is among one of six grants now being investigated due to alleged misappropriation of public funds. The Hungarian government’s investigator, auditor Dr Budhai Gyula, has now referred at least three projects — including Heller’s — to the police.

The grants were awarded to the philosophers by a government research body during the time when the Socialist and Liberal Parties were in power. The philosophy projects that received the grants now being investigated had nothing in common, and included an investigation into European totalitarianism and Heller’s own project, which involved new work on Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger.

Heller says the only factor linking the projects was that five of the six projects were led by either Germans or Jews, “playing on the old fears in Hungary that philosophy is a German and Jewish discipline”.

Heller, speaking to Crikey from Australia (where she’s been staying) says as project director she “didn’t receive one forint of grant money”, merely distributing the funds to dozens of other philosophers in her team working on sub-projects. She claims to have been smeared, and has compared the current campaign against her to the Soviet-backed campaign that forced her into exile in the seventies.

“Basically, those who are charged to be thieves have been thus described because they’ve been critical of the government or could potentially become critical,” she says.

Heller was one of many prominent Hungarian intellectuals who criticised new media laws passed in the central European nation late last year.

The laws — which Hungary slightly revised on Tuesday after pressure from the EU Commission — created a central media body made up of Fidez Party members, which was to have overseen all media. The body was tasked with ensuring that all electronic media (including potentially internet blogs) provided balanced reports and had the power to issue large fines.

Heller says since the start of the year there’s been an “ongoing campaign” in the rightist Hungarian media and from the government against her, which has seen her labelled a “liberal philosopher” and a “nationless intellectual”, who’s besmirched the Hungarian reputation in Europe, and who’s “studied away half a billion forints”.

Heller’s lawyer has now asked for an apology from one newspaper, Magyar Nemzet, due to its alleged defamation of her.

She’s been supported by other intellectuals. Jürgen Habermas, considered the most famous living German philosopher, wants the EU to examine the treatment of Heller and other critical intellectuals as part of its investigation of the media laws.

“One must question if a country representing the EU [internationally] is today impinging on fundamental principles of a liberal constitutional order,” wrote Habermas in an open letter to the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

“The Chinese are rightly urged to respect human rights; however, perhaps we haven’t been keeping as sharp an eye on what’s happening at home.”

Crikey contacted the Hungarian government; the newspaper that allegedly targeted Heller, Magyar Nemzet, and the European commissioner in charge of citizen’s rights. None of them was prepared to comment about the case.

The police investigation of the philosophers comes at a time of increasing worry in the EU about the state of democracy in Hungary.

The Fidesz government was elected last April with a two thirds majority in parliament, following years of popular discontent at the performance of the Socialist-Liberal coalition, felt by many to be corrupt.

Fidesz, once a member of the EU parliament’s liberal caucus, has moved sharply right and closer to the far-right party Jobbik, which won more than 15% in the 2010 vote.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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