Hungarians protest at journalist sackings

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THOUSANDS of demonstrators are expected to converge today on the Budapest headquarters of state- owned Hungarian Radio to protest against the dismissal of more than 100 of its employees, most of whom were journalists.

The message to the government will be unequivocal: revoke the sackings immediately. But for most of the protesters the issue runs far deeper than jobs. At stake, they say, is the last vestige of quasi-independent radio broadcasting in Hungary. Many of the journalists sacked late last week happen to be well- known for their less than slavish support of the government.

'The government is trying to gag us in exactly the same way as the Bolsheviks gagged people they saw as oppositional,' said Akos Mester, former editor-in-chief of 168 Hours, a weekly programme famed for its incisive coverage of politics. 'This government is opposed to freedom and openness in the media.'

Coming only months after a similar purge of independently minded journalists from the state-owned television network, the sackings have provoked outrage. Hungary's opposition parties say they have been put at a disadvantage in the run-up to elections here on 8 May. Western observers, too, describe the sackings as 'worrying', with some saying they are inappropriate for a country seeking speedy admission to the European Union.

Ivan Peto, leader of the Alliance of Free Democrats, told a heated parliamentary session on Monday that there had been nothing like it in Hungary since the crushing of the uprising in 1956.

Other opposition MPs described the sackings as an illegal act of 'political cleansing', which were a blatant attempt to divert attention from the real election issues.

Given the force of the criticism, the government's attempts to distance itself from the row have appeared unconvincing. Peter Boross, the Prime Minister, sought to assure parliament that neither he nor the government had ordered the sackings and that they were down to Laszlo Csucs, the government- appointed head of Hungarian Radio. Besides, he added, what was all the fuss about? From a total staff of more than 2,000, only 129 Hungarian Radio employees had been dismissed - far less than in other branches of state-owned industry that were being rationalised.

It was not an argument that won Mr Boross or his increasingly unpopular Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) much sympathy. Nor did it tally with Mr Csucs's initial statement claiming that in addition to financial grounds, the sackings had been carried out because 'those dismissed failed to come up to journalistic and ethical standards'.

Despite the protest, however, few observers expect the government to order the reinstatement of those sacked. As a result, there is unlikely to be much criticism of the MDF and its coalition partners on either radio or television during the election campaign.