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How long can a Hungarian hunger strike go on?

December 29, 2011

A Hungarian TV journalist is nearing Mahatma Gandhi’s limit of 21 days for a hunger strike. 44-year-old Balazs Nagy Navarro has been sitting at the doorstep of Hungary’s Public Television Bureau for 19 days in below-freezing temperatures.

The protests that have swept through the world over the last year have finally reached Hungary. Christmas found thousands of Hungarians on the streets chanting DE-MOC-RA-CY! and FREEDOM-OF-THE-PRESS! at demonstrations against Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Navarro, a television journalist and vice president of one of the largest unions of broadcast journalists sees himself fighting for basic democratic rights such as fairness in public media.

Navarro and a fellow journalist, Aranka Szavuly, who also joined the hunger strike, are fed up with what they say is extensive news manipulation by the center-right ruling administration. For them, the last straw came on December 3, when images of  Zoltan Lomnici, the former chief judge of the Hungarian Supreme Court, were digitally blurred out in the evening news reports by two of the three state television channels. Lomnici held a press conference together with Laszlo Tokes, the other leader of the Council of Human Dignity, but only the latter was visible in the boradcasted images. The figure of Lomnici was pixelated in the background.

Lomnici is said to be persona non grata on state television due to a personal conflict, public media sources told Reuters confirming that personal revenge might have been behind the incident.

The hunger strike of Navarro and a few other journalists protesting for “fair public media” is a desperate attempt on their part to shake their countrymen out of what they say is national apathy. In reality, Hungarians are getting more and more frustrated by the political leadership failing to tackle the ailing economy and not playing according to traditional rules.

Following the defeat of the socialist Prime Minister (who admitted lying about the country’s poor finances to win the election), the present center-right government limited the rights of the top Constitutional Court, dismantled an independent budget oversight body and renationalised private pension assets. On the top of all that, the government enacted a new media law that, according to its critics, gives uncontrollable government influence over public media.

Yet most Hungarians fear losing the little they still have. “There is a lack of solidarity here,” Iren Kembe, the mother of hunger striker Sorel Kembe, said. ”We see layoffs happening to others but we think it won’t touch us.”

Sorel Kembe, a 35-year-old TV show celebrity who plays a young doctor on private broadcaster TV2, was also among the first to join Navarro in the hunger strike. He lasted 12 days until he fell ill during the Christmas demonstration outside the parliament. “Rumor has it,” Kembe told Reuters before he was brought to the hospital, “when Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s youngest daughter learned that I had been on a hunger strike, she said: ’Daddy, you wont let Doctor Joseph die, will you?’”

As of today at least five people are on hunger strike – Navarro has not eaten solid food for 19 days now — camping in front of the public broadcasting building – in their Hungarian version of Occupy Wall Street.

The protesters erected a tent and later a Christmas tree in the area at the main entrance to MTVA, the institution with a super-long name — Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund — that provides content for public news channels. MTVA employs 90 percent of all public media workers, including Navarro and Szavuly.

Hundreds of people have come out in support of the hunger strikers bringing camping chairs, blankets, warm clothes and even thermoses of tea and cartons of fruit juice. A few of them joined the hunger strike, while other hunger strikers dropped out – like 25-year-old Ambrosio who had chained himself to barriers outside parliament and was detained by the police.

While authorities have not been successful in forcing the hunger strikers out physically due to the unclear legal ownership status of the space, they have resorted to what Navarro calls “psychological warfare.” For days the MTVA blasted loud music from a speaker aimed at the hunger strikers, which played the same three Christmas carols over and over again 24/7 on high volume. Then the MTVA surrounded the space with a high fence closing the hunger strikers inside of what looks like a cage from the street.

Hunger strikers though are reluctant to leave and demand the removal of those they consider to be culpable in the Blurring Scandal. Instead, the MTVA fired the director of Hungary’s state news service only, Gabor Elo. This week they went further and fired the two leading hunger strikers: Navarro and Szavuly.

“He is a provocateur, he thrives on conflict,” Agnes Cserhati, the spokesperson of MTVA, said about Navarro. “He crossed the line by appearing at a rally sponsored by the political opposition.” In their press release the MTVA explained that by publicly expressing their political views Navarro and Szavuly, ignored the Public Media Kodex, which forbids such behaviour for public media workers. In response Navarro claimed that “things have developed” since they started the protest. “We now have to take sides in other matters as well,” he said.

Despite Navarro’s complete reluctance to take any political leadership he has become an emblematic figure of the protest and is already mentioned on the same page with Martin Luther King by his Facebook followers. Feeling that he has reached the end of his strength, he hopes the protest can transform into what he calls a “relay hunger strike” whereby one hunger striker will take the baton from another until “the public media system gets cleansed of those altering the news.” While the number of supporters reaches hundreds on a good day, they have difficulty finding at least half a dozen to sustain the hunger strike. “Joining (the strike), for me, is first and foremost a question of time, not of stomach,” said a supporter Laszlo Upper, a theater director, who often visits the site. “I cannot stop working just like that.”

Both Szavuly – a mother of a young boy, who has already stopped her strike once for a day — and Navarro say they have a couple of more days left in them. But Navarro knows he has to find successors before he gives out. “If I threw in the towel now, this story ends here.”

PHOTO: Balazs Nagy Navarro. By Balazs Turay.

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