Hungarian philosophers suffer state 'harassment'

International outcry as left-leaning scholars are 'targeted' by government. Matthew Reisz reports

March 17, 2011

An international campaign is under way to defend five Hungarian philosophers accused of financial irregularities in what their supporters claim is a politically motivated attack.

The scholars were attacked in the Hungarian media earlier this year over their involvement in four separate projects that received total funding of between £1.1 million and £1.4 million.

The accusations levelled against them focused on financial malfeasance, including using money inappropriately to pay family members.

However, the allegations have sparked an outcry among some of their peers abroad, prompting a division of the American Philosophical Association to publish an open letter in which it describes the accusations as "highly unlikely".

The letter notes that "charges have been brought against a number of philosophers - including Ágnes Heller, distinguished professor emerita from the New School for Social Research (New York) - regarding the alleged misuse of grant money: charges we find to be highly unlikely and regarding which much more detailed documentation is required.

"Another philosopher, Mihaly Vajda (former director of the Institute for Philosophical Research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences), has been charged with misallocation of grant money to his daughter - whereas in fact she employed this properly obtained money to pursue a significant study of public opinion concerning the Holocaust."

The letter continues: "We consider these various moves to be questionable in view of the likelihood of political motivation on the part of the ruling Fidesz party."

In the firing line

The other philosophers involved in the affair are: György Geréby, professor of medieval studies at the Central European University in Budapest; Sándor Radnóti, professor of philosophy at the Eotvos Loránd University in Budapest; and György Gábor, former deputy director at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Philosophy, who now teaches at the Budapest University of Jewish Studies.

Their supporters point to the fact that all those singled out are liberals or leftists in a country ruled by a right-wing government as evidence for the alleged political agenda targeting them.

They claim that the state is attempting to intimidate critics who supported Hungary's previous socialist administration and is exercising overt influence over the press.

Similar objections were made by Professor Geréby last month when he addressed a group set up to support the philosophers.

Speaking at a meeting at the French Parliament, he pointed out that two of the accused were just team members rather than directors of their projects, and insisted that all the disputed funds had been given to "scientific institutions and not individuals".

Budgets had been submitted in advance and subsequently audited, Professor Geréby said, and the projects had employed dozens of young scientists over a period of three years and had led to the publication of articles and books as well as public conferences.

In another open letter published in January, honorary and external members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences urged its president, József Pálinkás, to "take a prompt, prominent and unequivocal public position in support of the research and researchers attacked, and against such empty, ad hominem attacks to which every scholar and scientist in the world is vulnerable if they are allowed to metastasise".

However, in a detailed response, Professor Pálinkás refused to denounce the allegations. "I am a defender of critical thinking in research, but...were the funds spent legitimately?" he asked.

"Unequivocal statements can only be issued when the investigations have been completed. Any premature statement would be political and, as such, would be subjected to political scrutiny and would not help the philosophers concerned."

'Confirmation, not refutation'

Like some of the other academics implicated, Professor Heller, who is 82 years old, has openly criticised Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orbán.

Addressing the allegations in a video recently posted on YouTube, she claimed that "the financial problems were just a cover-up for political harassment".

The left-wing scholars were being targeted "because they criticise in the domestic and foreign press certain strategies of the present rightist government", Professor Heller said.

"For example, I said (Mr Orbán) has certain kinds of dictatorial inclination. What is happening today is the confirmation, not the refutation, of what I said."

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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