HUNGARY: Outcry over probe into philosophers

Members of the international academic community have sprung to the defence of several Hungarian philosophers who are under police investigation in Budapest in relation to alleged misuse of research grants. The academics under investigation include Ágnes Heller, regarded as a founder of the Budapest school of philosophy.

She is among half a dozen or so philosophers who have been subjected to attacks in the media, said by the philosophers' supporters to be politically motivated.

The philosophers say they are being harassed by the government because of their outspoken criticism of Viktor Orban's administration.

The investigation has provoked an outcry among intellectuals worldwide, although it has received little exposure in the Western media. The allegations involve the use of public grants for humanistic research.

It is alleged that money has been used wrongly for research infrastructure and, according to a newspaper, "to translate Plato from Hungarian into Hungarian", referring to a new translation into Hungarian of Plato.

The grants are a small portion of the hundred or so grants allocated for research projects, post-doctorates and young researchers' salaries, reportedly totalling up to HUF500 million (US$2.5 million).

Heller told University World News: "There were more than 100 grants. Why had they picked six of them for investigation? They gave the answer. The attacked philosophers were all liberal-leftist."

She added: "Why was the attack concentrated on me, when I have not received one single penny? And why immediately criminal charges? On what ground, if not as ideological harassment?"

International reaction includes an e-mail petition, "Hands off the Hungarian philosophers!", which has collected more than 3,000 signatures.

Among other protests is an open letter by the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association addressed to the President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HUS).

A separate open letter signed by more than 60 honorary members and external members of HUS and including Nobel laureates, demands that the national Academy of Sciences, as "the first, natural defender of the exercise of critical thinking in research", should make a "prompt, prominent and unequivocal statement of the academy's public position in support of the research and researchers in question".

But, in his response on 31 January, Professor József Pálinkás, President of HUS, said: "It is the realm of the authorities to uncover breaches of law and prosecute transgressors within the framework of the law. The press should report on such cases to the public in a reliable and well-balanced manner, without unfounded accusations or foregone conclusions."

He added: "Work in progress is threatened by unprofessional and ill-considered comments, and by deliberately generated political mud-slinging, be this from academia, from public administration, or from the activities of the media."

Professor Stevan Harnad of Québec University of Montréal, in an "Open Access Archivangelism" web page discussing the legal grounds of the process, said: "[W]hat the Hungarian government needs to do now is to focus on trying to reform its deformed funding system, rather than trying to take revenge on its critics [and predecessors] for the deformities of the old system."

Professor István Deák of Columbia University, New York, told University World News: "Part of the press and even the police go after the scholars under rather flimsy excuses. The concerted right-wing drive to shame and possibly prosecute some of the best-known Hungarian liberal philosophers, Ágnes Heller among them, for having requested and received from the state large research moneys for vaguely defined goals.

"The case involves dozens of scholars many of whom are not Jewish: still right-wing media play up the Jewish origins of the principal philosophers. Meanwhile, liberals see the entire affair as a concerted anti-Semitic campaign."

The French newspaper Liberation and the Danish newspaper Politiken have both suggested that anti-Semitic sentiments lie behind the accusations.

A declaration from the German Society of Philosophy, published by Julian Nida-Rümelin and Jürgen Habermas in Süddeutsche Zeitung on 25 January, suggests that public criticism of the new Hungarian media law is one of the reasons for the attacks on, and investigation of, the philosophers.

"[We] are concerned about the political and professional destinies of our Hungarian colleagues. At the centre of the conflict are Agnes Heller, Mihály Vajda and Sándor Radnóti, who publicly has criticised the Prime Minister of Hungary, Orbán, because of the adoption of questionable laws concerning the media," the declaration says.

But HUS president Pálinkás, in a further letter replying to HUS members, said he knew of at least one case where a research director who had been granted US$350,000 for a specific research project sub-contracted the research to his own private company and sub-contracted research to the company of his deputy, allegedly in contravention of "several laws in Hungary".

Gyorgy Gereby, one of the accused philosophers, said that while subcontracting research to micro-companies might seem irregular in other countries, in Hungary it was normal practice.

"It is absolutely critical for the international scholarly community to know that this 'incriminated act', [which is] unusual, perhaps illegal, in other countries, is currently proper and standard in Hungary. It is a common way to save on the research budgets of the institutions and is a tax preference for research allowed by the state," he said.

His own contracts were checked by a legal advisor and audited at the end of the grant's tenure, he said.

Many of the documents in the case have been posted here by Professor Laszlo Tengelyi of Wuppertal, Germany. Heller has also presented her version of the story on YouTube, viewable here

This article is written as if liberals are above the law and shouldn't even be investigated. What a farce. Let the independent police investigation run its course and if they find any criminal liability then prosecute it to the fullest extent of the law.

Usually when someone is accused of a crime he says: "Yes I did it, I should definitely go to jail."

We learn that what this character allegedly did is "illegal, in other countries".

Scott Robert