Academy of Sciences in revolt over political silence

More than 150 internal members and doctors of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences have signed an open letter to Academy President Professor László Lovász, voicing concern about the “anti-democratic processes” that have taken place in the country in the past few years, especially the threat to freedom of the press, and demanding that the body investigate or initiate debate about the “urgent issues facing Hungarian society”.

The letter, published on 14 October, was a response to the resignation of three external members, and their collaboration with two other academicians – including the Nobel physiologist Torsten Wiesel, who subsequently also resigned – to organise an open letter calling on all external members to resign in protest at “assaults on democracy” by the right-wing populist government of Viktor Orbán and the failure of the academy to address these issues.

The trigger for the current wave of resignations and protests was the closure of the independent left-leaning newspaper, Népszabadság.

Orbán’s premiership has been controversial for a number of years, since he announced plans to change the constitution in 2013, allowing the constitutional court to challenge laws only on procedural grounds and not on their substance, and overriding all decisions made by the court before 2012, Reuters reported.

Most recently Orbán won a referendum vote to close the door to refugees with 98% of votes cast, but failed to convince a majority of the population to vote, as required for the decision to be upheld.

The internal members said in their letter: “We consider it highly damaging to amend Hungary’s constitution to diminish the role of checks and balances that is normal in democratic states and to exploit the refugee crisis to arouse xenophobia.

“In addition to the deep crisis in education, research and the health system, we are particularly troubled about the nationalisation of the public media and their use as government mouthpieces, along with the liquidation of the existing independent press, as in the restructuring of Origo, and, in the last few days, the closure of Népszabadság.”

The signatories say they consider it important that, as a prominent embodiment and forum of the nation’s intellectual sphere, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences should be “playing an investigative role as well as implementing substantive debate about these matters of concern for the whole of society”.

They request the president of the academy, Professor Lovász, to ensure that its leadership as soon as possible “initiates discussion toward committing itself to launching scholarly investigations as well as conducting debates concerning these urgent issues facing Hungarian society”.

External members’ letter

This was followed on 20 October by an open letter sent to external members signed by Thomas Jovin, director emeritus, Laboratory of Cellular Dynamics, Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Germany; Stevan Harnad, professor of psychology at the University of Quebec, Montreal, Canada, and professor of cognitive science, University of Southampton, UK; Israel Pecht, Dr Morton and Anne Kleiman Professor of Chemical Immunology, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel; Torsten Wiesel, Nobel Laureate, Physiology or Medicine, 1981, President Emeritus, Rockefeller University, US; and Daniel Dennett, Austin B Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and co-director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University, US.

Their letter says: “In Hungary today democracy is under a dark cloud that is seriously threatening freedom of expression, human rights and even the rule of law. As external members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, we are witnessing with alarm and dismay the relentless and unchecked deterioration of social freedom and justice under Hungary’s current government.

“We feel that the Academy has the responsibility and the historical duty to raise its voice in defence of freedom and justice in Hungary. Failure to do so would be to miss its higher calling.”

They call on the academy to “initiate substantive discussion as soon as possible about the anti-democratic developments in Hungary, especially freedom of the press, and that the Academy should take part in the exploration of issues important for the whole of society”.

This letter was organised after the resignation of Jovin and Harnad on 8 October.

Harnad, who is a founding member of the Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter, told University World News they had resigned because of the failure of the academy to oppose the “increasingly precipitous destruction of democracy and the rule of law by the Orbán regime”.

In his resignation letter he said: the academy is “giving no more sign of resisting Orbán’s forced-march toward tyranny than other fellow-travellers”.

Jovin, in his resignation letter earlier on the same day, said: “In view of the failure of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to issue public statements condemning the repressive policies and practices of the Orbán government concerning numerous social, cultural, economic, and scientific issues, I am forced to resign.”

However, in a response to Harnad’s letter of resignation, which has been obtained by University World News, Lovász said: “The Hungarian Academy of Sciences is, and has been, staying away of [sic] political issues as much as possible. Our members (just like the rest of the society) have different political and moral philosophies, but (as a rare case in today’s society) they are able to cooperate on all issues concerning science.

“The leaders of the Academy have been elected on the basis of platforms concerning research, education and culture, not politics. We don’t strive to reach conclusion on hotly debated political or moral issues, but don’t oppose our members to express their own opinion in any form.”

Newspaper closure

The resignations followed the closure of Népszabadság (People’s Freedom), an independent newspaper on 8 October.

A left-leaning publication that started life as the Hungarian Working People’s Party organ in the 1990s, Népszabadság was later 26% owned by the Socialist Party until it sold its share in 2015. It was suspended on 8 October with losses piling up and circulation having dwindled to 37,000 compared with 460,000 before the collapse of communism.

Civil rights groups alleged that the paper was shut down because it published stories critical of the government of the right-wing prime minister.

The radical nationalist Jobbik opposition party blamed Orbán for the closure, saying his Fidesz party wanted to control the entire Hungarian media.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz tweeted: "Sudden closure of Nepszabadsag sets a worrying precedent. I stand in solidarity with Hungarians protesting today."

But the newspaper owner, Mediaworks, said the paper’s production had been suspended while it worked on a new business plan, Reuters reported.