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Hungary government submits bill to boost grip over theatres

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By Reuters
Hungary government submits bill to boost grip over theatres
Actors and the audience hold up their hands at Budapest's Trafo threatre in protest against a plan by Hungary's government to tighten its control over theatres in Budapest, Hungary December 8, 2019. REUTERS/Tamas Kaszas   -   Copyright  TAMAS KASZAS(Reuters)
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By Krisztina Than

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary’s government submitted plans to parliament on Monday to tighten control over theatres, a move that has triggered protests from actors and audiences who see artistic freedom under threat.

The ruling party of nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants to pass the bill in an accelerated process this week.

A public petition urging lawmakers to reject the bill had gathered 47,700 signatures by Monday afternoon. Actors read out the petition at several theatres over the weekend.

In a Facebook video some of Hungary’s leading actors and theatre directors said the plans recalled the communist era, when the state controlled most aspects of national life.

Thousands of artists, other citizens and Budapest’s liberal mayor were expected to attend a protest in Budapest at 1700 GMT on Monday against the legislation which they say could undermine theatres’ independence.

According to the draft law published on parliament’s website, which the government has softened compared to an original version leaked on Friday, a new National Cultural Council will be responsible for the “unified strategic direction of various segments of culture”.

The law says cultural organisations should “actively defend the interests of the nation’s wellbeing and development”.

Hungary’s minister for human resources, who oversees culture, would have a say in appointing theatre directors at institutions jointly financed by the state and municipalities.

The minister and the relevant municipality would have to sign a deal defining the joint operation of a theatre, including how to appoint its director, but this agreement “has to guarantee the artistic freedom of the theatre”, the bill says.

Since Orban won power in 2010, his right-wing Fidesz party has rewritten Hungary’s constitution, gained control of state media, and businessmen close to the prime minister and the party have built empires.

After winning a 2018 election, his third in a row, Orban said he had won a “mandate to build a new era”.

A government spokesman told Reuters on Friday that a recent sexual harassment case at a Budapest theatre made the changes necessary as the government currently has no power to sack the director of the theatre involved. [nL8N28G3SL]

(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Gareth Jones)