BUDAPEST — Ever since migrants from the Middle East, the Balkans and Africa began trickling over Hungary’s borders in early 2015, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has made a name for himself as a firebrand populist by demonizing them.
But there are limits to disparaging migrants in Mr. Orban’s Hungary.
A prominent journalist discovered that last week when Hungary’s Supreme Court ruled that he had offended the dignity of the nation by describing nomadic Magyar tribesmen known for their raids across Europe a millennium ago as “stinking” migrants. The Magyars settled in the region that has become modern Hungary, and have long been a touchstone of Hungarian nationalism.
The reference to the Magyars was in a 2018 opinion piece by Arpad W. Tota published by HVG, a current affairs weekly that is one of the few remaining independent online and print news sources in Hungary. In the article, Mr. Tota lambasted Hungarian prosecutors for not pursuing an alleged case of corruption involving European Union-funded projects and a member of Mr. Orban’s family. Hungarian law enforcement officials said they found no evidence of wrongdoing.
The court ordered the removal of the text and a public apology from HVG and awarded damages of around $1,000 to two private citizens who initiated the lawsuit.
The title of the article by Mr. Tota, who has long been a vocal critic of Mr. Orban and his government, was “Hungarians Don’t Steal, They Go on Adventures,” playing on the word in Hungarian for “adventures,” which can also imply the act of raiding.
Mr. Tota said he wanted to make the point that Hungary no longer had the rule of law under Mr. Orban, who has an iron grip on the country’s politics and has steadily eroded the independence of the justice system. That meant, he said, that liberal Europe needed to be firm in addressing corruption in Hungary.
To make his point, he used the allegory of what he referred to as the “stinking Magyar migrants,” or “bandits,” who were eventually confronted and defeated by German forces at the Battle of Lechfeld in A.D. 955. It was there, Mr. Tota said in the article, that European “knights with broadswords” dismissed the Magyars’ “rules of the game and illiberal worldview.”
Upholding a lower court’s decision that the article had caused injury to the dignity of the Hungarian nation, the high court took issue with the words “stinking” and “Magyar bandits,” also making note of the pejorative connotation carried by the word “migrants.”
Tamas Gaudi-Nagy, a former far-right politician, and the attorney representing the two plaintiffs in the case, Zoltan Degi and Laszlo Racz Szabo, said in a TV interview on Friday that such “hurtful, insulting, and unacceptable” language had injured the dignity of his clients as members of the Hungarian nation, because national consciousness was so closely tied to the legacy of the Magyar tribes.
Mr. Tota disagreed, saying that the court either “became very lost in the labyrinth of literary comprehension,” or “they had the ruling before they came up with the reasoning.”
The lawsuit against Mr. Tota was a landmark case that built on two legal provisions adopted during Mr. Orban’s tenure that give legal recourse to Hungarians who feel their national identity has come under assault.
Petra Bard, a professor and researcher of E.U. law at Central European University in Budapest and Vienna, said that the law set a dangerous precedent that could be broadly applied to journalists whose writings on politics were deemed provocative.
“There is certainly a danger of it having a chilling effect,” Professor Bard said.
Kata Nehez-Posony, HVG’s lawyer, said the publisher was still deciding whether to appeal the decision.
Mr. Tota also said that a recent initiative by the European Union, of which Hungary is a member, to tie funding from the bloc to the rule of law was a welcome one.
“It’s not knights with broadswords, but here we definitely see some pressure,” he said. Asked if he knew the two plaintiffs who initiated the lawsuit, Mr. Tota said he didn’t. “They’re probably adventurous Magyars,” he added.