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Hungary arts university protesters defy order to end blockade

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Students at Hungary’s University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) defied an order by its chancellor to end a blockade in a row over the imposition of a government-appointed board that protesters say undermines the school’s autonomy.

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“We SZFE students reject the order to vacate the building,” a student speaker told a crowd of about 500 outside the school in Budapest. “We have reinforced the blockade and will sustain it until we are guaranteed the university’s autonomy.”

The institution, which nurtured many of Hungary’s leading directors and filmmakers, has been caught up in a culture war as Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist government seeks to reshape the cultural and scientific life of the nation.

“All university citizens must leave university facilities by the end of business today, 6 p.m. at the latest,” Chancellor Gabor Szarka wrote in a letter quoted in local media and confirmed to Reuters by students.

The standoff raises the risk of confrontation with students who have blockaded the campus for weeks, declaring a “Students’ Republic” and pledging to hold out until their demands are met.

The government appointed a new board of trustees in August to the 155-year-old SZFE, prompting its management to resign in protest.

Szarka, a former military officer appointed by the new board, said all students and staff would have to declare whether they supported the protest, with “employment consequences” for those who do.

Some prominent faculty have resigned, including Ildiko Enyedi, whose 2017 “On Body and Soul” was nominated for an Oscar and won the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Orban’s supporters and pro-government journalists have argued that, after he won a third strong mandate in 2018, it was time for a conservative cultural shift to end what they see as the domination of the arts by liberals and left-wingers.

The ruling Fidesz party changed laws to force Central European University, a major graduate institution, out of the country, and also increased government control over academic research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

But the government denies it is limiting freedom of expression. It has said the fact some universities will be governed by a board of trustees will actually eliminate state influence over them.

“Orban just wants to control everything but there is no way you can control culture,” said Emese Palos, a teacher at the protest. “These kids are artists in training. Only dictators try to indoctrinate art.”

Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Giles Elgood

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