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Hungarian actors protest plan to boost control over theaters

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungarian actors and directors rallied Monday to oppose government plans seen as boosting political control over theaters. Legislation presented in parliament would give state authorities a bigger say in designating directors at municipal theaters that receive central state funding.

The bill is significantly shorter and narrower in scope than government plans for much of the culture sector leaked last week that drew condemnation from across the cultural landscape. Speaking at the rally in downtown Budapest, Bela Pinter, director of a popular independent theater company, said that in light of the modified draft, he had rewritten his speech by replacing exclamation marks with question marks.

“The Hungarian government isn't going to eliminate the annual financing of independent theaters after all?” Pinter said to the crowd of a few thousand people. "From the day the new law enters into force, we independents are still going to get a few pennies from taxpayers' money?”

Renowned actor and director Tamas Jordan highlighted criticism of the government's plans by the leadership of the Hungarian Academy Of Arts, which is close to the Orban government. “In decisions about important professional questions, it's possible to rise above political points of view,” Jordan said.

Still, critics view the bill as a new effort by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government to stifle independence in the arts. The legislation says that the “basic expectation” of cultural activities covered by the law is that they “actively protect the interests of the nation's survival, well being and growth.”

The government said the new rules would create transparency and predictability in theater financing, while creating a “totally clear situation” where the theater's operation is the responsibility of the financial backer.

Culture in Hungary is heavily subsidized by the state, with museum, opera and theater tickets, for example, generally much cheaper than in Western Europe. At the same time, few municipalities have the means to finance their theaters and often rely on government funds for their upkeep.

Speakers at the rally also rejected as misleading and prejudicial one of the government's belated arguments for a new law, a case of sexual harassment by a theater director that was revealed only two weeks ago, even though it happened last year.

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