- By Kavitha SuranaKavitha Surana is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She has reported from Italy, Germany, and Senegal and her stories have been published in the past by the Associated Press, Quartz, Al Jazeera, CNN, GlobalPost and OZY. She holds a joint master’s degree in journalism and European and Mediterranean studies from New York University.
A year ago Petra Laszlo, a Hungarian camerawoman working for a far-right television station, was filmed apparently kicking and tripping refugees trying to rush the Hungarian border.
After undergoing a social media onslaught of outrage — and losing her job — now she’s being indicted. But while Laszlo is at the very least chastised, if not chastened, Hungary’s hardline leader Viktor Orban is doubling down on his own hostile attitude toward refugees, and continues to spite European Union efforts to find a home for those fleeing a five-year civil war.
Last year tensions at Hungary’s border with Serbia were at a peak, as nearly 400,000 people, many fleeing the Syrian hellscape, passed through the country. That’s when the footage of Laszlo, widely shared at the time, was captured. In one shot she flails her leg and stomps as families break through a line of police, and seems to kick a young girl. In another, a policeman tries to grab a sprinting man carrying his child. As the man tumbles forward, Laszlo appears to stick out her leg, helping trip him. The video was circulated online and Laszlo was sacked from her job at N1TV within hours. She quickly apologized with an open letter in a right-wing daily newspaper, blaming the stress of trying to film a fast-moving dangerous situation.
“Something snapped in me,” she wrote. “I just thought that I was attacked and I have to protect myself. It’s hard to make good decisions at a time when people are in a panic.” She denied being motivated by racism, but also painted herself as a victim of a social-media witch hunt.
Laszlo isn’t being charged with assault or even a hate crime, but rather with disorderly conduct, specifically, “breaching the peace.” According to prosecutors, more serious charges weren’t possible because there wasn’t enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that her actions would cause injury, or that her behavior was motivated by racial hate.
The refugee Laszlo tried to trip, Osama Abdul Mohsen, a soccer coach from Syria, had a happier ending. The video was spotted by a Spanish training academy for soccer coaches and he was offered a job there. His 7-year old son even got to meet Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I don’t think much about the incident. I have a future now. But my only hope is that this helped to change [Laszlo’s] attitude towards refugees,” he told the Guardian in May.
But Hungary’s attitude might be harder to shift. After last summer’s hysteria, the country raised a razor-wire fence on the border with Serbia. Brussels also reached a deal with Turkey to limit the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe. That could explain why this summer there haven’t been any similarly publicized cases of refugee attacks by camerapeople, or anyone else.
Which isn’t to say that the tough talk and strong stance against migrant arrivals — often likened to an “invasion” in Hungarian media — is any less popular these days in Hungary. Orban’s approval ratings jumped last year after the fence was completed. In August, Orban announced plans to build a second fence on the Serbian border and increase police numbers to ensure migrants don’t get through, just in case the shaky EU-Turkey deal fails.
But while Orban might think he’s wrapped things up to the east, a new kind of border tension with Hungary’s EU neighbors to the west is rising. On Sept. 7 Austria announced it is planning to sue Hungary for refusing to accept and process returned asylum-seekers.
Orban doesn’t seem likely to backtrack without a fight — along with other central and eastern European countries, Hungary has resisted instituting the EU’s new mandatory quota system for accepting refugees, meant to spread the burden from EU border countries like Greece and Italy which have significant backlogs of would-be entrants.
On Oct. 2, the Hungarian government will hold a referendum on the EU’s quota policy. Voters are expected to overwhelmingly favor keeping immigrants out.
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