In September 2015, the day after Hungary sealed its southern border with Serbia at the height of the refugee crisis, Hungarian riot police and commandos from its counter-terrorism center (TEK) clashed with a large group of largely defenseless asylum seekers, including women and children, at the border town of Röszke. Scores were injured, some seriously, and many asylum seekers were arrested.
The Hungarian government attempted to justify the actions of the police and TEK forces as “lawful and proportionate”. But eyewitness reports, photo and video evidence contradict the government’s version of events, leading many to claim there was a “whitewash” of the “Battle of Röszke.”
Among the critics of the police operation are a number of journalists who were present. One such journalist is Jacek Tacik, a Polish reporter for news station TVN24, who was beaten and arrested that day by Hungarian riot police. He, along with Australian photojournalist Warren Richardson and one other foreign journalist who were beaten and arrested, was held in the southern Hungarian city of Szeged for hours, and denied the right to contact their respective embassy. He was later accused of striking an officer, and charged with illegal border crossing. The charges were eventually dropped.
An independent investigation
The Leipzig-based European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) has demanded a full investigation into the beating and arrest of journalists in what it calls an “extremely serious incident,” reports Népszabadság. The organization wrote a letter to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in April, stating it is “appalled and alarmed” that the government had not launched its own investigation into what happened.
In lieu of an official investigation conducted by Hungary, the ECPMF conducted its own fact-finding investigation this Spring. The report states that
“The foreign media workers were assaulted in daylight without any prior warnings while doing their work by covering the events at the border. They were clearly identified with badges or with journalistic equipment and according to testimony of the victims the police did not stop beating them even after they made clear they were members of the press.”
The group maintains that the police unlawfully and unjustifiably violated the journalists’ freedoms.
Interior Minister Sándor Pintér responded to ECPMF’s letter several weeks ago by rejecting the results of the organization’s investigation. He denies that the Hungarian police forces beat journalists, and insists that police used “necessary and proportional use of force against members of an aggressive group” which used “life-threatening and serious injury-causing means to constantly attack the border, the European Union’s outer border, and the police protecting it.”
Journalist and ECPMF Supervisory Board chair Balázs Nagy Navarro, who took part in the investigation earlier this year, has demanded on behalf of the organization that the police come up with facts and video evidence to subsantiate their claims of what happened in Röszke. The ECPMF has asked the police to substantiate their version of events with evidence. Nagy Navarro warns that if Hungarian authorities fail to give satisfactory explanations, his organization will resort to legal prosecution.
A full transcript of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom’s letter to Prime Minister Orbán appears below.
Leipzig, 14 April 2016
Dear Prime Minister Viktor Orban,
We are writing this letter to you based on the results of our fact finding mission which investigated the serious violation of media freedom and the assault on foreign press workers by Hungarian police in September 2015 at the Roszke-Horgos 2. Hungarian-Serbian border crossing.
We are appalled and alarmed by the fact that in a member state of the European Union such a serious incident has not been investigated at all by the relevant authorities or by your government.
Therefore, we are asking you to initiate a thorough investigation of the assault and to bring to justice those responsible for the violation of press freedom and for violating the personal integrity of the assaulted media workers.
As you know at Roszke on 16 September 2015 Hungarian riot police and members of the Hungarian special anti-terrorist unit TEK assaulted foreign media workers, among them journalists, causing serious injuries while dispersing a huge crowd of refugees who tried entering Hungarian territory.
The foreign media workers were assaulted in daylight without any prior warnings while doing their work by covering the events at the border. They were clearly identified with badges or with journalistic equipment and according to testimony of the victims the police did not stop beating them even after they made clear they were members of the press.
Our fact finding committee spoke personally to 6 victims, three press workers from the Serbian Public Television, one Polish and one Slovakian journalist and the Hungary based Australian photographer Warren Richardson. His photograph, made at the border depicting refugees passing a baby through the barbed wire, has recently won the World Press Photo Award 2015 for the best photo.
Warren Richardson had been taking pictures when members of the Hungarian anti-terrorist unit started beating him alongside refugees whom they tried to push back from the border fences. He was later detained and taken to custody and accused of illegal border crossing along with a Polish television correspondent who suffered serious head injuries and a young female Slovakian journalist who was also beaten up by the police. The three detainees were later released and the Hungarian police dropped all charges against them.
As the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom we find it unacceptable that your government, instead of investigating the assault on foreign journalists, declared that the police action was lawful and carried out professionally and even started blaming the victims for being irresponsible in not leaving the territory where the police had been using coercive measures.
We also find it very worrisome that the public media has been covering the incident and the refugee crisis in a totally biased, unbalanced way. Instead of making objective reporting it has been merely repeating or supporting your government policy line with regard to the problem.
We urge you to respect freedom of the press as one of the core values of any democratic society and a fundamental cornerstone of the European Union.
We also ask you to prove with actions – not just with words – that your government considers the freedom of media to be a vital right and defends this fundamental right and the rights of press workers whenever they are under threat or attacked.
Chair, ECPMF Executive Board
Balazs Nagy Navarro
Chair, ECPMF Supervisory Board