BUDAPEST: A Hungarian state honour given to a prominent journalist close to Prime Minister Viktor Orban but seen by his critics as "racist" has prompted several dozen recipients of the same award to return theirs in protest.
The journalist Zsolt Bayer was one of several Hungarian citizens handed an Order of Merit of the Knight's Cross by President Janos Ader on Thursday, to mark one of Hungary's national days.
By late yesterday, according to Hungarian media, some 44 previous recipients of the decoration including scientists, artists and academics, had declared they were returning their own awards in protest.
An occasional columnist for the right-wing Magyar Hirlap daily, Bayer has often been photographed in Orban's company, and co-founded a civil group that has organised massive pro-government street demonstrations.
He has in the past compared the Roma people, Hungary's 600,000- to 700,000-strong largest minority group, to "animals", and written remarks deemed anti-Semitic in a country with a Jewish community estimated at over 100,000.
The head of Hungary's largest Jewish organisation Mazsihisz, Andras Heisler, said he too was handing back his award given to him in 2011 as he did not want to belong to the same "group of people" as Bayer.
The journalist "is a racist, an anti-Semite, who pollutes Hungary with his incandescent Gypsy-hatred and nation-destroying ideas," Heisler wrote in a Facebook message yesterday.
In 2013 the Magyar Hirlap newspaper was fined around USD 1,000 by Hungary's media regulator for publishing Bayer's anti-Roma comments.
"They are not suitable for being among people. Most are animals, and behave like animals," the journalist wrote at the time.
Bayer's award was given for his work with a body representing victims of Communism, Orban's office said in a weekend statement, adding that there were no plans to withdraw the honour.
Bayer was also decorated however for his "exemplary journalistic activity," according to the government's official legal gazette Magyar Kozlony published late yesterday.
Bayer himself said he didn't understand why other recipients were giving up their awards and that his quotes were misinterpreted and taken out of context.
"I don't really get how people can be so shut off in their own closed, narrow, sad worlds," he told a television news programme in reaction to the protests.