Renewed attack on the Hungarian media: freedom of the press is at stake

As I was settling down to write this post, a large demonstration in Budapest was just coming to an end. It was organized by journalists who protested the sudden firing of the editor-in-chief of Origo, one of the best and most widely read internet newspapers. Gergő Sáling, the editor in question, has been working for Origo for twelve years, but it was only in November 2013 that he was named editor-in-chief of the paper. Why did the owner of Origo, Magyar Telekom, decide to sack Sáling? Origo has the reputation of being an independent site that views Hungarian politics in a critical manner. But rumor has it that pressure was put on Origo to change its government-critical posture, and as a result editors-in-chief have come and gone lately. It seems that Sáling was not pro-government enough. In fact, he made the mistake of allowing András Pethő, one of the journalists at Origo, to investigate the latest Lázár affair.

The sign says "Is it still possible to bark?" Source: Klubrádió

The sign says “Is it still possible to bark?” Source: Klubrádió

The Origo affair is only the tip of the iceberg. Since winning two elections in a row, Fidesz and the Orbán government have decided to attack the remaining remnants of Hungarian democracy with full force. Besides the NGOs, their other target is the media. This time, however, they may have gone too far. Something unexpected happened. Even right-wing journalists joined liberals to oppose the latest plans to silence critical voices.

A new bill was submitted for consideration to levy heavy taxes on media outlets’ advertising revenues. The new bill proposes taxes on all such revenues but on a sliding scale. Those outlets with the largest advertising revenues would have to pay a tax of 40%. The bill seems to have been aimed at RTL Klub, the largest foreign-owned commercial television station in Hungary. The other important commercial station is TV2, but it seems it would be spared the 40% levy. You may remember that TV2 was recently purchased by mysterious buyers suspected of being closely connected to Fidesz. So, the first reaction was that the Orbán government wants to eliminate TV2’s only serious competitor by financially ruining RTL Klub. The management of the television station claims that if they are forced to pay such a hefty sum on their advertising revenues, they might as well close their doors. Soon enough they will be bankrupt. In fact, RTL estimated that its share of the ad tax would be about 4.5 billion forints, nine times its 2013 profits.

The story might not be so simple, however, because it looks as if TV2’s management is also up in arms and ready to join RTL Klub’s protest. I also heard rumors that even HírTV might join them. That may be only a rumor, but today’s Magyar Nemzet came out with a scathing editorial on the advertising tax. Péter Csermely, deputy editor-in-chief of the paper, viewed the bill as a bald political move: “the two-thirds indeed wants to step on the throat of freedom of the press.” Strong words from Csermely who normally on the P8 program makes Fidesz politicians look good with his softball questions. In his opinion, taxing advertising revenues makes no sense whatsoever because the central budget will receive only nine billion forints from this new tax while every ten forints spent on advertising adds fifty forints to the GDP. So, he came to the conclusion that the proposed tax is meant to put a lid on free speech and the press.

But that is not all. László L. Simon, the Fidesz member of parliament who proposed, or more precisely lent his name to, the bill, threatened that further taxes, this time on internet social media, will be introduced. And speaking of the internet, a few days ago the Constitutional Court came to the conclusion that comments attached to articles are the responsibility of the publishers. This ruling may mean that online newspapers will no longer allow readers’ comments.

But let’s return to the Lázár affair that ended with the firing of the editor-in-chief of Origo. Some time ago, one of the journalists at Origo went to court because the prime minister’s office refused to give out details about secret trips János Lázár took. The courts backed transparency and the law and ruled that the details of the trips, rumored to be very lavish, must be revealed. The prime minister’s office reluctantly obliged. It turned out that the cost of these trips exceeded the wildest imaginations of the journalists. In November 2912 Lázár spent three days in London. The bill was 920,000 forints. In March 2013 he spent two days in Switzerland that cost 469,000 forints just for lodgings. In July he traveled to Italy, again for only two days, which cost the taxpayers 582,000 forints. Upon further probing, Origo found out that the bill totaling 1.97 million forints for these three trips actually covered the expenses of two people.

Lázár was incensed. He wrote a snotty “reply to the article of origo.hu” and posted it on the webpage of the prime minister’s office. The letter included such sentences as: “I am glad that the independent Hungarian courts find it important to get acquainted with my traveling habits.” Or “Appreciating the unbiased, objective, and correct reporting and valuing the journalist’s work in the defense of the Hungarian budget, I decided to renounce the travel allowance that I am entitled to.” He specifically mentioned András Pethő’s name, adding that he would like to make his day with this gesture. One’s immediate reaction is: if Lázár was entitled to the travel allowance, why is he returning the money?

We still don’t know much about the nature of these trips, but it was reported in the media that the persons who accompanied Lázár were “interpreters.” That is curious because, according  his official biography, he speaks both German and English.

Today we found out a few more tidbits, at least about the trip to London. According to Zsolt Gréczy, the spokesman for the Demokratikus Koalíció who gave a press conference on the subject, Lázár stayed at the Crowne Hotel, the most expensive accommodations in London. Apparently, that is the favorite hotel of members of the Hungarian government. Lázár’s job, it seems, was to convince the British to allow a meeting of Viktor Orbán with David Cameron. In fact, Viktor Orbán hoped that Cameron would come to Budapest to demonstrate his support of the Hungarian prime minister. DK learned, however, that Lázár completely botched his negotiations in the Foreign Office and in the end Szijjártó had to be sent to London to straighten things out.

And a final note. The reporter for the official Hungarian telegraphic agency, MTI, was present at the press conference. In fact, he even addressed a question to Zsolt Gréczy. However, MTI chose not to report on the event. That means that the details DK unearthed will get to very few newspapers and online outlets because they all receive MTI news free of charge. I read about it in Népszavabecause one of its reporters was there. This would not be the first time that the MTI management decides not to publish reports that do not reflect well on the Orbán government. So much for transparency and truth.

The free Hungarian media is under renewed attack, but it seems that this time even pro-Fidesz journalists are ready to stand by their colleagues on the other side of the great divide in Hungarian politics. They seem to realize, as Benjamin Franklin famously said, that “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

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steve397
Guest

I can see a very good comment in connection with the sacking of Origo’s editor in Facebook:

“Re: The sacking of Sáling Gergő. When a journalist or his editor is sacked for discovering and printing a report which is true but shows the regime to be a fault or subject to criticism, democracy is dead and buried and the country is beyond redemption while it’s dictatorial government exists.”

I must admit that I wrote this comment, but I feel quite safe, they cannot sack me!

Lajos
Guest

The national TV and MTVA also did not report on the demonstration. The Kazakh president in town so they had to prioritize the programming time.

Lajos
Guest

New conference in Budapest, it is apparently for real.

http://zentropista.tumblr.com/post/87712734304

Democratic Eagle Action Koalition
Guest
Democratic Eagle Action Koalition

When will the ueber-cabinet of the real shakers and movers sack orban?

tappanch
Guest

There will be a second tax bill, hitting intermediaries of media commercials. This tax will also affect RTL a great deal.

http://hvg.hu/kkv/20140604_Mi_jon_a_reklamado_utan_ez_lehet_a_masodi

romcsek
Guest
The full frontal assault on the Hungarian media scene is now starting in earnest. There is a master plan, only the clueless leftist/liberal people cannot imagine that because they never had any vision or plan about anything. But on the right-wing there is meticulous planning and long-term vision. And insatiable hungriness for more power, more control, more money. Somehow the leftists seem to me content, not hungry enough. Anyway. Fidesz is not yet ready with the takeover of the Hungarian media. It is only getting started. They are not content with owning some 90% of the entire Hungarian media market. They will not be satisfied until they own or control everything except for a few token media outlets (such as blogs or declining print media) which have no way of reaching undecided voters. They are close to the limit after which there is literally nothing to be had, but they are not satisfied because they want to own the media agencies, Lapker, origo.hu what have you. The Norwegians story will continue according to plan too, until Fidesz cannot gain control over the decisions of the subsidies it will not stop. The real fight will only start now. You ain’t seen… Read more »
D7 Democrat
Guest

Genuine conservatives (as opposed to the Nazis, opportunists, Mafioso & all-round nutjobs which makes up a large proportion of Fidesz representatives and support) sincerely believe that Orban is one of them.

They are wrong. He believes in only one thing and that is Viktor Orban.
He is not one of them, he is merely a corrupt, quite possibly mentally unbalanced, thug out to build a country in his image.

If it is in his interest to intimidate and destroy a conservative journalist, he will do so in the blink of an eye, perhaps the fact that so many on the right joined the demo proves that fact is slowly sinking in. Or perhaps they all just hate the intimidator-in-chief Lazar, which is also a strong possibility.

tlop
Guest

D7 Democrat:

Orbán is against “the communists and liberals”. This is what matters only to “genuine conservatives” (an empty set, there are no such people, they only exist in the dreams of leftist people). Because on this stance depends Hungary’s future. The survival of the nation.

So he is good as any leader, otherwise the communists are coming back and recreate communism or, worse, the liberals are coming back and certain men with beards will create homosexuals from our children. Not good.

Nobody cares about philosophical issues, what matters is that he is saving us. The liberals and the leftists cannot save us, in fact they want to sell us, expose us even more to the decadent West. Not good either.

Ska
Guest

“But rumor has it that pressure was put on Origo to change its government-critical posture, and as a result editors-in-chief have come and gone lately. ”

Origo is not an independent company, it is a part of Deutsche Telekom, a German company. Deutsche Telekom has assets of 100 billion dollars and in 15% owned by Germany itself. 100 billion dollars is bigger than the whole Hungarian GDP, so any suggestion that such a company can be influenced by anyone from within Hungary is very strange.

If we believe that individuals have so much influence than… what can possibly the Bilderberg Group do then? What should people believe about Bilderberg? That they only meet to discuss the weather?

Guest

“This time, however, they may have gone too far.” Sorry to say Eva but if you look at what Fidesz has been doing since they came back to power in 2010, the list of decisions they made would have resulted in heavy protests if not the demise of the government in any other country. Fidesz will get away with this once more — and the many times yet to come.

hokedli58
Guest
@ska: Why would it be impossible to believe that they can be influenced? They can be, suffice it so say that everybody is shitting in their pants at Magyar Telekom that the telecom (utility) tax rate will be increased or some other tax will be introduced or their frequencies will be taken back by the government and so on. The Germans who are anyway extremely easy to influence have been getting the not so vague references about the wishes of the government for years. Talk to people who work there. They are afraid for their jobs, and they are especially afraid that the Germans will sell the company to Simicska (who would buy the company from loans provided by Matolcsy or from the Development Bank) who is ready to gobble any and everything. It’s a time-honored method: bleed the company out, buy it cheaply and then when Simicska buys it through some strohmen from loans provided by Matolcsy somehow the special tax will be eliminated so that company with the increased profits can pay back the loan in no time. This is how pros do it. It is extremely easy to influence corporations. If there is one thing Orban realized,… Read more »
tappanch
Guest

A founding member of origo.hu’s board has resigned because the owners fired the chief editor for political reasons.

http://444.hu/2014/06/04/gyorgy-peter-alapito-18-ev-utan-otthagyja-az-origot/

petofi
Guest

“Deja vu all over again…”
Much as in 1956, it will have to be the students who must lead a charge if there is to be one…simply because they have no jobs to lose!

So, if there’s anyone to stand up for the country it better be the students and it better be now.

HiBoM
Guest

It is counter intuitive that pressure can be exerted on such a large company and we are very much observers looking from a distance. But I do know that Attila Mong, who was kicked out of Hungarian Radio for protesting the media law, went to Origo and departed from there not too long after feeling precisely that he was coming under political pressure, which is why he is now at Átlátszó. So I do believe that pressure is exerted although in Origo’s defense, I think until now it has done a pretty good job. And although Éva Balogh seems convinced that Index is “right wing” and is owned by a dubious figure, it too has provided a reasonably good service over the last four years. Neither have been pressured to the point of being “pro-government” and what we see are occasional omissions.

petofi
Guest

The situation is very interesting: what happens next will tell us who is really in charge.
Orban’s tendency is to fight back and humble the opposition. But now the demonstration is led by students–in fact, most in the picture are young–and therefore Orban and the government doesn’t have the customary leverage of threatening their jobs. So, if the powers-that-be are other than Orban, the call will go out to appease the crowd and dump Lazar. Later the ring-leaders (and surely they’ve been filmed already and the private services know who they are) will
be dealt with…in time. But not now.

So, let’s see what happens to Lazar…

HiBoM
Guest

Petofi, I think you are being melodramatic. 1000 people, true, but they aren’t lobbing bricks, smashing windows, being in anyway threatening. If it was a 100 000, and if they were angry and disruptive, then yes, there might just be some sort of reaction from Orbán. But until that happens, I think this is largely irrelevant. But it is interesting that people have actually reacted with a degree of spontaneity

szabszi
Guest

I agree with HiBoM except the number of peoples which made Orban and his gang to do something (and it is time to face the problem if Fidesz could win the election with 2/3 result then it won’t never happen). I think it’s a shame of the Hungarian people/society that only approx 1000/few thousand people joined to the demonstration and there are no more demonstrations on every day.

tappanch
Guest

Video from the demonstration against firing the chief editor of origo.hu:

Guest

@HiBoM:

“has provided a reasonably good service over the last four years. Neither have been pressured to the point of being “pro-government” and what we see are occasional omissions.”

Are you serious? Just read your own sentence again …

“occasional omissions” …
“reasonably good” …
No pressure – of course not, the people know what to do and what displeases Orbán …

HiBoM
Guest

Wolfi, if you live in Hungary, you live in an imperfect world (although that is true for most people anywhere.) And my argument is that overall, Origo and Index have done a good job throughout the last four years, given the prevailing conditions. Of course, things could be better but they could also be very much worse. And in my judgement, Origo and Index have relatively little to be ashamed about, which is more than can be said for most outlets.

Tyrker
Guest

Looks like Deutsche Telekom will have to answer a few inconvenient questions.
I understand the German press is free…

D7 Democrat
Guest
“This is what matters only to “genuine conservatives” (an empty set, there are no such people, they only exist in the dreams of leftist people)” Tlop, So that only leaves the ” Nazis, opportunists, Mafioso & all-round nutjobs” supporting and working for Fidesz? I would take a more optimistic view; they may be a small minority but there are Fidesz representatives and supporters who are not completely rotten and they may be actually quite influential. Which takes me back to the demo… Orban and his cohorts work on the primitive notion that whilst democrats can only bring a 1,000 or so peaceful folk onto the street he can mobilse hundreds of thousands- fair enough, a large part of that number are simply there for an all-expenses-paid day out in the capital, some are pure bewildered OAPs corralled by the local village Boss, but still… he does have the street numbers when he needs them. Democrats don’t. Similarly democrats, by and large, don’t go on the rampage, breaking windows, kicking police dogs, burning cars to prove a point. That is near enough the sole preserve of the Orban/Jobbik Right in Hungary- it is part of their DNA, hateful destruction. And generally… Read more »
tappanch
Guest

Orban has answered the letter of the 30 members of Congress.

Let me summarize: He wants the Nazi eagle memorial. Period.

http://index.hu/belfold/2014/06/04/orban_valaszolt_az_amerikai_zsido_szenatoroknak/

Tlop
Guest
D7 Democrat: that is your list, not mine. There’s a lot of voters how don’t fall into categories, they just hate “communists” and “liberals”. That is how they were brought up, that is the local tradition. Or they are essentially oppressed people who have to conform to the perceived (and thus real in a self-fulfilling way) majority. And so on. You don’t need to be a mafioso to like utility price cuts, which most people see as a sign that finally politics is also about the little people (and like the dough). They may be conservative as most Hungarians are compared to Western Europe, but not necessarily. All I am saying is that the non-Orbanist conservative (the equivalent of a FAZ reader Merkel voter from Frankfurt a. M.) who will exert influence on Orbán to behave like any normal person does not exist in Hungary. Each and every one of the supposedly moderate (at least all foreign observers deluded themselves into thinking so) fideszniks from Navracsics to Trócsányi to Martonyi to Simon L. to you name it, are still 100% loyal to Orbán. They still do not have the slightest issues with Orbán or any of his policies. There is… Read more »
buddy
Guest

@Ska “Origo is not an independent company, it is a part of Deutsche Telekom, a German company. Deutsche Telekom has assets of 100 billion dollars and in 15% owned by Germany itself. 100 billion dollars is bigger than the whole Hungarian GDP, so any suggestion that such a company can be influenced by anyone from within Hungary is very strange. ”

It’s not strange at all, and if you believe this then you have a very poor understanding of how the world really works.

In short, Deutsche Telekom and its shareholders don’t care who the chief editor of origo.hu is. Why would they? They only care if the site makes money for them or not.

So if someone powerful in the Hungarian government is in a huff based on something written on the site, that potentially threatens their ability to make money. No problem, get rid of the editor, everybody’s happy.

It’s very simple – in the end it’s all about money and not nearly as conspiratorial as you make it out to be. Most things aren’t, in fact.

Member

Regarding
buddy
June 4, 2014 at 7:42 am

I wholeheartedly agree. I was just about to say the same. Just like the stock market the Deutsche Telekom does not give a hoot of “small” political plays. Their responsibility is the return on investment. Does anyone thinks that the head of the company has any personal interest vested Origo?

Guest

Just a reminder:

In its last report (May 2014) freedomhouse considered Hungary’s press “partly free” and wrote:

“Lowest-scoring EU members: Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece”

http://www.freedomhouse.org/blog/freedom-press-facts-and-figures#.U48hxXY0_Kc

So what will they write next year?

RoniR
Guest

This poem in Hungarian was written by a Junior Prima prize winner journalist currently working (for the time being, I guess one can say) at origo.hu. Mind you, this is a rather obscene work of poetic freedom, but pretty, pretty, pretty spot on.

http://digidugi.tumblr.com/post/87791709450/lazar-janos-te-utolso-goreny-seggbekurasban

petofi
Guest

@ tappanch

re: Congressional letter

I’m sure the letter-writers expected this answer. They must be aware that Orban ‘feeds’ on these king of requests, but they felt they had to go on the record; and to shine a light on Orban’s shenanigans. And it’s high time, too.

pintschee
Guest
Let’s make something clear because it seems Westerners just don’t get it how things work in the East. The very facts that Lázár successfully commanded Deutsche Telekom into total submission (i.e. the latter’s representatives are openly denying facts which even their colleagues acknowledge and have been talking about in private) and made them do things they would never have dared to do in their home country (i.e. fire an editor in chief after governmental pressure, and especially after the publication of articles which were written from info gained after a legal victory against said government official) in themselves justify to Lázár his actions. Lázár and his minions emphatically hate Western companies (as well as countries) which hypocritically preach about best practices and suchlike and then eventually always enter into all kinds of shameful compromises which are obvious even to the most uneducated and dumb observers. Lázár and Orbán only respect toughness and ruthlessness, the kind of power play Putin is good at. Or sometimes the Americans too, when they just drop the bombs and don’t give a sh**t. The very fact that these European corporations always, without fail, betray their supposedly embraced modern and haughty enlightment values (I remember one… Read more »
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