Category Archives: Hungary

Further restrictions on freedom of information in illiberal Hungary

The Hungarian government has been dissatisfied with the current provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Already in 2013 the government tried to limit ordinary citizens’ access to public information, but that attempt failed since it was obviously unconstitutional. Now, two years later, the Ministry of Justice has come up with a new scheme.

Up until now, a person requesting data of public interest had to pay only photocopying fees. In practice, that meant that a few days after the request was submitted the appropriate government office informed the applicant of the approximate copying charge and asked whether he was still interested in pursuing the matter. But now, if parliament passes a series of amendments Justice Minister László Trócsányi submitted, the interested citizen will have to pay the complete cost of the release of the documents. What is included in the “complete cost” is not spelled out. Certainly not merely copying costs. As 444.hu semi-jokingly said: “Who knows? It might also include the price of electricity.” Moreover, there is no provision to tell the information seeker ahead of time about the possible cost. It may happen that the bill is millions of forints, which NGOs or investigative journalists are not prepared to pay. This amendment itself might be unconstitutional, since the constitution states that “assurance of freedom of information is the duty of all government organs.”

But that’s not all. Another amendment distinguishes between ordinary government documents and copyrighted documents. The latter cannot be copied and given out to seekers of information; they can only be shown to the interested person. On the surface, this practice seems defensible–until we take a look at a specific case. I’m thinking of the billions the government spent on studies prepared by the associates of the pro-government think tank Századvég. Initially the prime minister’s office that ordered the studies refused to release them, appealing to copyright laws. The newspaperman pursued the case, went to court, and won. If the amendment is passed, the government will put a stop to this practice.

The amendment would also modify laws governing data that are still being considered by the government in such a way that any data that might be the basis for future decisions couldn’t be released. For all intents and purposes, all data would be under government protection.

In addition, there is a fudge-factor sentence that allows the government to prevent the public from accessing material that it doesn’t want to be revealed. “If so much extra work is required of the employees that they are prevented from taking care of their major duties, the request might not be fulfilled completely.”

For some reason the government wants these amendments to become law as soon as possible. Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, who originally asked László Kövér to make sure that parliament would be prepared to vote on the amendments in October, wrote a new letter in which he asked for immediate discussion of Trócsányi’s proposals. Naturally, Kövér readily agreed. Parliament will most likely vote on the amendments on Monday.

Being able to ask the government how it spends taxpayer money is an important instrument of democracy. For example, people have the right to know how much the government spends on anti-refugee billboards or how much János Lázár’s trips abroad cost. Given the Fidesz government’s track record, it’s no wonder that Viktor Orbán, his oligarchs, and corrupt government officials are greatly bothered by the uncomfortable questions posed by NGOs or investigative journalists. HVGs take on the issue is that the Trócsányi amendments serve to cover up widespread fraud and corruption.

piggy bank2

Four anti-corruption organizations–Transparency International Magyarország, K-Monitor, Átlátszó.hu, and Energiaklub–are trying to stop the proposed changes in the law. They jointly wrote to László Trócsányi, to the Authority of National Data Protection and Freedom of Information, and to members of parliament to protest the move. Attila Péterfalvi, president of the Authority of National Data Protection, originally found nothing wrong with the proposed amendments, claiming that eventually the practice of obtaining data would be satisfactorily solved. A few days later, however, he changed his mind and released a statement in which he emphasized that “acquiring data of public interest is a constitutional right, the great achievement of the regime change, the guarantee of democratic rule of law, and the control of public spending.” It is hard to know at the moment what Péterfalvi’s next move will be.

Transparency International released a statement in which they called the law vague and one that severely restricts access to information. They also pointed out that the newly amended law will “create a serious risk that corruption by public officials will go unchecked.” Transparency International believes that government offices cannot charge more than a nominal fee when people would like to find out how their taxes are being spent. Anna Koch, director of Europe and Central Asia at Transparency International, fears that “the government is quickly pushing Hungary toward full state control of public information.” The vote will be tomorrow, and I have no doubt that it will pass.

A week of events organized by the Budapest Pride began last night

After the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling, many well-known personalities, including Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook and Hillary Clinton on Twitter, displayed the rainbow flag to show their delight with the decision. This is how the resident of the White House showed his support for the American gay community.

white house

And in Hungary? Only about a month before the historic Supreme Court decision, Viktor Orbán announced that “Hungary is a tolerant nation” but that “tolerance … does not mean that we would apply the same rules for people whose life style is different from our own.” He expressed his gratitude to the Hungarian homosexual community “for not exhibiting the provocative behavior against which numerous European nations are struggling.” What exists now is “a peaceful, calm equilibrium” which should be maintained because otherwise anti-gay feelings will flare up.

The message was obvious: don’t rock the boat because there might be adverse consequences. Magyar Narancs summarized Orbán’s message well: “A Hungarian doesn’t harass anyone, unless he is forced to harass him in a tolerant manner with mercy in his heart.” In fact, Hungarian gays and lesbians suffer discrimination and harassment even without any “provocative behavior.”

So, let’s see how Fidesz politicians reacted to the news of the Supreme Court decision. The occasion was ignored by everyone except Máté Kocsis, mayor of District VIII of Budapest, and Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman. These two decided to cover their pictures on Facebook with the colors of the Hungarian flag.

kocsis-kovacs

What  kind of a message did these two want to convey? That a real Hungarian cannot be gay? Or, to flip the sentence and the emphasis, that gays cannot be truly Hungarian? Or, if I were feeling charitable, I might say that these two are just a bit confused. I doubt, however, that Kocsis is confused. Lately, he has been far too eager to prove to the world that talk of his alleged homosexuality is unfounded. As a result, he has sunk to the level of disgusting homophobia.

The only refreshing exception was the wife of Antal Rogán, the leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, who decided to follow the example of many foreign celebrities and use the colors of the rainbow over her portrait on Facebook. The president of the Rainbow Mission Foundation immediately wrote her a letter and expressed the homosexual community’s appreciation of the gesture. She also extended an invitation to her and her husband, “if his schedule permits,” to the opening of the Budapest Pride Festival which took place yesterday. As far as I know, they didn’t attend.

We shouldn’t be surprised that homophobic skinheads and football hooligans take pleasure in taunting the mixed crowd of gays and their straight supporters at the annual parade along Andrássy Street when the mayor of Budapest, István Tarlós, doesn’t hide his antagonism toward the gay community. Only yesterday I wondered whether Viktor Orbán is really unaware of the fact that in better circles his racism and xenophobia are considered unacceptable and his behavior unbecoming, boorish, or much worse. In the case of István Tarlós there is no question: he is not at all ashamed that he is a homophobic boor. In fact, he advertises it. And yes, he is a boor.

On June 4 Tarlós was the guest on an early morning TV2 program called Mokka. Earlier Napi Gazdaság had reported that there was a possibility that the Budapest city council would move the Pride Parade from Andrássy Street to Budapesti Nagybani Piac, a wholesale marketplace almost 15 km away from Andrássy Street. So, the reporter wanted to know more about this alleged plan to move the Pride Parade to the outskirts of the city. Tarlós was happy to share his thoughts on the subject. Yes, he would like to move the parade somewhere else because “it is unworthy of the historic district of Andrássy Street.” In addition, he shared his “private opinion” that he finds the idea “unnatural” and gays “repulsive.” The brave reporter said not a word.

It seems that Tarlós is not familiar with the limits of the city council’s authority. Determining a demonstration’s location is not its job. Moreover, as TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, argued, a public official cannot state his “private opinion” when he appears on TV. He is the representative of the city council, and he represents every inhabitant of the city of Budapest. His public statements must be in accord with the constitution. TASZ pointed out that at the moment Tarlós cannot be held legally responsible because in the civil code “sexual orientation” is not among the qualities protected by law, like ethnic groups or people of religious communities. But perhaps, they added, such a provision should be added, especially since in Hungary there is never any political consequence of such inappropriate statements and actions.

The organizers of the Budapest Pride were outraged at the mayor’s words, and a few days later they answered the mayor by wrapping the tree trunks along Andrássy Street in rainbow colors.

szivarvany Andrassy ut

The cleaning crew most likely appeared on the scene as soon as Tarlós heard of the attempt to desecrate Andrássy Street, which in his opinion is so important to the history of the city that “repulsive” gays should not step on its pavement.

The gay community doesn’t have any backing from government circles, but twenty-five foreign embassies announced their support of Budapest Pride. I guess no one will be surprised to learn that, with the exception of Slovenia, no former socialist country is among the sponsors. I understand that several companies also offered financial help for the close to 100 cultural events planned for the next seven days. I suspect that most of them, if not all, are multinational companies.

Last night’s opening was a huge success. The very talented theater director Róbert Alföldi was the keynote speaker. A video of the event is available on YouTube:

I haven’t had time yet to watch the whole one-and-a-half hours of it, but I listened to part of a very amusing, witty speech by Zoltán Lakner, a professor of political science, whom I consider one of the keenest observers of the Hungarian political scene.

I understand that  a number of politicians from the democratic opposition were present: Gábor Fodor, Magyar Liberális Párt; Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP; Ágnes Kunhalmi and István Ujhelyi from MSZP; and Péter Juhász, vice-chairman of Együtt. Several foreign embassies were also represented.

I fear that next Saturday the gay community and their supporters will once again be harassed by Jobbik and Fidesz supporters. Should we be surprised when Fidesz politicians egg them on?

Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of the current refugee crisis

Viktor Orbán’s xenophobic anti-immigration rhetoric grows louder every day. His regular Friday interview on Magyar Rádió today was perhaps his harshest attack on outsiders. He spreads fear of those millions of Africans who will invade the European continent and destroy its civilization. This morning he stressed that although some prime ministers in the European Council think that “immigration is a good development and that it is useful for the European Union,” he is not one of them.

But the fact is that, according to a survey published a few years ago by HSBC titled “World in 2050,” Europe’s shrinking population due to its low birthrate portends “a grim future” for continental Europe. The low reproduction rate of countries like Germany (1.3), Italy (1.4), Poland (1.3), Hungary (1.3), and Spain (1.4) “doom these countries to aging crises and population decline unless they open the floodgates to immigration.” The final warning of the study is that “not since the Black Death stalked Europe in the Middle Ages have we seen populations collapse like this.”

To this, Orbán’s answer is that his outstanding leadership will turn around the Hungarian demographic trend that has been with us for about thirty years. This is yet another of his pipe dreams.

Alessandra Venturini, deputy director of the Migration Policy Center and professor of economic policy at the University of Turin, shares the opinion of the authors of the HSBC study. A couple of days ago she reiterated that Europe “cannot do without immigration” although there is a “worrying myopia” in certain circles. She had a few strong words about the lack of solidarity within the Union and predicted that the failure to recognize the need for immigration will “cost everyone dearly.” She charged some of the politicians with “a total lack of political vision.”

In the European Union few countries have fertility rates that are considered acceptable. France and Ireland lead the way with 2.1, followed by the United Kingdom with 1.9 and Sweden with 1.91. Compare that with Hungary’s 1.34, Slovakia’s 1.34, Poland’s 1.3, or the Czech Republic’s 1.4. Interestingly, these are the very countries that are most adamant about rejecting any immigration.

Viktor Orbán, in his interview this morning, alluded to the fact that at the last summit, which he described as one of his toughest, there were prime ministers who, like the economists and demographers, urged joint action on a carefully planned immigration policy that would ensure a healthy economic development for the European Union. With Viktor Orbán in the lead, the former socialist countries torpedoed any action in this direction.

Orbán indicated that there were a few critical  remarks and some bantering, but “we mustn’t be bothered by them.” Surely, no one would accuse Viktor Orbán of being sensitive to the fact that his xenophobia and barely veiled racism is not exactly comme il faut. He seems to be absolutely oblivious to the possibility that some of his fellow prime ministers might look down on him and consider his behavior unbecoming, boorish, or much worse. I also wonder whether during these meetings he can successfully hide his disdain of most of his colleagues. Because Orbán doesn’t think much of people who think that “foreign is beautiful, not problematic, not dangerous” when clearly the opposite is true. He sees the danger while others do not.

Orbán used an interesting phrase during this morning’s interview. In discussing the quota system the European Commission wanted to “foist” on the member states, he remarked that there were prime ministers who were willing “to let Brussels decide” because there is something wrong with their “vital instincts.” Perhaps their instincts are not as keen as his. Perhaps these prime ministers don’t defend the rights of their own people as vigorously as he does. His vital instincts work when he takes a firm stand. No mincing of words here: “It is I who decides whom I let into my house, into my country. I am the one who decides with whom I want to live. It will be decided here and not in the imperial center. We insist that we Hungarians will decide our own fate.”

By taking such firm stand, Hungarians are defending not only themselves and their country but the European Union as well. “Not for the first time,” he added. The reference is to the ungrateful Europe that made Hungary fight the Turkish invaders alone. And when the Turks triumphed, it heartlessly left Hungary to bleed to death and suffer under the Ottoman yoke for 150 years. Of course, this “fairy tale” has little to do with reality, but it sounds good and it fits well with the self-pitying tendencies of the Hungarian psyche.

A group of American teachers who help refugees in the Debrecen and Bicske refugee centers

How does Orbán see the refugee crisis? Although on occasion he makes fleeting remarks about “real” refugees, Orbán views the present situation as the beginning of a mass migration of long duration. Moreover, he downplays the number of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria and overstates the magnitude of the African migration. His description of the situation in Africa is simplified to the point of gross distortion. “Africans, once they learn that in the European Union one can attain a reasonable standard of living without any skills, start going. Not 100,000 but a hundred million.” The European Union’s generosity is like “sending an invitation to them.” We have to tell them straight: “This is our home, you go back home.”

This is Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of one of the most serious refugee crises in the history of Europe. Shame on him.

The growing Hungarian emigration

In the last couple of months the Hungarian media has been full not only of stories about the immigrants arriving in Hungary from the south but also about the ever-growing number of Hungarians who are packing up and leaving the country to find a better life elsewhere. Tárki, a polling company, has been following the emigration trends for a number of years, and every time they release their latest findings the headline invariably reads: “Never before have so many people considered emigration.” Tárki’s most recent results were published in May.

How many Hungarians live and work abroad? According to the last official statistics of the Central Statistical Office (KSH), their number in 2012 was 230,000. By 2013 KSH and SEEMIG (Managing Migration and Its Effects in South-East Europe) upped this number to close to 420,000. We still have no figures for 2015, but given recent trends the number of Hungarian emigrants at the moment is estimated to be somewhere between 500,000 and 800,000. In six years the rate of emigration has increased sixfold.

Tárki published a telling chart about would-be emigrants’ plans between 1993 and 2015. The chart shows that after 2010 and again after 2014 the number of people contemplating a move grew rapidly. I can’t believe that it is a coincidence that after an Fidesz victory there is a spike in the contemplated emigration rate. People could indicate several emigration plans simultaneously: short- (blue) or long-term (orange) employment, emigration on a permanent basis (grey), or all the above (yellow). In the last case the final decision would depend on the circumstances. Perhaps the most striking change happened after 2014 when those considering permanent emigration grew from 5% to 10%. In a single year. I’m almost certain that most of these people wanted to leave for political reasons, while the others are most likely “economic emigrants,” to use Viktor Orbán’s phrase.

tarki, migracio

One of the frightening aspects of Hungarian emigration statistics is the educational background of the emigrants. While only 19% of the population at home has a college or university degree, 32% of those who packed up and left were college or university educated. The reverse is true of those with only an eight-grade education. They make up 24% of the Hungarian population but only 6% of the emigrants.

Where did these 500,000-800,000 people go? Earlier most of them went to the United Kingdom, Germany, and Austria, but Hungarians are starting to discover equally inviting destinations: Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, and the Netherlands.

The Hungarian colony in London is especially large, so one of the research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences conducted a survey among them about their reasons for leaving, their satisfaction with their decision to settle in London, and finally whether they are considering returning to the country of their birth. Seventy-three percent of them said that “they have no intention of ever returning to Hungary.” Twenty-one percent answered that “perhaps within a few years” they might go back, and only 6% said that they will definitely return within a year.

János Lázár, in one of his honest moments, admitted that Hungary cannot compete with other western countries in terms of living standards and that since most of the people left Hungary for financial reasons, it is unlikely that they will abandon their well-paid jobs and return to Hungary for a great deal less money. It was therefore surprising that on April 22 the ministry of national economy launched a new program called “Come back home, young Hungarian!” The failure of this program is guaranteed. First of all, the ministry allocated only 100 million forints ($355,000), which Népszava called “laughable,” considering what the government spends on stadiums and giant posters inciting people against immigrants.

Apparently, this year the government is offering a job and a monthly stipend of 100,000 Ft for one year to 50 people. Well, at this rate, even if the program is successful, it will take a very long time to reverse the immigration trend. The government opened a website and is waiting for applicants. The problem is that government officials in charge of the program can’t agree on how many interested young, highly educated people with an excellent knowledge of English the Hungarian government is expecting. Right after launching the program, Undersecretary Sándor Czomba proudly announced that 40,000 Hungarians living abroad had registered on Facebook. Of course, this number was incorrect. Soon enough we heard that 581 people had registered for the program, and a little later it was triumphantly announced that the number had grown to 800. But this figure is misleading because the website is set up in such a way that practically no information is available without first registering.

444.hu discovered that between April 22 and June 29 only 21 people actually filled out the forms and had an interview with the organization that handles the repatriation. Today I checked the site and under “Success stories” I found a grand total of four names!

Perhaps the Hungarian government is not as eager as it pretends to be to get these expats back. A lot of people suspect that Orbán and his friends find these enterprising young men and women who are brave enough to start a new life elsewhere not especially desirable. They have lived for a number of years abroad, have learned new ways, and have most likely become critical of the oppressive presence of the Hungarian government in all facets of life.

And there might be an even more important reason why the Hungarian government doesn’t mind the large exodus that is taking place. It is the incredible amount of money that these “economic immigrants” send back home. According to a recent study, 20 million East- and Central-Europeans work in other EU countries. These migrants in 2014 sent home $28.5 billion, 10% higher than in 2013 and 31% higher than in 2012. While the average East-European migrant sent $1,700, the average Hungarian sent $5,500. This indicates to me that Hungarian expats, on the whole, have higher-paying jobs than those from other countries in the region. And if that is the case, it is unlikely that there will be great interest in the Hungarian government’s meager enticements.

BBC published a short article, “Hungary: Government seeks to lure young expats back home.” In it they report on a “counter poster” that was an answer to the government’s billboard, “If you come to Hungary you cannot take away Hungarians’ jobs.” It read: “You may safely come to Hungary, we are already working in England.”

Although the Orbán government is doing its best to turn Hungarians against the refugees who are passing through Hungary on their way to the west, Hungarians, according to the latest survey, still consider emigration a greater problem than the practically non-existent immigration.

MSZP and the Hungarian bid to host the Olympics in 2024

A new poll was published today, this time by the Nézőpont Intézet. It reaffirmed an earlier poll showing that Fidesz’s popularity is on the rise again, most likely due to the government’s misleading propaganda about the asylum seekers. The parties of the democratic opposition haven’t gained any new followers. The only surprise in the poll was that among potential voters MSZP and DK are neck to neck.

Of course, Nézőpont is not known for its political neutrality and therefore its results are suspect, but this time I wouldn’t be at all surprised if its finding that only 12% of potential voters support MSZP was accurate. The party is in disarray and the incompetence of its leadership is staggering.

By way of illustration, today I’m going to look at MSZP’s position on the Hungarian bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games.

It was just question of time: the idea of a Hungarian Olympics was bound to resurface. In 2001-2002 the first Orbán government eagerly supported the idea. A considerable amount of money was spent on feasibility studies, which naturally confirmed that nothing stood in the way of holding the games in Hungary. Luckily, Viktor Orbán lost the 2002 election, and with his defeat the idea died.

After Orbán’s victory in 2010, when the Fidesz leadership claimed that the country was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and that its economy was comparable to that of Greece, even the sports-crazed prime minister knew better than to float the idea of hosting the Olympic Games again. But as soon as there was one good year, which saw a growth rate of 3.6%, Orbán moved into action. A so-called non-political group, the Budapest Olympic Movement, was formed to promote the economic benefits of such an event. The people in this group all have ties to the government party. The president of the group is Attila Szalay-Berzeviczy, an economist and avid sportsman, whose great grandfather was the founder and the first president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee between 1895 and 1904. Szalay-Berzeviczy played a similar role in the 2001-2002 attempt to bring the Olympics to Hungary.

Unfortunately, most people have mighty little knowledge of the cost of hosting an Olympics. And their national pride swells at the very thought of being in the international spotlight for a couple of weeks. I suspect that the majority of the people, if asked, would support the idea.

Olympics 2024

Since most of the events would take place in Budapest, the city council had to vote on whether they would stand behind the games. Given the composition of the city council, it was not surprising that the final vote was 25 to 1 with one abstention. Antal Csárdi, the single LMP member of the council, voted against it, while DK’s Erzsébet Gy. Nagy abstained. That meant that the MSZP members of the council and Gergely Karácsony, the sole PM mayor in Budapest, voted with Fidesz for the Olympics. I heard Csaba Horváth’s feeble explanation of his decision, in which he called attention to the long overdue infrastructure projects that the games would bring to the capital. I haven’t seen Karácsony anywhere since.

Most people who consider the whole idea suicidal could barely recover from their surprise that MSZP would lend its name to the project. But in the next few days the number of MSZP politicians supporting Orbán’s megalomaniac idea multiplied. László Botka, MSZP mayor of Szeged, opted to follow the lead of the Budapest socialist leaders who by then included Ágnes Kunhalmi, the Budapest chairman. I used to think highly of Kunhalmi, until I heard her say that “the concept of a profitable Olympics is not well known” because the government hasn’t publicized it. A profitable Olympics? Surely, Kunhalmi didn’t spend any time reading up on the subject. The truth is that even a cursory look at economic analyses of the Olympic Games shows that, with one possible exception, they were losing propositions.

At this point, most people figured that MSZP would support the government party and vote for the bill in parliament to empower the country to proceed with its application. But then came the bombshell. Zoltán Gőgös, deputy chairman of the party, announced that the socialists would refuse to support the bill. Total chaos. Obviously, party discipline is not a socialist strength. Even members of the top leadership don’t seem to talk to each other before they speak publicly or vote on issues. When Gőgös was asked by György Bolgár how such a situation could possibly develop, Gőgös’s only answer was that no decision was made by the leadership until the issue reached parliament. Again, a feeble answer to a botched up affair. How can such a party possibly compete against a disciplined Orbán-led Fidesz?

I have neither time nor space to reproduce the government’s propaganda list of the benefits of holding the games in Hungary. But no matter what the government argues, the reality is that Olympic Games are not money-makers. Even Szalay-Berzeviczy is hard pressed to come up with an economically profitable Olympics. The one exception may be the 2012 London Olympics. Common wisdom holds that the games boosted the UK economy by £9.9bn, but not everybody agrees with this assessment. Sports economist Stefan Szymanski said that coming up with exact figures is “almost like a bit of creative accounting.” Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Resarch, said that attributing the economic growth to the Olympics was “a little far-fetched to say the least.”

The New York Times published an article titled “Does Hosting the Olympics Actually Pay Off?” The answer is no. According to the article, “there is strikingly little evidence that such events increase tourism or draw new investment. Spending lavishly on a short-lived event is, economically speaking, a dubious long-term strategy. Stadiums, which cost a lot and produce minimal economic benefits, are a particularly lousy line of business. (This is why they are usually built by taxpayers rather than by corporations.)”  The author quotes an economist who has studied the impact of sporting events, who said: “the bottom line is every time we’ve looked–dozens of scholars, dozens of times–we find no real change in economic activity.”

Another article’s author asks, “Do the Olympic Games generate profits?” And the answer: “No. Unfortunately, they do not.” And who said that? Robert Barney, head of the International Center for Olympic Studies. According to him, “no city has profited in the long run from its hosting role in a purely bottom-line sense.”

Nonetheless, there are at least three MSZP members of parliament who feel so strongly about the issue that they received exemptions from voting against the bill: Ágnes Kunhalmi, László Varga (Miskolc), and Sándor Szabó (Szeged). I wish they would spend a little time learning about the economics of the Olympic Games.

The Orbán government in action: graft and fraud

I didn’t think that I would have to return to the topic of the tobacco monopoly and concessions after writing at  least three articles on the subject in 2012 and 2013. The allocation of tobacco shop concessions became such a scandal that I hoped that the Orbán government would leave the tobacco business alone for a while. Obviously, I was wrong. In December, a new bill was submitted to parliament that was designed to eliminate tobacco wholesalers and replace them with one “retail supplier.” The original draft bill provided for two options. Either the government would set up a company for that purpose or it could call for an open tender for a 20-year concession. At this point an individual Fidesz MP introduced an amendment which “allowed the government to appoint a ‘reliable company’ for the task.” This parliamentary procedure was itself highly suspicious and what followed was even more so.

The “reliable company” actually turned out to be two companies that bid for the concession together. The British American Tobacco Hungary  (BAT), which has a factory in Pécs, and the Continental Tobacco Group, “an independent family-owned private company” that, according to its promo, supplies cigarettes and other tobacco products to 25 different countries. That’s all one can learn about this family business online. What one naturally doesn’t learn from its website is that the owner, János Sánta, is a good friend of János Lázár. Sánta’s name surfaced already during the scandal of the tobacco shop concessions when Napi Gazdaság, then still an independent daily, discovered that the final corrections on the proposal the government sent to the European Commission for approval were done by János Sánta. It turned out that Lázár relied heavily on the “advice” of Continental Tobacco all along.

Giving the whole job to a small family business would have been too obvious, so BAT, Hungary was chosen to assist the Hungarian government in this dirty deal. It cannot be a coincidence that Tamás Lánczi of Századvég, who is involved in a business venture of Árpád Habony and Arthur J. Finkelstein called Danube Business Consulting Ltd., became a board member of BAT at the end of March. Lánczi is an avid Fidesz supporter and the son of András Lánczi, an important adviser to Viktor Orbán.

cigarettes

The whole deal was done in such secrecy that the competitors of BAT and Continental were not even aware of the tender before it was a fait accompli. And the competitors can’t turn to the office that is supposed to be the watchdog of fair competition practices because the government designated the arrangement as “of strategic importance to Hungary.” Such projects cannot be questioned or investigated.

Three multinational tobacco companies–Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco, and Philip Morris–protested the decision and proposed a joint bid that included the amount they were prepared to pay for the concession. Their offer was ten times greater than that of BAT-Continental. Over twenty years, instead of 8.91 billion forints they offered 89 billion. Once the ministry of national development received the counter-offer, government officials had a very hard time explaining themselves, but they eventually settled for “the proposal being invalid and incomprehensible.” They came up with all sorts of excuses why the proposal was invalid and incomprehensible and hence couldn’t be considered, but with the exception of one–that the Hungarian government had already signed a contract with BAT-Continental–they all sounded bogus.

According to Index, the European Commission has been keeping an eye on the Hungarian government’s interference in the tobacco industry for some time. In the spring Elżbieta Bieńkowska, commissioner in charge of internal market, industry, and entrepreneurship, wanted to have details of this latest assault on private enterprise. It seems that the Hungarian government gave some kind of an explanation for what happened, but Bieńkowska and her staff were not satisfied with the answers. Index quoted the commissioner as saying that “there are other tobacco monopolies in Europe, but nowhere is it as obvious as in Hungary that only those can sell tobacco products who have good connections to the government.” She indicated that they “have to investigate the case very thoroughly.” She added that “strictly speaking we still cannot talk about corruption but it is clear that contracts and economic advantages which foreign companies enjoyed earlier now moved elsewhere.” Index had the impression that yet another infringement procedure is in the offing.

The Hungarian government reacted sharply to the Index story. The prime minister’s office released a statement in which they accused Bieńkowska of representing the interests of the multinational tobacco companies. In fact, she did something that was unprecedented: she became “the instrument of political pressure.” The government made it clear that it will fight to the bitter end, all the way to the European Court of Justice in order to win this case. Such a court case would be “a war of the multinational tobacco companies against Hungary, which is fighting against tobacco use” in defense of the public.

Meanwhile at home, János Lázár tried to explain why Hungary is in trouble in Brussels on account of the tobacco distribution concession. He announced at his press conferences last Thursday that it is Philip Morris that is behind the attacks against Hungary. He revealed that the government is planning to introduce “plain packaging” of cigarettes, as is already done in Australia. Philip Morris, he said, is upset about this change that will be introduced sometime next year. Mind you, no one had ever heard of this plan before. But that wasn’t enough. Lázár also charged Philip Morris with playing a role in anti-government protests.

I left the best to last. A few days ago the Hungarian public learned that János Sánta, the owner of Continental Tobacco Group, became part owner of Napi Gazdaság, the new government organ. The current owner of Napi Gazdaság is Gábor Liszkay, a long-time friend of Simicska and formerly part-owner of Magyar Nemzet. After Liszkay refused to follow Simicska’s demand for a more independent editorial policy, he purchased Napi Gazdaság from Századvég. Sánta apparently now has a 47% stake in the company, for which he paid 70 million forints. I guess this was the price he had to pay for his company to become the co-distributor of tobacco products.

This is how business is being conducted in Hungary. What these kinds of business practices do for Hungarian competitiveness we can only imagine. It’s no wonder that László Seres in an opinion piece expressed his fears that Orbán state capitalism with its mafia-like foundations will bury Hungarian democracy and the country’s economic well-being.

RTL Klub’s Híradó: The most popular evening news in Hungary

The Mérték Media Monitor, an institute founded by a group of young sociologists, together with Medián, a well-known polling company, has twice assessed the Hungarian public’s sources for political news. In both 2012 and this year the poll showed that the overwhelming majority (71% in 2015) of Hungarians learn about political events from the two commercial stations, RTL Klub and TV2. The internet followed with about 35%, radio with 21%, and only 5% from the print editions of dailies and weeklies.

The 71% would be an impressive figure if it meant that the respondents regularly tuned in to the evening news of these stations. Alas, this is not the case. Once a week viewing was enough to be included in the 71%.

RTL Klub’s evening news is the most popular (73%), with TV2 at 62%. RTL Klub’s change of programming last summer and fall, which included more political news, often critical of Fidesz and the government, was most likely one of the causes of the steady erosion of support for the government party and Viktor Orbán.

It is worth comparing the content of RTL Klub’s evening news in 2012 with the current coverage. For this comparison I’m fortunate to have detailed data on RTLKlub’s news in 2012 for a whole week from the popular vastagbor.blog.hu‘s “zero,” who felt like Morgan Spurlock who for a whole month ate only McDonald’s fast food for the sake of a documentary. Zero called the experiment “dangerous to your life.”

Of the 141 reports 98 were either about crime and or were human interest stories. But even the 24 so-called domestic political news stories often covered events of lesser importance. For example, during the week, zero heard once that Ferenc Gyurcsány began his hunger strike and again a couple of days later that he finished it. Zero might have been too generous when he came up with 19 reports on foreign affairs. I counted fewer, because some of the so-called foreign news items were in fact human interest stories, except that what happened occurred outside of Hungary. Reading the headlines by itself is a mind numbing experience.

RTC hirado

Well, since then quite a few things have changed around RTL Klub’s newsroom although the anchors remained the same. First of all, today the evening news is 45 minutes long, which is longer than most newscasts around the world. ATV’s “Híradó” is only 20 minutes long, although there are several newscasts during the day. The American PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) has a similarly long evening news “hour,” but they structure it differently: fewer reports but longer analyses and comments from both the left and the right.

RTL Klub’s programming is packed with news items. I counted 28 reports, including the weather, out of which only nine dealt with crime and accidents. Mind you, these stories came at the beginning of the program and lasted about 20 minutes. Interestingly enough, foreign news followed this first segment, with seven news stories, including the Greek situation and its possible effect on the Hungarian forint and the economy, Tunisia, the flood in China, the capture of the second fugitive in upper New York State, and the confrontation in Istanbul between marchers in the Gay Pride parade and the police.

The domestic scene was well covered, starting with the riot in the Debrecen refugee camp and followed by the arrest of a group of smugglers. Among the domestic news items there were at least three that might not have pleased the Fidesz activists monitoring the news. Today Lajos Kósa showed his total ignorance of the situation in countries where most of the refugees come from. He announced that in his opinion all those who illegally cross the borders of Hungary are in fact “economic migrants” because they obviously have enough money to pay the smugglers which, rumor has it, costs at least $3,000 per person. Anyone with that much money, said Kósa, could easily get on a plane and fly anywhere he wants. The only thing Kósa forgot is that one needs passports and visas for such a trip, which clearly the refugees don’t have.

Another story that might not be to the liking of the government party was the piece of news that DK (Demokratikus Koalíció of Ferenc Gyurcsány) will again demand an investigation into György Matolcsy’s failure to include two sources of income in the yearly compulsory declaration of his finances. The first time the prosecutor’s office refused to investigate because, in their opinion, that particular item “had not reached the consciousness” of the bank president for the simple reason that it was intended for and was actually given to charity. After some investigation, however, it turned out that in at least one of the two cases, he gave only part of his non-bank compensation to charity and therefore “the existence of his income must have reached his consciousness.” RTL Klub also found it worth mentioning that Origo is up for sale and that Árpád Habony’s new Modern Média Group is among those who were offered an opportunity to bid for it. By now, I’m sure that even the casual visitor to RTLKlub knows who Habony is and what it would mean if Habony managed to get hold of Origo.

All in all, if one has the patience to listen to the first 20 minutes or so, one can get a fair picture of what’s going on in the world. The foreign news is skimpy, but this is true of all Hungarian TV stations with the exception of ATV, which has a separate daily program devoted to foreign affairs called “Világhíradó,” in addition to a weekly program called “Külvilág,” which usually concentrates on one event in greater length and depth. But overall, RTL Klub is doing a good job, and I understand that their viewership has gone up since they decided to include more political items in their evening newscast.