Tag Archives: Árpád Habony

The state of the Hungarian press on World Press Day

Yesterday was World Press Freedom Day, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993 following the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference. So, I think it is fitting to devote a post to media freedom in Hungary.

Only a few days ago I took a look at Freedom House’s latest assessment of press freedom in 199 countries, which concluded that Hungarian media freedom has been severely constrained since 2010 when Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won the election. Although the Orbán government proclaims that the media enjoys total freedom, the fact is that by now the overwhelming majority of the media outlets in Hungary are either under state control, like the so-called public television and public radio, or have been acquired by Fidesz oligarchs who are willing conduits of government propaganda. Media experts estimate that by now 90% of all media content is in Fidesz hands.

Lőrinc Mészáros, Viktor Orbán’s alter ego and front man, owns, by the latest count, 192 newspapers in Hungary. Most of these are regional papers, which are essential for the Orbán propaganda machine. Relatively few people subscribe to national newspapers anymore. Népszabadság, before it was shut down, had the largest circulation, which by 2016 was only around 40,000. On the other hand, regional papers are sold in great numbers. Propaganda through these newspapers reaches far more people than propaganda placed in the few nationwide dailies.

The real bonus of these papers from the government’s point of view is not so much what they report on but what they leave out. A few days ago I read a fascinating study of a week’s worth of “non-news” in regional papers about the demonstrations in Budapest and some other cities. That’s why I was surprised to learn from Medián’s latest poll that people outside of Budapest were well informed about recent events in connection with the government’s attempt to close Central European University.

Outside observers might be horrified at the overwhelming presence of pro-government media in Hungary, but the government is still not satisfied. I understand that Mészáros’s company would like to acquire the few remaining regional papers that are owned by companies not connected to the government. Origo, once one of the two best internet news sites, has become a servile mouthpiece of the Orbán government rivaling Magyar Idők. Mária Schmidt’s acquisition of Figyelő is another sign of the insatiable appetite of the Orbán government. They even made an attempt to grab Népszava, which was eventually saved in the last minute by László Puch, the former financial director of MSZP. The government wants to have all the media under its control, just like in the good old days of János Kádár.

Apparently Orbán’s next victim was to be Index, considered by many to be the crown jewel of Hungarian-language internet news sites. But 444.hu reported a few days ago that in February 2014 Lajos Simicska, who became Viktor Orbán’s archenemy after March 2015, signed an agreement with Zoltán Spéder, the owner of Index, which stipulated that in the event Spéder decided to sell the site Simicska would have the right of first refusal. Simicska took advantage of this agreement on April 20, 2017, apparently in the nick of time because Orbán, through Árpád Habony and Mária Schmidt, had for some time been pressuring Spéder to sell Index. Simicska will not personally own Index. He transferred ownership of the site to a newly established foundation called Magyar Fejlődésért Alapítvány (Foundation for Hungarian Development), headed by László Bodolai, lawyer for both Lajos Simicska and Index. Without this move, Index would undoubtedly have been gobbled up by the Orbán government or one of its surrogates.

The reaction in the government media to the sale of Index was predictable. In the last couple of days one article after another has bemoaned the loss of Index. What is especially galling is that it was Simicska who prevented the takeover of the internet site. Well, it’s too late for the government to gain control of Index, but it has many ways of discriminating against the site. Independent organs normally don’t receive any advertising income from the government or from state-owned companies, but papers and television stations owned by Simicska are subject to additional hardships. One standard government ploy is that government officials are forbidden to give interviews to Simicska’s Magyar Nemzet and HírTV. Fidesz did the same thing while in opposition, when its politicians were forbidden to appear on Napkelte (Sunrise), an independently produced program Orbán deemed to be too liberal and antagonistic toward Fidesz.

Zoltán Balog has been leading the troops against Magyar Nemzet and HírTV. Simicska treated his brother-in-arms (bajtárs) shabbily, so Balog first announced that he and his ministry will refuse to have anything to do with Simicska’s media empire. Although Balog was aware that the law on public information forbids such discrimination, that didn’t seem to bother him. Moreover, that wasn’t punitive enough for Balog. By December 2016 all employees of institutions under the ministry of human resources–for example hospitals–had to get written permission from the ministry to give interviews or make statements about simple facts to anyone. For example, on December 6, 2016 a reporter for Magyar Nemzet wanted to write a heartwarming story about patients in a children’s hospital receiving gifts on St. Nicholas Day. Two hours before the event she received a telephone call from the hospital saying that she needs written permission to attend. Permission was denied. Not surprisingly, the reporter for MTI, the official news agency, had no trouble receiving permission. I assume that the legal problem of discriminating against certain media outlets and not others is supposed to be solved by requiring every news organization to obtain the requisite permissions. Meanwhile, the ministry’s boycott of Magyar Nemzet continues. When the paper filed charges against the ministry, Péter Polt’s prosecutor’s office decided that everything was in order.

Now Index has been added to the blacklist. Yesterday Sándor Joób, a well-known reporter at the news site, shared a revealing story. Index has been sending hundreds of requests for information about hospitals, for which the ministry’s permission is required. Joób wanted to talk to an official in charge of the reconstruction of Budapest hospitals. The official was most willing, but he needed permission. By mistake the reporter himself was included among the recipients of the message: “We ask you to refrain from giving this interview.” Magyar Nemzet immediately responded: “Welcome to the Club!”

Journalists at independent or opposition media outlets work under extremely difficult circumstances. For instance, Fidesz members of parliament refuse to answer any of their questions, and just the other day Lajos Kósa, head of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, called reporters hyenas. Under these circumstances one can only admire the commitment of the journalists working for Magyar Nemzet and Index as well as other outlets like 24.hu, 444.hu, and Népszava. These journalists work for low wages and their job security is nonexistent. I just read about the former editor-in-chief of Dunántúli Napló, a regional paper in Pécs with a large circulation. After Lőrinc Mészáros’s Mediaworks took over the old Pécs standby, he lost his job. Now he is selling sausages as a street vendor.

May 4, 2017

Viktor Orbán shut down Hungary’s leading opposition paper

By now the whole world knows that Hungary’s leading daily newspaper, Népszabadság, is no more. Although the Budapest correspondents of Reuters and the Associated Press pointed out that the newspaper has lost $18.4 million since 2007, don’t allow yourselves to be fooled. Mediaworks, which owns Népszabadság, makes plenty of money on its other publications, including several profitable regional papers and the popular Nemzeti Sport.

Fidesz may say that it considers “the suspension [of Népszabadság] a rational economic decision,” but ceasing publication altogether is not considered to be an economically sound choice for solving the financial woes of a business venture. Reorganization, restructuring, reducing the size of the workforce–these are some of the most often used instruments to salvage a company. Suspending publication, by contrast, can be a costly affair. There are most likely contracts in force to print the paper for the next few months, and what about the 30,000 some subscribers who will not receive their daily paper on Monday? No, closing the doors of Népszabadság has nothing to do with economics. It is a sordid political maneuver executed by the far-right, dictatorial leader of a country that can no longer be called a democracy.

The hypocritical prime minister wants us believe that “it would be a violation of the freedom of the press if [Fidesz] would intervene in the affairs of the owner of the media,” but it is almost certain that this sudden move was orchestrated by Viktor Orbán himself. Just as we learned only recently that he had been the one who handed down the order to investigate Ökotárs, the civic group responsible for the dispersion of the Norway Funds, two years ago. He lied then as he does now. At the time of the raid on Ökotárs, he was asked whether he played any role in that shameful affair. He denied it, adding that if he had done so, it would have been a crime. Now we have the proof. We know that the prime minister of Hungary, by his own admission, committed a crime in 2014. And I suspect that he did so again while working to eliminate a paper that must have nettled him, especially lately. I wonder what his next step will be in his quest to destroy all independent media outlets. He has been at it for some time, but earlier he didn’t use such heavy-handed and so openly dictatorial methods. By now, it seems, he no longer cares about even the semblance of legality and media freedom.

Darkness, Thomas Toft / flickr

Darkness, Thomas Toft / flickr

In the last few months rumors were flying that the government was trying to buy, through some middleman, Mediaworks, currently owned by Vienna Capital Partners, a private equity firm. In June 2016 Népszava, the oldest Hungarian socialist newspaper, learned that Heinrich Pecina, the majority owner, asked for a meeting with Viktor Orbán. Interestingly, the Hungarian prime minister had no compunctions about negotiating with the owner of Népszabadság concerning the possible sale of the paper. Népszava at that point believed that the “buyer” would be the mysterious “adviser” of Viktor Orbán, Árpád Habony, who is most likely Orbán’s “stróman,” as a front man is called in Hungarian. Others suspected Lőrinc Mészáros, who is usually described as the ultimate “stróman,” the alter ego of the prime minister whose newly acquired fabulous wealth is only partly his. The employees of Népszabadság were living under the constant threat that they would end up in the street and be replaced by a new pro-government owner, just as happened to Magyar Hírlap in 2004 when Ringier, an international media group with headquarters in Switzerland, sold the paper to Gábor Széles, a billionaire with far-right political views.

The journalists working for the paper might have had their forebodings, but I’m sure they never dreamed of such an abrupt and barbarous end to their paper. The question is what made Orbán set aside all niceties and finesse and show his true ruthless self. It seems that the straw that broke the camel’s back was a recent series of investigative articles that appeared in the paper about Hungarian National Bank Chairman György Matolcsy and Antal Rogán, the propaganda minister.

The paper reported that Matolcsy’s lover, while working for the bank, received an inordinately high salary. And once she left the bank, Matolcsy placed her in lucrative positions at some of the bank’s foundations, which serve as conduits to transform the “profits” of Hungary’s central bank from public to private funds.

As it turned out, that was not the end of the Matolcsy story. Since Matolcsy is in the middle of divorcing his wife, he needed an apartment. Soon enough he found just the right one. A lovely, very expensive apartment in the Castle District of Buda. The only problem is that the apartment belongs to the president of the Hungarian branch of Unicredit, Mihály Patai, who is currently the chairman of the Banking Association. Considering that György Matolcsy is heading the very institution that has a supervisory function over the Hungarian banking system, this whole arrangement is highly unethical and suggests a conflict of interest. Népszabadság had begun to investigate possible favors extended by the central bank to Unicredit.

That was bad enough, but then came another story, this time about Antal Rogán, whose extravagant lifestyle and questionable financial dealings have been the talk of the town for a long time. Népszabadság learned that Rogán, his wife, and one of their sons traveled in princely fashion to a wedding. They used a helicopter. Well, I guess nothing is wrong about traveling by helicopter to a wedding if you have enough money, but the story was not so simple. First, Rogán denied the whole thing–until he was confronted with a photo showing him heading toward the helicopter. At this point he switched his story and talked about a kind friend who generously gave him a ride back from the wedding. A day later it turned out that he had used the helicopter both to go to and to return from the wedding. Lies, lies, lies.

Well, these two or three embarrassing stories about people who are perhaps the closest associates of Viktor Orbán were too much for the mafia boss. He gave the order: shut them down! After all, he had no idea what else those two or three journalists who had worked on the stories know. And what paper that wants to live another day will hire them to continue their work? Shutting down Népszabadság doesn’t merely have a chilling effect; it puts Hungarian investigative journalism into a deep freeze.

Viktor Orbán is a vengeful, vindictive, malevolent man who doesn’t forget and who is ready to pursue his victims until they are utterly destroyed. There is no mercy once he decides that somebody is an enemy. At the top of his enemy list are Gábor Iványi, the kind minister of the Hungarian Methodists; Ibolya Dávid, whom he blames for his lost election in 2006; and Ferenc Gyurcsány, who had the temerity to win a television debate against him. And then there are the other lesser-known victims who at one time or the other stood in his way: they often languish in jail for months or years on trumped-up charges. One could go on and on.

Finally, let me quote a bitter Facebook note by Mária Vásárhely, a media expert: “Thank you, European Union. It matters not how painful it is, but it must be said that without you Hungary wouldn’t have ended up where it is now. If you didn’t finance the building and functioning of Orbán’s dictatorship, the whole edifice would have crumbled already. It doesn’t matter how painful it is to point out, but the destruction of Népszabadság, one of the last bastions of press freedom, was purchased with the immense amount of money you have poured into the country and which is now being used by the criminal oligarchs of a criminal state.”

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of truth in this bitter note.

October 8, 2016

Antal Rogán’s decision to sue might have backfired

In April of 2015 Antal Rogán, today one of the most important members of the Orbán government, sued Péter Juhász of Együtt because Juhász had called him a criminal in connection with his real estate dealings while he was mayor of District V in Budapest. District V constitutes the heart of Budapest, where perhaps the most valuable pieces of real estate can be found. The opportunities for corruption in city halls are numerous, especially when a great number of buildings are still owned by the municipality. That was the case in District V. Over Rogán’s eight years in office, 800 units–apartments as well as storefronts–were sold to private individuals.

According to a city ordinance, the tenant of a property owned by the municipality has the right to purchase the rented property at a reduced price if the city decides to sell. Rogán and his fellow city politicians apparently devised a scheme to jack up the rents so high that the tenants, who had the right of first refusal, were forced to leave the premises for financial reasons. Then came a “friend” who rented the place for a couple of months, after which he could buy the property at a 30% discount to the market value. Often Rogán allowed further illegal cuts in the purchase price, with some individuals acquiring valuable pieces of property at half price. A few months later the new owner sold the property for twice his purchase price. The assumption is that all these “good offices” on the part of the mayor and other district officials cost money, which went straight into the pockets of the facilitators, including Rogán himself, whose visible enrichment has been the talk of the country for a number of years.

One case especially aroused interest because it involved a well-known criminal, Tamás Portik, who is currently serving a 15-year sentence for his role in instigating several murders. In 2014 it came to light that Portik’s common-law-wife or girlfriend, Marianne Pápa, who also happened to be the aunt-by-marriage of Árpád Habony, the mysterious advisor of Viktor Orbán, with the help of Portik managed to get a 212 m² storefront for 52 million forints, which they subsequently sold for 102 million, its fair market value. It was at this point that Juhász, who was by then a member of the city council of District V and therefore had access to the relevant documents, called Rogán a criminal who received kickbacks from well-known underworld characters.

A month after Juhász’s accusation, in January 2015, Rogán sued Juhász for 1 million forints by way of compensation and demanded a statement from him admitting that he had “falsely stated that during the mayoralty of Antal Rogán the municipality had any business dealings with Tamás Portik or with any person or company connected with him.” The court case got underway on April 16, but Antal Rogán didn’t show. I should add that by that time Juhász had filed several complaints in connection with the real estate deals and an investigation was underway. Juhász’s lawyer asked the judge to summon Portik to give evidence because Portik, on several occasions during his own trial, had testified that he knew Rogán and that Rogán was lying when he claimed otherwise. Not surprisingly, Rogán’s lawyer objected, but to no avail. The judge decided to call Portik to testify.

The court appearance was scheduled for yesterday, June 17. Rogán and his lawyer were not happy. They wanted to disqualify the judge because “the case is dragging on too long.” Moreover, Rogán expressed his dissatisfaction that the judge had set the date of the next court appearance without consulting him first and that, as a result, he cannot face his accuser. Once it became known that Rogán was refusing to appear in court, now for the second time, the opposition media indicated that Rogán for one reason or another doesn’t want to face Portik. As it turned out, he had every reason to avoid him. Even the restrained and cautious Népszabadság wrote in an editorial that Portik’s description of his relationship with Rogán was realistic. Yes, we can doubt the veracity of Portik, but can we believe Rogán? What about Rogán’s inexplicable enrichment? Portik’s testimony was devastating, the paper claimed.

The rules and regulations concerning the testimony of a witness are roughly the same as in the United States. If a witness is later found to have lied under oath, he can be charged with the crime of perjury. Therefore, Juhász argues, Portik’s testimony should be taken seriously.

From the testimony it became clear that Portik was well acquainted with the way Rogán’s scheme worked. He was familiar with the property Árpád Habony’s aunt acquired, and he said he was involved in the transaction as a kind of go-between. Allegedly, Rogán urgently needed 10 million forints, and because both “Árpi and Marianne” understood that Portik knew Rogán, they asked him to deliver the amount in euros. Portik described the exact location of the Fidesz office where he handed the money to Rogán. Apparently, Rogán later complained that the money he received wasn’t quite enough, at which point “Marianne remarked that, as it is, Tóni is far too expensive.” That apparently wasn’t the only encounter between Rogán and Portik. They were both guests of honor at the opening of Nobu, Andy Vajna’s restaurant in the Kempinsky Hotel in Budapest.

Péter Juhász with his lawyer and Portik in the courtroom

Péter Juhász with his lawyer and Portik in the courtroom

Rogán’s lawyer was in trouble, and his only strategy was to rely on a 2008 conversation between Sándor Laborc, head of the National Security Office, and Portik. Portik had approached him to complain about right-wing elements in the police force who were badgering him to hand over incriminating information about leading members of MSZP. Portik at this point was very worried about a Fidesz win in the 2010 election and therefore offered to find dirt on men in the service of Fidesz, stressing during the conversation his allegiance to MSZP. Rogán’s lawyer kept returning to this conversation, trying to prove that Portik’s story had to be sheer fabrication because, given his strong commitment to the left, he couldn’t have had highly-placed Fidesz friends. A feeble argument.

The government mouthpiece Magyar Idők was also in trouble when it came to discrediting Portik’s testimony. It claimed that Portik didn’t remember the details of his meeting with Rogán, which was simply not true. The paper also maintained that Portik contradicted himself because he testified that he had never given any money to a Fidesz politician when, in fact, he had. But was that a contradiction? Of course not. Surely, there is a difference between giving your own money to a person and delivering somebody else’s money.

888.hu invoked the specter of communism. Portik, an ordinary criminal, is for them “one of the last undercover agents” of the Kádár regime, who has been engaged in dirty political work against Fidesz ever since 1990. Liberal journalists hate the leading Fidesz politicians so much that they are ready to use a feared criminal to discredit the government.

On the other hand, Magyar Nemzet, nowadays a conservative opposition paper, took Portik’s testimony seriously. “If one tenth of what we have heard from Portik is true, Rogán must go,” László Szemán wrote in an editorial. As the title of the piece indicates, Orbán has no choice. He must let him go. The dominoes are falling.

June 18, 2016

Citizenship for sale for the benefit of private individuals

It was in 2013 that the Hungarian government introduced a program aimed at boosting investment in government bonds. Like many other countries, they embarked on “selling” Hungarian citizenship to well-heeled foreign businessmen. In the Hungarian scheme, foreigners had to buy €300,000 worth of five-year government bonds. This was a cheap way of becoming a Hungarian citizen within six months of the bond purchase and of thereby gaining free access to all the EU member states. In other countries that “sell” citizenship, the bar is set higher. In the United States, for example, in order to qualify for a EB-5 visa, a foreigner must invest $500,000 in a project or business that will create at least ten new jobs in a high unemployment or rural area.

Yes, Hungarian citizenship is in fact dirt cheap, even when a handling fee of €40,000-50,000 is added. Who profits from this program? Not the government, as I will show below. The beneficiaries are the foreigners who gets the citizenship and, more worrisomely, private companies that handle the transactions. The task of granting citizenship was handed over to intermediaries that make a fabulous profit. Not only do they receive a handling fee, but the government sells them these special government bonds worth €300,000 for only €271,000. Thus on each bond the intermediary makes about €70,000. According to Magyar Nemzet, between 2013 and 2015 3,358 such settlement bonds were sold.

The Hungarian government entrusted the sale of these bonds to six companies, each assigned a geographically defined area. The luckiest of all is the Hungary State Special Debt Fund (HSSDF), which is responsible for applications from Russia and China. In last three years it sold almost 3,000 settlement bonds for a very handsome profit of 2 billion euros. VolDan Investments (former Soviet republics) sold 233, Arton Capital (Islamic countries) 176, Discus Holdings (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Indonesia) 45, Euro-Asia Investment (Singapore) 50, and Innozone Holdings (India) 22. All of these companies are registered offshore–in the Cayman Islands, Liechtenstein, Cyprus, Singapore, and Malta.

It doesn’t matter how you look at this arrangement, it is a bum deal for the government. Instead of encouraging direct investment of the sort the United States introduced about 30 years ago, in the Hungarian scheme the future citizen merely lends some money for five years which will have to be paid back with interest. It is almost as if the whole scheme was designed to siphon off public money and pass it on to select individuals. After all, the government gives a 10% discount on the bonds to the intermediaries, who also receive the very steep handling fee. The loss to the Hungarian treasury (assuming the government processed the applications) is about €70,000, or 23% on each bond. The explanation at the time the scheme was introduced was that the Hungarian government needs local people who know the lay of the land.

Although the issuance of settlement bonds is certainly not a new story, it came to light recently that Viktor Orbán’s mystery advisor, Árpád Habony, may be connected to the three most profitable companies involved with the government bond business: HSSDF, Arton Capital, and VolDan Investments. The owners of the first two are known, but we know practically nothing about VolDan. According to Heti Válasz, the owners of VolDan are Shabtai Micheli, a Georgian-Israeli businessman, and Michael Gagel, owner of a chain of bakeries located at Budapest metro stations. Heti Válasz discovered that these two people have close connections to Andy Vajna, Árpád Habony, and their families. It also looks as if Habony has something to do with Arton Capital through his lawyer. Finally, HSSDF’s Chinese management back in 2013 wanted to acquire the coveted TV2 television channel from the German owner with the assistance of the influential advisor to Viktor Orbán, Árpád Habony.

One of the very few photos Viktor Orbán and Árpád Habony can be seen together

One of the very few photos where Viktor Orbán and Árpád Habony can be seen together

Of course, Heti Válasz is grasping at straws. Hungary is a small country, and it is quite possible that businessmen with ties to Fidesz and Viktor Orbán are in close contact with one another. But the question of how Habony earns a living has been an intriguing puzzle for the Hungarian media.

We know very little about Habony’s background, and the little that is available is not very believable. Here is one example. According to the bits and pieces of biographical fragments about him, his grandfather was a high-ranking officer in Miklós Horthy’s army. But this fact couldn’t possibly explain why his parents in 1982 wanted to take him out of school after eight-grades to become an auto mechanic. By then the days were long gone when the grandson of a high-ranking officer couldn’t attend gymnasium or receive a university degree. The story doesn’t ring right. At the end he attended a high school, specializing in fine arts, at night. By the end of the first Orbán government he worked in a museum restoring works of art. It is not known how, but after the municipal elections of 2002 he became a communication and campaign strategist for Fidesz. He was the one who came up with the 2006 Fidesz slogan that “We live worse” than in 2002. Since it was a blatant lie, the whole campaign became an object of scorn. And yet, after the lost election, he became the “personal strategic chief advisor” of Viktor Orbán.

Árpád Habony is known for his extravagant life style despite no sign of any legitimate income. He has a small business called “Color Inks,” which in 2011 and 2012 made no profit and in 2013 actually lost money. Yet in 2015 he established a political advisory company, Danube Business Consulting Ltd. in London, along with Arthur Finkelstein, the strategic advisor to such Republicans as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The man has money, but no one knows from where. Or, to put it differently, most people are convinced that his money comes from the Hungarian government through some secret channel which has yet to be discovered. It is possible that Habony is one of the beneficiaries of the settlement bonds scheme. He may have been instrumental in the final selection of the lucky companies that sell bonds for Hungarian citizenship, companies that may in turn return a portion of their profits to their facilitators. So far this is mere speculation.

March 20, 2016

The new Hungarian aristocracy: Wedding at the National Museum of Fine Arts

For well over a week the Hungarian media has been full of stories about some highly irregular activities of László Baán, director of the Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts. They are not calling into question his managerial skills. By all accounts Baán has been an outstanding director of the institution. He transformed the exhibition policies of the museum, resulting in a most successful series of exhibits year after year.

Baán’s background is unusual for a museum director. He has a degree in economics and philosophy and for a while worked as an economist for one of the research institutes attached to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. For a brief period he dabbled in politics on the local level: for four years, between 1990 and 1994, he was a member of the Budapest City Council. His career really took off during the first Orbán government when he became assistant undersecretary in the ministry of national cultural heritage, a new, short-lived ministry created by Viktor Orbán. He remained assistant undersecretary after the fall of the Orbán government until he was named director of the museum.

László Baán’s name has been in the newspapers for a number of years now because after 2010 Baán, who—as we will see later—has excellent connections with the Fidesz leadership, convinced Viktor Orbán to create a “museum quarters,” to which most of the important museums would be moved. Unfortunately, the cluster of buildings is planned to be built in Városliget, one of the very few green places in Pest. Arguments go back and forth about the ecological impact of the project, but Viktor Orbán seems determined to proceed with the plan. He did have a few objections, though. There were two buildings he didn’t like, so Baán, who in the interim became government commissioner of the project, dutifully scrapped them. Apparently Orbán’s enthusiasm for the project stems from his desire to relocate the Hungarian National Gallery from the former Royal Palace so he can move his office there.

Although Baán has been praised for his work at the Museum of Fine Arts, lately his reputation has been tarnished. It seems that Baán viewed the museum as if it belonged exclusively to him and his Fidesz chums. The man who is especially implicated in the affair is Árpád Habony, Viktor Orbán’s mystery man. No matter how hard reporters try to pin down high-ranking politicians about the exact nature of their relationship to Habony, they refuse to utter a word. They would rather act stupid, just as  Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, and István Tarlós, lord mayor of Budapest, did in the last few hours. And they don’t dare to say anything about the man’s relationship to Viktor Orbán since about a year ago the prime minister said that he has no adviser named Árpád Habony.

Viktor Orbán may not want to admit Habony’s importance to him, but László Baán is happy to tell the world that Habony is a very old and close friend. Their friendship goes back at least to 2000 when Baán was still assistant undersecretary in the ministry of national cultural heritage. During that period Habony’s firm, which specialized in “cultural communicational counseling,” received job after job from the ministry. Their working relationship developed into true friendship, and in 2004 Habony’s firm helped Baán put together his application for the directorship of the museum. Three years later, in 2007, when Habony got married, Baán let Habony use one of the grand chambers of the museum free of charge. Baán was Habony’s best man. Today DK is suing Baán for breach of fiduciary responsibility. Another person who rented the same chamber for private use had to pay 1.5 million forints. And when MSZP wanted to rent the same room when the president of the European Parliament, the Swedish prime minister, and several EU commissioners were having a gathering in Budapest, Baán refused to rent the place for any amount of money.

The chamber sits 1,500

The chamber seats 1,500

All this came to light about two weeks ago when Átlátszó, an investigative NGO, took legal action to force the Museum of Fine Arts to reveal where ten late baroque paintings of Dutch and Italian masters were stored when they were out on loan to two filmmakers who needed them for props. It turned out that the paintings were kept in the apartment of Habony’s former mother-in-law in downtown Budapest. The value of these ten paintings was 265 million forints or $952,000. Baán is right when he claims that lending pictures of lesser value is commonplace and that currently about 3,000 works of art can be found in government offices and institutions. But individuals normally pay a premium to borrow works of art, and they must have adequate insurance coverage. In this case the ten pictures were on loan for three months. Per picture the museum was paid only 15,000 forints for the duration.

How could that have happened? Easily. Before 2011 the museum could lend works of art only to government and private institutions, but in 2011 two Fidesz MPs–László L. Simon and Endre Gyimes–introduced an amendment that now allows pictures to be lent to private individuals as well. It seems that Fidesz politicians want to have well-known paintings in their houses to impress their visitors. Moreover, earlier the minister in charge of cultural matters had to approve the loan. Today he doesn’t.

But that’s not all. In 2008 the museum decided to entrust a company with the job of renting the halls and running the museum’s online store as well as the store situated in the museum. And what a coincidence, the man who heads Kultúra 2008 Nkft., which handles the business side of the museum, is Zoltán Rostás, earlier Árpád Habony’s business partner.

What did all this remind János Lázár of? The good old socialist days. “If the leaders of institutions think that similarly to the socialist times they can develop their institutions with the help of connections and familiarity [with important people] they are mistaken,” Lázár claimed. Of course, he is wrong, and he himself must know that. Things are worse now than they were in socialist times. Much worse. This whole corrupt bunch runs the country as their private fiefdom.

February 22, 2016

The Hungarian media scene is still in flux

Although the Hungarian government’s only concern of late seems to be how to keep asylum seekers out of the country, I don’t want to succumb to the same tunnel vision. And so today I’m turning to the state of the Hungarian media.

So-called public (közszolgálati) television and radio are by now mere mouthpieces of government propaganda. Magyar Rádió is still, by default, the station that most people who are interested in more than pop music listen to. Magyar Televízió’s M1, a news channel, turned out to be a flop. On the other hand, a few days ago MTV began broadcasting a sports channel that is, not surprisingly, a hit since most Hungarian football games can be seen there and only there. Of course, the government’s media experts made certain that the canned news of MTV can also be heard on the sports channel. So one cannot escape the barrage of propaganda.

Back in May I wrote a post on the new media landscape, which included the purchase of Napi Gazdaság, a financial daily that imitated the look of The Financial Times. Former editors of Magyar Nemzet followed their editor-in-chief and began transforming Napi Gazdaság into a second Magyar Nemzet. As far as the contents are concerned the work has been pretty well completed, but the name of the newspaper doesn’t really fit, nor does its colored paper. A few days ago we learned that the new quasi-government paper will be called “Magyar Idők” (Hungarian Times), and soon enough it will be printed on normal newsprint.

The capital that was originally sunk into the paper was relatively modest, but subsequently János Sánta, the beneficiary of the latest redistribution of the wholesale sector of the tobacco state monopoly, purchased a 49% stake in the new paper. I wrote about the details of this redistribution, which benefited only Sánta’s Continental Tobacco Group and British American Tobacco, in a post titled “The Orbán government in action: Graft and fraud.” Clearly, Sánta was told that it was time to pay his benefactor, Viktor Orbán, for the fantastic business opportunity. The deal was most likely struck way before the government decision was announced.

Meanwhile Árpád Habony, Orbán’s mysterious adviser, and others are working on new projects. They want to come out with an online news site, but nothing has materialized yet. On the other hand, they put together Lokál, a free paper that is supposed to replace the very strongly pro-Fidesz Helyi Téma that went bankrupt a few months ago. According to Origo, this new paper seems to avoid political topics altogether and concentrates on the activities of Hungarian celebrities.

It has also been widely reported that Andy Vajna, formerly producer of the Rambo and Terminator movies, who was rumored to be interested in buying TV2, is now thinking of starting a cable television station of his own. There is no question in whose service Vajna’s station will be if it materializes. Andy Vajna, who left Hungary as a young boy in 1956, has made a spectacular career for himself in Hungary. His latest coup is that he will run five of Hungary’s eleven gambling casinos. His life in and out of Hungary certainly deserves a post or two.

Heti Válasz only last week published a very critical article about Andy Vajna's  financial affairs

Heti Válasz only last week published a very critical article about Andy Vajna’s financial affairs

These accomplishments are not, however, enough for Viktor Orbán. He wants to get rid of all of the media outlets still in the hands of Lajos Simicska and his business partner, Zsolt Nyerges: Magyar Nemzet, HírTV, Lánchíd Rádió, Heti Válasz, and Class FM, the only commercial radio station that can be heard everywhere in the country. An unlikely person has surfaced as a potential buyer of a couple of print and online publications: Mária Schmidt, the court historian and director of the House of Terror. Apparently, Schmidt is interested in buying Heti Válasz and perhaps Origo.

Mária Schmidt is a very rich woman. She inherited quite a fortune from her husband, who died unexpectedly in 2006. Népszabadság learned that she recently established a company called “Médiaháló” (Media Net) and is looking for newspapers to buy. She put out feelers to Magyar Telekom, which apparently has been wanting for some time to get rid of Origo. The other paper she is interested in is Heti Válasz. But Lajos Simicska, despite his recent troubles at the hands of Viktor Orbán’s government machine, is not ready to sell any of his media holdings. I don’t know how long Simicska will be able to maintain his unbending attitude because, as things stand now, Viktor Orbán has made sure that Simicska’s firm, Közgép, will not be able to bid for any government contracts in the next three years. Simicska is ready to fight the decision and, if necessary, go to the European Court of Justice, but that takes time. And who knows what other “misfortunes” will befall Simicska in the interim.

Whether Origo will land in Mária Schmidt’s lap is not at all certain because another newly established media firm, Brit Média Befektetési Zrt, already started negotiations with Telekom months ago. The company’s majority stake belongs to B’nai B’rith International, based in Brussels. András Jonatán Megyeri is a minority owner. Megyeri at one time worked for TV2 and Viasat, a high-speed internet company. He is a religious Jew who serves as the volunteer cantor of the Bét-Sálom Synagogue. A couple of weeks ago his new company invested 40 million forints in KlubRádió, which is still in dire financial straights. Mária Schmidt versus B’nai B’rith International, I’m curious whom Magyar Telekom will choose. I’m sure that opponents of Viktor Orbán are keeping fingers crossed for Brit Média.

Viktor Orbán, a desperate man with dangerous ideas

In 2005 Péter Popper (1933-2010), a psychologist, university professor, and publicist whose writings I greatly admired, wrote a psychological portrait of Viktor Orbán. He admitted that he had serious reservations about psychoanalyzing someone he had never met. In addition, he freely acknowledged that he didn’t like Viktor Orbán. But why then did he decide to write this portrait?

He began his explanation by telling a story about a movie hero in an American war film who is transformed from a scrawny, bespectacled, awkward youngster into a fearless leader of his troops because, after seeing what remained of the concentration camps, he “became angry at them.” Popper decided to write because he became very angry with Viktor Orbán and his former college friends. By now there are a lot of Hungarians who are also very angry and who found this brilliant essay by Popper perhaps even more timely now than it was in 2005. So, this 10-year-old essay began circulating again online.

“The name of Viktor Orbán has become a symbol for me. The symbol of the still deeper political depravity of a country with eighty years of moral turpitude behind it.” Popper nonetheless predicted that “we will see him one day on the side of the road as a cast-away piece of stone.” There are signs that Orbán’s “time” might be closer than some think. Perhaps a sense of panic about his impending political demise is responsible for Orbán’s erratic political decisions of late.

The way Viktor Orbán is seen in foreign news / Photo Attila Kisbenedek / AFP / Getty Images

The way Viktor Orbán is seen in foreign papers /  AFP / Getty Images/ Photo: Attila Kisbenedek

If we can believe the speculations offered by the Hungarian media, all of Orbán’s political ideas come from Árpád Habony, a man about whom we know practically nothing. He is Orbán’s chief political adviser with no official title. His lifestyle suggests considerable wealth, but the Hungarian public knows nothing about the source of his opulence. The general belief is that it was Habony who came up with the idea of lowering utility costs, which in a miraculously short time turned Fidesz’s lagging popularity into a huge electoral victory in April 2014. So, the argument goes, Orbán now has total trust in Habony’s extraordinary political intuitions and follows his advice without the slightest hesitation.

Of course, we have no idea how much influence anyone among his very small circle of advisers and politicians has on Orbán’s political moves, but there is one thing I’m pretty much convinced of: he doesn’t share his thoughts with the top party leadership. I’m almost sure that he wouldn’t have the unanimous support of Fidesz bigwigs to combat Jobbik by adopting more and more of their ideas. I’m pretty confident that some of the saner voices in the party would point out to him that Fidesz’s strategy vis-à-vis Jobbik has failed. Adopting half of Jobbik’s party program hasn’t resulted in weakening Fidesz’s far-right opponent. In fact, in the last year or so, as a result of the growing unpopularity of the government party, Jobbik has gained ground. So, moving along the same path makes no sense whatsoever. And yet, it seems, Orbán has opted to do just that.

Viktor Orbán, who has been frequently pestered by reporters about Habony’s role in the decision to conduct a “national consultation” on immigration, on one occasion blurted out that he is the only one who is responsible for whatever happens in his government and that he takes full responsibility for everything he does. For example, for that vicious questionnaire that will further poison the minds of Hungarians. One cannot blame the evil adviser who whispers morally unacceptable thoughts into the great man’s ears. The idea of the questionnaire or his latest brainstorm to reintroduce the death penalty might originally have come from Habony, but it is Orbán who decided that his problems can be solved by moving farther toward the extreme right.

Of course, the rationale behind Orbán’s thinking is that by raising the specter of African blacks and Syrian terrorists his wayward supporters will return to the fold. And if you add the death penalty, which the weak-kneed European Union forbids, the love affair between the prime minister and Fidesz voters will be restored. At least this is what he believes. I think he is too optimistic. Something has been broken, and the shattered pieces cannot be glued together. Especially since the prime minister of a member state of the European Union cannot make unilateral decisions here. He cannot develop anti-immigration strategies tailored for Hungary, and he cannot introduce the death penalty unless he wants to take his country out of the European Union.

The most servile flunkies, like the newly reappointed leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation Antal Rogán, already rushed to Orbán’s rescue by claiming that capital punishment can be the subject of negotiations between a member state and Brussels. He also falsely asserted that the current law is illegitimate because the Hungarian people had no opportunity to vote on the death penalty. He claimed that it was the Constitutional Court that decided the issue. As usual, only a small part of the statement is true. Yes, in 1990 the Constitutional Court instructed the government to delete the article on capital punishment from the Criminal Code because it was deemed unconstitutional. But then, in 1993, parliament did vote on the issue. Orbán wasn’t present, but the nine Fidesz members of parliament all voted against capital punishment. In 2004 there was another occasion when the Hungarian parliament voted on a law that reaffirmed the abolishment of capital punishment. Antal Rogán himself was present and voted for it.

Even as the prime minister incites the population to hatred and vengeance, he continues his trips to the larger cities of the country, promising them pie in the sky. Pécs was the most recent stop on his “Modern Cities Program” tour, another attempt to bolster the popularity of the government. Népszava‘s article bore the title: “Pécs, the land of milk and honey,” which of course was meant ironically. The city is in terrible economic shape, and soon enough the government is planning to locate an “atomic cemetery” for spent nuclear material “in its backyard.” Near one of the most beautiful cities in the country and a former cultural center of Europe. According to the latest estimates, Pécs is unlikely to vote for Fidesz at the next election. No promises of another sports center and a couple of new roads will make an impression there. Even in 2014 it was touch and go.