Tag Archives: freedom of the press

János Lázár gives an interview to a left-wing paper

Today I will try something that may not meet with the approval of the Hungarian journalistic community. I will critically analyze Ágnes Fazekas’s interview in Népszava with János Lázár on November 5. The occasion for the interview was Népszava’s boycott of Lázár’s weekly two-hour-long press conferences.

The reason for the boycott is not entirely clear. On October 12 Népszava joined nine other media outlets in protesting the shuttering of Népszabadság. At that time some commentators pointed out that these séances, as one commentator called the Thursday afternoon performances, have no real news value. Moreover, in the last two years Lázár and his loyal spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, have learned the art of outfoxing the often timid journalists. In brief, one doesn’t miss much by not attending.

Well, Népszava didn’t show up at some of these press conferences and Lázár expressed his dismay at the absence of the paper’s reporter. On the spot he promised to phone the editorial office of the paper in order, I guess, to convince them to return. By the end there was no need for the telephone call because Lázár bumped into Népszava’s reporter in the parliament building. She told him that the reason for her absence was Lázár’s lack of frankness when answering the journalists’ questions. At the same time she invited him for an interview, which he somewhat unexpectedly accepted.

János Lázár / Source: Népszava

János Lázár / Source: Népszava

Ágnes Fazekas reminded Lázár that the decision to boycott the “government info” was made by the editorial board because Lázár’s answers to their reporter’s questions were not “sincere.” The word “truthful” would have been more appropriate, but I guess she felt she had to tread lightly. Lázár was “hurt.” The prime minister had tasked him with answering all of the questions to the best of his knowledge. He said he has been trying to answer all questions correctly. He didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but if he did, he apologizes. The reporter dropped the topic instantly, adding that “it’s nice that you want us back.” This response set the tone for the conversation that followed. Once the reporter let Lázár off the hook and didn’t probe into the untrue statements that are the hallmarks of these press conferences Lázár had every reason to relax.

After Lázár’s high praise of the journalistic profession and an empty statement about the necessity of a good working relationship between politicians and the media, Fazekas complained only about Lázár’s “cynical answers to their questions.” For example, when the reporter of Népszava asked him about the dispersal of advertising money among the media outlets, Lázár referred him to the agencies responsible for the decisions when it is clear that the final word comes from the government. Her use of the word “cynical” is misplaced here. What she should have said was that Lázár didn’t tell the truth. Cynicism means “an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity,” which is a far cry from what happened. Lázár not only denied the obvious but in the interview itself claimed that advertising money from government sources is strictly allocated according to the size of the readership. That is not cynicism; that is a blatant lie. Servile media outlets get advertising money galore despite having very small circulations while papers critical of the government get practically nothing.

The next topic was the case of Ghaith Pharaon, the infamous Saudi businessman, and his activities in Hungary. But again, instead of going to the heart of the matter Fazekas complained only about the timing of the release of the information. Again the real problem here is not that Lázár “as the minister responsible for intelligence matters should have talked about the case earlier” but that the information he gave was inaccurate. And, to compound the problem, he added another piece of misinformation in this interview. “As far as I know, he as a private person hasn’t engaged in any economic activity in Hungary.” I assume Lázár is trying to distinguish between Pharaon the individual and Pharaon’s businesses. But in this context the distinction is sophistical. Lázár also assured Fazekas that there was no national security risk as far as Pharaon’s stay in Hungary was concerned, another doubtful assertion given the man’s past dealings with terrorist organizations.

Instead of following up, Fazekas asked a government-friendly question, whether George Soros is a greater national security risk than Ghaith Pharaon. That turn in the conversation allowed Lázár to drop the uncomfortable subject of the Saudi businessman’s affairs in Hungary and turn to immigration and Hungary’s opposition to it.

Fazekas then returned to the question of the media. Fazekas wanted to know “when will the government settle its relations with the left-wing media?” This question seems too broad to me, but Lázár seemed to have known what the reporter meant and announced that “this is a very difficult question.” What Népszava’s journalist had in mind was Fidesz’s boycott of independent organs critical of the government. On this score not even Lázár could offer soothing words to Fazekas. Politics in Hungary is a death struggle, he said, but he himself tries to bring some humor and generosity to political discourse. He is hoping that after 2018 this situation will change. Fazekas didn’t remind Lázár that Hungarians had heard such promises before, except then the date was 2014. Why should anyone believe that after 2018 anything will change? Instead of posing this obvious question, she magnanimously laid out Népszava’s welcome mat for Fidesz politicians. Lázár graciously accepted the invitation and promised to pass it on, I assume to the prime minister.

I’ve pretty much summed up this interview, which was described as important because Fidesz politicians, with very few exceptions, don’t give interviews to independent papers. The list of newspapers on the blacklist is getting longer and longer.

Certainly, by western standards this interview is unsatisfactory, not at all hard-hitting, but I assume that self-censorship was at work. The reporter was so pleased that she had finally managed to have an interview with János Lázár that she didn’t want to alienate him. Unfortunately, this is how things work in an “illiberal state” where media freedom is severely constrained.

November 18, 2016

After an attack on the media, an assault on Energiaklub

Today I will report briefly on some new developments that may add to our understanding of the current political climate in Hungary.

Still about the media

To continue with the sad state of the media. The announcement that Népszava, the daily that proudly calls itself a “szociáldemokrata napilap,” was sold couldn’t have come at a worse time, only a few days after the demise of Népszabadság. The Swiss Marquard Media, which bought the paper, is no stranger to Hungary. It has been present in the Hungarian media market ever since the 1990s. Currently it owns Playboy, Runner’s World, Men’s Health, JOY, and InStyle. In Poland Marquard publishes Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, and Playboy. In addition, the company owns several magazines in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

Népszava will be an odd man out in Marquard’s portfolio, but we should keep in mind that in the 1990s Marquard owned Magyar Hírlap, which in those days was my very favorite Hungarian daily. At that time the editor-in-chief of Magyar Hírlap was the same Péter Németh who is heading Népszava’s editorial team today. He assures us that Jürg Marquard, whom he knows, would never in his life behave the way the private equity financier Heinrich Pecina has. Népszava had some very difficult times in the past, and one can only hope that the paper’s future will be ensured by this purchase. With the disappearance of Népszabadság, Népszava is now the only daily on the left. Mind you, when it comes to their attitudes toward the Orbán government, I see very little difference between the social democratic Népszava and the conservative Magyar Nemzet.

fedel-nelkul

Remaining with the topic of the media. The editorial board of Népszabadság made an absolutely brilliant move. The editorial team of the paper and regular outside contributors decided to write articles for the next issue of a weekly paper called Fedél Nélkül (Without Shelter), which is produced by homeless people and sold on Budapest street corners by about 1,600 of them. The journalists and contributors will take care of the added expenses, and all income from the sale of the papers will go to the licensed distributors of Fedél Nélkül.

There is a new enemy: The Energiaklub

Energiaklub is a well-established NGO concerned with environmental issues and alternative energy sources. It is a fierce opponent of building a new nuclear power plant in Paks. On September 29, 2016, the Baranya Megyei Kormányhivatal, a regional administrative arm of the government, accepted Paks II’s version of the environmental safety of the project. However, some key issues concerning the project are still questionable, and some of the government’s safety claims have no basis in fact. This is at least what Energiaklub and Greenpeace claim. These two organization will appeal the decision. Energiaklub’s experts “are convinced that Paks II will be a polluter” and that “it is dangerous and expensive.” In their opinion, “both in economic and social terms the expansion of nuclear energy is a dead end.”

On October 13 representatives of the National Tax and Customs Administration (NAV) appeared at the offices of Energiaklub. Without much ado or explanation they packed up all documents related to one of Energiaklub’s projects called “Answer to climate change, local climate adaptation.” The leadership of the organization is convinced that “this is the second act of the Norwegian affair” because this particular project is funded by Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein. Orsolya Fülöp, policy director of Energiaklub, believes that NAV’s unexpected visit is not so much against Energiaklub as against Norway.

I, as an outsider, see it differently. I see a connection between Energiaklub’s decision to appeal the verdict of the Baranya Megyei Kormányhivatal on the environmental safety of Paks II and NAV’s sudden interest in one of the organization’s projects. Moreover, the appeal was not the Energiaklub’s only “sin.” They have been calling attention to the corruption that surrounds the Paks II project. According to one of the organization’s energy experts, at least 10% of the projected €12 billion will end up in private pockets. My guess is that the Orbán government had enough of this pesky organization’s criticism of the prime minister’s pet project. Or perhaps they are planning to kill two birds with one stone.

Hungarians and freedom of the press

The Publicus Research Institute came out with a poll* conducted between October 11 and 13 which asked 1,000 people about their attitude toward freedom of the media and the suspension of the publication of Népszabadság. The results are surprising. Almost 90% of the Hungarians surveyed consider the existence of an independent press very important and 85% had heard about the suspension of Népszabadság. Two-thirds of the people think that Fidesz has a substantial influence on the media. Moreover, they said that since the collapse of the Kádár regime, government power over the press has never been stronger.

Another surprise is that 43% of the adult population read Népszabadság more or less regularly. Even 37% of Fidesz voters did so. Naturally, MSZP voters were the most faithful readers of the paper (57%), but Jobbik voters were not far behind (47%). Another interesting finding is that more readers were between the ages of 18 and 44 than over 45.

The great majority of the people are convinced that Népszabadság had to be silenced because it criticized the government and Fidesz politicians, or because Fidesz limits the freedom of the press in general, or because it was an opposition paper. Only 22% believe that the reason for the shuttering was financial. So, there is hope.

*The poll was taken for Vasárnapi Hírek. The detailed results can be found on the website of the Publicus Research Institute.

October 15, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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