Tag Archives: Hír TV

Silencing the media: Hír TV

I have noticed in the last month or so that Fidesz and the Orbán government are paying far too much attention to Hír TV, which has gone through quite a metamorphosis since February 6, 2015, the day known in Hungary as G-Day . It was on that day that Lajos Simicska told the world that Viktor Orbán and he had parted ways. Moreover, he called Orbán “geci,” which I “politely” translated at the time as “prick.” In the original it was much worse. After this day Simicska’s daily paper Magyar Nemzet, his radio station Lánchíd Rádió, and his television station Hír TV, ceased to be government mouthpieces. I must say that, as a result, the quality of Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV has vastly improved. It is another matter that one can only marvel at the “ideological flexibility” of those reporters who remained, because the change from a pro- to an anti-government stance took place practically overnight.

The loss of Hír TV must have been a heavy blow to the Orbán government, which it tried to redress by getting Andy Vajna, the former American-Hungarian movie producer, to purchase TV2, a commercial station that serves the whole country. Although the producers of TV2’s newscast have been doing their best to tarnish the opponents of the government, Viktor Orbán is still not satisfied. At least this is the impression I got when I heard that Gábor Széles, a far-right Fidesz supporter, was ready to sell his Echo TV to Lőrinc Mészáros. With the change of ownership, the work of making Echo TV, a formerly right-radical station, into a replacement for Hír TV began. At the same time, Fidesz is doing its best to squeeze Simicska’s Hír TV financially.

Hír TV was Fidesz’s channel from the moment of its inception in January 2003. The first president of the company was the same Gábor Borókai who had been the government spokesman of the first Orbán government (1998-2002). Many of the channel’s early reporters actually ended up working for the government after 2010. In October 2015 Péter Tarr, deputy CEO of Hír TV, admitted that “members of the government’s communication team visited the station at least once a week in order to give instructions” to those responsible for the ideological content of the station. By 2007 Hír TV could reach 2.1 million households.

After G-Day, many of the top brass both at Magyar Nemzet and HírTV left, among them the staff of “Célpont” (Target), who were investigative journalists. For a while this very popular weekly program was off the air. Now, however, it is back, and rumor has it that considerable effort, financial and otherwise, is being expended to make it HírTV’s flagship program, alongside Olga Kálmán’s forthcoming interview show. Given the incredible corruption surrounding the present government, a program of this sort is certainly a good investment, especially since ATV doesn’t have the financial resources to include such a show in its programming lineup.

Distressed by all these changes at Hír TV, Fidesz and the Orbán government moved into action. Even earlier, the Fidesz leadership had forbidden members of the government and high officials of the party to accept invitations from Hír TV. Now they are putting pressure on cable companies, suggesting that they drop Hír TV from their offerings. One company, PR-Telecom, obliged and announced that as of January 1, they had dropped Hír TV along with six other, mostly foreign-language, channels. At the same time the company announced that 14 new channels will be available, among them six that are owned by Andy Vajna. While they were at it, the company picked up two porn channels as well. The majority stakeholder in PR-Telecom is an off-shore company in Malta, Central Eastern Cable & Media Group Limited, whose owner is the same man in whose yacht Lőrinc Mészáros was seen in the harbor of Zadar last summer. What a coincidence, don’t you think?

Soon enough Magyar Nemzet discovered that PR-Telekom had received state aid to the tune of 3.3 billion forints a couple of months before the cable company informed Hír TV of its decision to break its contract. The grant (and it’s an outright grant, not a loan) for improvements of the company’s network in certain regions of the country came from money Hungary had received from the European Union. This is how the EU is unwittingly aiding the undemocratic policies of the Orbán government. Luckily, not all is lost as far as Hír TV is concerned. Since the cable company’s breach of contract was illegal, those subscribers who would like to switch service providers can do so without any penalty. At least this is what Hír TV claims on its website.

Meanwhile Hír TV has been hiring people right and left. Some of them came from the defunct Népszabadság, others from the state television. The government mouthpiece, Magyar Idők, has been watching all this with a certain amount of apprehension. Its articles talked about the alleged tension within Hír TV because the same Péter Tarr who earlier had complained about government interference in its programming now announced that the channel will be even more “critical of the government.” The newspaper provided a long list of reporters who have already joined or will join Simicska’s cable network.

The government-sponsored Pesti Srácok learned that Simicska’s partner in Közgép Zrt., Zsolt Nyerges, had announced that he is no longer ready to sacrifice his quite significant wealth on Simicska’s “pointless fight” with Viktor Orbán while their business is dying. Apparently the “discussion” was so vehement that it almost turned into a fist fight. Whether such an encounter happened or not (Nyerges denies that it did), Közgép announced Nyerges’s retirement as CEO and the appointment of Ildikó Vida in his stead. Her name ought to be familiar to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum since she used to be head of the Hungarian Internal Revenue Service. She was suspected of corrupt practices and thus barred by the U.S. government from entering the United States.

Viktor Orbán takes the remaining few opposition electronic media outlets deadly seriously. As it stands, by now there are only two government-critical television channels left in the country. Both can be reached only by cable. Hungarian political observers are convinced that 90% of all media today is in government hands. Yet it seems that 90% is still not enough. Viktor Orbán seems set on silencing all voices critical of his regime.

This reminds me of an article by Ekaterina Shulman, a Russian political scientist, which I read in a Hungarian summary. She called Putin’s Russia a “hybrid regime,” 80 percent propaganda and 20 percent coercion. This description of the leading illiberal democracy also fits the regime Viktor Orbán has built in the last seven years. Even the arch-conservative Batthyány Circle of Professors, which in the past had found the state of the country to be picture perfect, recently called attention to the gap between “appearance and reality,” the former having the upper hand in today’s Hungary. And to sustain appearance and suppress reality a government needs a full pipeline of propaganda with a healthy dose of coercion.

January 16, 2017

Viktor Orbán explains what went wrong

If I hadn’t already known that Viktor Orbán is in serious political trouble, I would certainly have discovered it last night while watching an interview he gave to Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of Fidesz and a foul-mouthed racist who thinks he is a journalist. The interview was aired on Echo TV, a far-right television station catering to Jobbik supporters and to those Fidesz voters whose political views are practically indistinguishable from the ideology and racism of Jobbik.

After his falling out with Lajos Simicska, a former friend and financial wizard of Fidesz, Orbán no longer wants to use HírTV, Lánchíd Rádió, or Magyar Nemzet, all Simicska businesses. László Kövér indicated that the party considers these media outlets to be mouthpieces of the opposition. Fidesz politicians have been advised to keep away from them. In the meantime the government, behind the scenes, is creating a new “independent” media empire.

Why did Orbán use the far-right Echo TV instead of the new state television’s news channel, M1? Although M1 is a flop, it still has a wider audience than Echo TV. The only explanation I can think of is that Fidesz is sending a message to Jobbik supporters, who most likely prefer Echo TV above all others, that Fidesz is no less radical than Jobbik is.

It was a long interview, a little over 45 minutes, and a lot of topics were covered, but what I personally found most interesting was the discussion about “the confusion” in the party and the government. I assume Bayer was addressing the party’s lack of direction and the resultant slide in its popularity. He introduced an idea he had written about earlier, that Fidesz has lost its “soul.” Naturally, Viktor Orbán doesn’t believe that there is any intrinsic problem with his leadership. The “confusion” is not in Fidesz or in the government but in the heads of his right-wing supporters. The reason for this confusion is the government’s loss of the media that in the past explained the policies of his administration and directed public opinion in the proper way.

So, if I understand it correctly, Orbán more or less admits here that without a Fidesz-created servile media he and other Fidesz politicians would be nowhere today. They needed Magyar Nemzet, Heti Válasz, and HírTV, which were financed by Fidesz operatives such as Lajos Simicska. Try to imagine a similar situation in a truly democratic country where the president’s or the prime minister’s success depends on the existence of a secretly financed media empire. And once, for one reason or other, something goes wrong and the owner of that media conglomerate withdraws support, the whole government and the government party are suddenly heading toward oblivion. Because this is what seems to have been going on in Hungary for more than a decade. At least since 2002.

Perhaps I should add here that a large chunk of that money came straight from Brussels. Even during the socialist-liberal period Lajos Simicska’s companies received plenty of government projects. There is also a strong possibility that Simicska was not the only Hungarian CEO who secretly worked for Fidesz. Of course, after 2010 the government coffers were opened wide to Fidesz-supporting entrepreneurs who surely paid the party back for favors received.

At the time of the Simicska-Orbán confrontation the majority of commentators were convinced that Lajos Simicska would come out the loser. After all, the power and purse strings of the state are in Viktor Orbán’s hands. He is the one who can destroy Simicska’s business ventures. In the past, it was Viktor Orbán who made sure that huge government projects landed at Simicska’s concerns, and now those orders will go elsewhere. Of course, this may be true in the short term, but what if the “confusion” in the heads of the Hungarian people remains because there are no longer industrious scribblers who try to point their minds in the “right direction”?

Orbán obviously realizes how important it is to create another servile Fidesz media, and I’m sure they are furiously working on it. Orbán specifically mentioned Gábor Liszkay’s purchase of Napi Gazdaság as a first step toward rebuilding a government-servile media conglomerate, but it will take time, if it’s even possible, to make a second Magyar Nemzet out of what used to be a financial paper. And second, there is a good possibility that by now a lot of Fidesz supporters can no longer be so easily swayed. It is enough to read the comments in Magyar Hírlap following the article that describes the interview. Keep in mind that this is a far-right paper. Here’s a tiny sample. “Something was broken. This is not the same Fidesz any more. There is too much senseless arbitrariness. Too much János Lázár.” This is not a left-wing troll writing here. I’m sure that he used to be a true believer. Another reader realizes that “if there is no media on the right, just on the left, then there will be big trouble. By now all media are anti-Orbán and anti-Fidesz.” Of course, there are still many who are glad that Viktor Orbán explained so clearly what the real trouble is, but another reader suggests that perhaps the prime minister should have mentioned some of the mistakes he and his government made. It will be difficult for the government to pick up where they left off.

Another topic I found fascinating was Viktor Orbán’s evaluation of his tenure as prime minister between 2010 and 2015. There seems to be a new twist in his interpretation of his own role as well as the accomplishments of his government. Until now we have been told that in April 2010 a revolution occurred, a revolution in the voting booths. Now, however, he sees the whole four years following the election of 2010 as a revolution, which he considers a fantastic accomplishment. After all, there have not been too many “victorious” revolutions in Hungarian history. Now the gates to a “polgári Magyarország” (a prosperous Hungary with a well-off middle class) are open. “We just have to enter them.” But one must be vigilant because “the opposition wants [to stage] a counterrevolution,” and therefore they are doing everything in their power to prevent the establishment of that long-sought “polgári Magyarország.” What followed was even more bizarre than his description of the opposition as a bunch of counterrevolutionaries. “We have been victorious and that the opposition is attacking us is an excellent sign. They would like to take our place because now it is good for us and bad for them.” A true democrat is speaking here.

The right-wing media in turmoil

At the moment the government’s only absolutely reliable mouthpieces are Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió. Lajos Simicska’s media empire is still in transition, and the government’s new media complex has not yet been launched. So, the media confusion on the right is considerable, which is bad news for a government that thinks that the real key to success is communication. As it stands now, MTV’s new all-news channel is a flop, and Fidesz for all practical purposes is boycotting Hír TV, Simicska’s television station.

After Simicska publicly broke with his old friend Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the true Orbán loyalists left Magyar Nemzetthe flagship of the pro-government media, most likely knowing that Viktor Orbán was already working on a replacement of the media conglomerate financed by Simicska and that they would have no difficulty finding jobs in the future. Meanwhile, rumor had it that part owner and editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV, Gábor Liszkay, might be taking over Napi Gazdaság, a financial paper, transforming it into a full-coverage daily in the spirit of Magyar Nemzet.

The first issue of Napi Gazdaság under the editorship of Gábor Liszkay

The first issue of Napi Gazdaság under the editorship of Gábor Liszkay

The recent history of Napi Gazdaság is intriguing. It shows how easily Viktor Orbán can pull strings with allegedly independent enterprises if and when he needs their cooperation. In 2013 Századvég Intézet purchased Napi Gazdaság, which until then had been an independent organ. Now that the government and Fidesz need a daily paper, it was enough for Viktor Orbán to call on Századvég and ask the management to sell the paper to Gábor Liszkay and Árpád Habony, about whom I’ve written earlier. Indeed, as of yesterday Napi Gazdaság belongs to Liszkay, and the group of people who left Magyar Nemzet have followed him to his new venture. I understand that even the typesetters and the proofreaders are from Simicska’s paper. At Napi Gazdaság changes have already taken place. For example, the paper became two pages longer. After a few months its name will also be changed.

While preparations for the establishment of genuine pro-government media have been underway, Fidesz was also working on punishing Simicska for his disloyalty. It wasn’t enough to entice Magyar Nemzet‘s and Hír TV’s staff. There was also talk in town about Fidesz politicians boycotting Hír TV. Fidesz denied the charges. As a result, there was quite an exchange between János Lázár and one of the editors of Hír TV, in which the editor called Lázár a liar. Well, the truth is that Antal Rogán didn’t use the word “boycott,” but his words strongly indicated that it would not be advisable for a Fidesz politician to accept an invitation from Hír TV. In the past, Rogán said in his interview on M1, there were “compulsory appearances” on Hír TV and “mandatory interviews” in Magyar Nemzet. From here on Fidesz politicians “can go if they want.” It will be their personal decision. Boycott or no boycott, if I were a Fidesz politician I wouldn’t rush to accept an invitation from Hír TV or Magyar Nemzet.

László Kövér, right after the falling out between Orbán and Simicska, declared in an interview with Magyar Hírlap, a paper that espouses Jobbik ideology and that lately has become a favorite organ of Fidesz politicians who can’t or don’t want to have any dealings with Hír TV, that Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV are “opposition organs.” What does “opposition” mean here? In my reading, Kövér thought that the paper moved too far to the left and often “criticized the government unjustly.” But lately, especially after the Tapolca by-election when Fidesz at last realized that Jobbik is a threat, the party line changed. Now the charge is that Lajos Simicska is moving over to Jobbik and is offering his services to this neo-Nazi party. Surely, this is another Fidesz lie. I have been diligently reading Magyar Nemzet‘s op-ed pages and there is not a morsel of truth in this allegation.

Sándor Csintalan, who works for Lánchíd Rádió, another Simicska concern, in a Facebook note accused Rogán of losing touch with reality. Csintalan himself has quite a past, and he has few if any friends among politicians and commentators on the left, but this time I think he is right. Csintalan pointed out that “when Jobbik wins, an event you do a lot for, then thank your pals, Habony and Vajna, and look into the mirror. Stop and think a little before it’s too late.” Even if one doesn’t believe Csintalan, one should read László Seres’s short piece in HVG. He quotes Rogán as saying that “one must be blind not to see that Magyar Nemzet, Hír TV, and Lánchíd Rádió are getting closer and closer to the extreme right.” Seres responded: “We must be blind because we don’t see it.”

Yes, Magyar Nemzet became critical of the Orbán government, but it is not the only right-wing organ that carries such opinion pieces. Even such old loyalists as András Bencsik or Zsolt Bayer, the organizers of the Peace Marches, have become disillusioned. Their articles in Demokrata and Magyar Hírlap criticize Fidesz because it has abandoned its ideals. They are disappointed, but they still talk longingly of old Fidesz, especially during the period between 1998 and 2002 when Fidesz had a mission: to create a “bourgeois democracy,” a “polgári Magyarország.”

Now that the shackles of party restraints have been removed, the more talented members of Magyar Nemzet are putting out a good right-of-center paper. If it finds an audience, it will provide some real competition to papers on the left. Tomorrow I will sample some op-ed pages I especially found revealing, offering insights into the mood of former Orbán loyalists.

The new Hungarian media tsar: Mónika Karas

For Viktor Orbán control of the media is a political priority.  His government institutionalized this priority by creating the Media Authority, initially chaired by Annamária Szalai. She was the perfect person for the job, and I’m sure that Orbán mourned her death last April. He had to find a replacement who was both loyal to him and who, as mandated by law, demonstrated professional competence in media matters.

Months of searching and fiddling with the requirements followed. At one point there were rumors that Tamás Deutsch might be tapped since he had represented Fidesz in a parliamentary committee dealing with the media. Well, that was too bizarre an idea and I doubt that Orbán seriously considered his old friend for the job, a friend whom he had already exiled to Brussels years before. Mind you, exile in Brussels can always be cut short if there is need. Just think of János Áder who was called back after the fall of President Pál Schmitt. Still, a fouled-mouthed, irresponsible, and not too bright 50-year-old who has never grown up would have been a liability. Someone else had to be found.

Today the nominee to head the “independent” agency was announced: Mónika Karas, a lawyer who since 2004 has represented two Fidesz media outlets: Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV.

Perhaps the best comment I saw was a one-liner after the news hit the Internet: “This must be a joke.” Unfortunately, it is not. This woman will surely be appointed by János Áder for a nine-year term. As blogger “vastagbőr” (thick skin) pointed out, even if Viktor Orbán hangs on until 2022 Mónika Karas will still outlast him as head of the Media Authority for a few months. That’s called a long tenure!

Karas’s record as a lawyer is pretty dismal. Mind you, it is not easy to be the defense lawyer for Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV since both outlets are full of irresponsible propagandists with scant regard for the truth. Thus Mónika Karas lost one case after the other. “Vastagbőr” found twelve of her cases in the archives of the Hungarian News Agency (MTI). But this list is incomplete. I myself found a few more that MTI didn’t report on.

The summaries of these cases are boring reading. Almost all of them inform the reader that Magyar Nemzet lost the case in the lower court but that “Mónika Karas told MTI that they will surely appeal because the verdict is erroneous.” Later on came the report that Magyar Nemzet lost the appeal. She had to tell her sad story many times over between 2004 and 2013. One day I will return to some of her more important cases, including the one where she represented Szárhegy-dűlő-Sárazsadány-Tokajhegyalja Kft. in which the Orbáns had an interest in 2005.  She also worked for Árpád Habony, the éminence grise behind Viktor Orbán’s propaganda machine, and represented Antal Rogán’s district in downtown Pest against an Internet investigative website, Átlátszó (atltszo.hu). She is connected to Viktor Orbán, Fidesz, and its media empire in multiple ways. So much for the independence of the Hungarian Media Authority.

Mónika Karas / Magyar Nemzet

Mónika Karas / Magyar Nemzet

Karas represented Magyar Nemzet in 2012 when Ferenc Gyurcsány sued the paper over its claim that he plagiarized his senior paper. Once again she lost because of Magyar Nemzet‘s sloppy handling of the facts. Gyurcsány spoke from personal experience today when he said that Karas was as unsuccessful as a lawyer as she is unfit for her new job. He described Mónika Karas as “the cleaning lady of Fidesz’s lying factory.” He somewhat optimistically added that Karas will not be the head of the Media Authority for long because she will be removed from the agency right after the elections.

According to her official biography, Karas passed intermediate language exams in German and Russian and speaks English on an “introductory level,” which in my opinion means that she doesn’t know the language. As a sharp-tongued journalist said: “This way it will be difficult to write notes on Facebook, ask the Americans to forbid the appearance of kuruc.info, buy Sanoma [Media Group], or whatever her duties will be.” By way of explanation, Fidesz at the moment is in the middle of a frontal attack on Sanoma, which is the owner of the largest school textbook company in Hungary. The word is that the Orbán government wants to nationalize the whole textbook industry to create one big publishing company that publishes a single standard text for each subject.  Just like in the Kádár regime.

But there are much more interesting items that can be found in this official biography. What caught my eye was that Mónika Karas was legal counsel to Magyar Fórum Kft., the publisher of István Csurka’s Magyar Fórum, the anti-Semitic MIÉP party’s official organ, between 1993 and 2002. The biography also contains an item mentioning the innocuous sounding “Lapkiadó Vállalat” (Newspaper Publishing Co.). I must say that I was not suspicious until a friend who is much more familiar with the Kádár regime’s secrets than I am informed me that “the Lapkiadó Vállalat was an extraordinary outfit, not even a state company, but directly subordinated to the Party (MSZMP) leadership, also owned by the Party. To work there, one had to have a security clearance on a higher level than even at the secret police: they published all local papers and all official organs of the county Party committees.”

Another item in the official biography is her stint as general counsel for the company that published Esti Hírlap between 1992 and 1994. Well, the innocent sounding Esti Hírlap also has a history. According to my informant Esti Hírlap was the afternoon party tabloid (naturally also published by Lapkiadó Vállalat), widely considered to have been the semi-official organ of the secret service and in general of the Ministry of the Interior. Apparently Esti Hírlap, even after the regime change, was largely staffed by old-timers inherited from the Kádár regime.

So, it seems that Mónika Karas is one of those who transitioned easily from the communist media to the far-right media. By the way, those who want a sense of István Csurka’s anti-semitic Magyar Fórum at the time that Karas was working for Csurka’s company should read Zsófia Mihancsik’s article in Antiszemita közbeszéd Magyarországon 2001-ben (see pp 77-90), which contains a wide selection of quotations from Magyar Fórum.

Not surprisingly, all the opposition leaders are up in arms. Gergely Karácsony talked about the Karas appointment in the name of Együtt 2014-PM. He promised to ask János Áder not to put his signature on Karas’s appointment. But János Áder, who is just as much a puppet as Karas, is highly unlikely to accommodate. Karácsony called attention to recent signs pointing to the expansion of the Fidesz media empire. For instance, Századvég, a Fidesz think tank largely financed by the government, just purchased the economic daily Napi Gazdaság. Appointing the legal representative of the Simicska-Nyerges media enterprise will only solidify Fidesz’s hold over the media.

Ildikó Lendvai (MSZP) emphasized the international implications of the appointment. You may recall that the first serious clash between the European Commission and the Orbán government occurred over the media law. The conflict eventually ended with some minor adjustments to the media law but its essence remained pretty well untouched. By appointing Karas, Viktor Orbán’s message to Brussels is: “we are not going to change our media policies.”

Indeed, Fidesz’s grip on the media is as tight as ever and its media empire continues to expand. And, making sure that things will remain this way, perhaps until 2022, will be Mónika Karas.