Tag Archives: HírTV

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

Olga Kálmán is leaving ATV for Lajos Simicska’s Hír TV

The news of Olga Kálmán’s departure from ATV and her move to Lajos Simicska’s Hír TV has spread like wildfire. This unexpected event prompted scores of negative comments on the Assembly of Faith, the fundamentalist sect that owns ATV. Columnists also bemoaned the sad state of the Hungarian media, which leaves someone like Kálmán with only two choices: either ATV or Hír TV. They reminded their readers that only a couple of years ago Hír TV was part of the Fidesz media empire. Its journalists made it their mission to hunt down all those liberals whom they considered Viktor Orbán’s enemies. Since the Simicska-Orbán fallout two years ago, however, quite a few newcomers joined the staff and its most vicious mud-slingers left. They will find a congenial home in Lőrinc Mészáros’s new acquisition, Echo TV.

It is an anomaly that a basically conservative or even right-wing sect like the Assembly of Faith keeps up a liberal television station. So the clash of cultures within the walls of ATV should have been expected. Critics claim that Sándor Németh, the leader of the Assembly of Faith, made a deal with the devil in 2012 when, they suspect, he agreed to some level of cooperation with the government in return for his sect’s “recognized” status. The Assembly of Faith is certainly the odd man out among the 26 accepted churches.

The first program that ATV scrapped was the Újságíró Klub with György Bolgár, Tamás Mészáros, and János Avar. Every Monday night the three seasoned reporters, with the assistance of a moderator, discussed the main political events of the previous week. In June 2014, after 14 years of great popularity, ATV did not renew their contracts, allegedly because of lack of interest in the program. Its replacement was a flop and died after a single season.

In May 2016 Sándor Friderikusz got the boot, ostensibly because his excellent conversations with intellectuals were deemed to be too serious for the station’s audience. Friderikusz’s liberal outlook was most likely the real reason. In October Friderikusz gave a lengthy interview to Index in which he described the state of affairs in the studios of ATV under the direction of Sándor Németh’s son, Szilárd. Friderikusz recounted a conversation in which Sándor Németh inquired from him whether he was purposely working for the downfall of Viktor Orbán.

And about a month ago we learned that András Bánó, the long-time director of ATV’s excellent news, is leaving the station. Most people doubt that his departure is voluntary. The pressure is on to get rid of certain people.

Meanwhile, there have been signs that the Assembly of Faith, under the leadership of Sándor Németh, is supporting the government’s views on the migrant issue. ATV, for example, agreed to air the government’s anti-migrant ads, which many faithful ATV viewers strenuously objected to. As we learned lately, Sándor Németh is also an admirer of Donald Trump, as you can see from the photo he posted on his Facebook page.

Sándor Németh, leader of Assembly of Faith, is a very happy man

While serious programs have disappeared one by one, a few “light” programs have been introduced. I can’t imagine that ATV’s viewers like Péter Hajdú’s Frisbee or Zsuzsa Csisztu’s Csisztus24. These programs simply don’t belong on a television station that has until now functioned as a quasi public television station. Today I took a look at both: they are dreadful.

Another “lighthearted” program is Judit Péterfi’s Magánszféra, which is supposed to let us in on politicians’ private lives. I described the program after the first episode as “an extended flirtation between the reporter and the politician, initiated primarily by Judit Péterfi.” Another new program, this one for women, seems to be superior to the other new shows–as long, that is, as one can tolerate Henrik Havas’s constant bragging.

I have no idea how these new programs are faring, but I doubt that they are hits. Friderikusz characterized Szilárd Németh’s leadership of the station as “amateurish,” and the latest changes in programming seem to justify his opinion. If Szilárd Németh, who is apparently under the thumb of his father, keeps going in this direction, ATV will soon disappear. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if by next season most of the new programs are scrapped. It was time for Kálmán to leave. It’s just too bad that the only television station that it is still independent belongs to Lajos Simicska. At least this is the opinion of Kálmán’s fans.

On a brighter note, ATV announced that Egyenes beszéd will continue but Szabad szemmel (With Open Eyes) with Antónia Mészáros on Friday evenings will be discontinued. My hunch is that Mészáros, who is a fine reporter, will take over Egyenes beszéd.

The Fidesz media was shocked by the news of Kálmán’s departure for Hír TV. They immediately went into attack mode. According to Magyar Idők, “the employees of Hír TV were perplexed when they received the news that Olga Kálmán was joining their station.” It’s not just the old hands at the station who are worried about their jobs but even those who joined Hír TV in the last couple of years. Magyar Idők learned that “the leadership of ATV has been worried for some time that Hír TV wants to compete with them by espousing a political view farther to the left than ATV is at the moment.”

Origo seems to be worried about Simicska, who allegedly will be overpaying Olga Kálmán. According to Blikk and other right-wing tabloids, like Ripost and 888.hu, Kálmán’s Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk) is not at all popular. They seem to know that ATV’s “most often watched program is ATV Start, an early morning show.” Moreover, Kálmán’s presence seems to be immaterial to viewers. There was no appreciable difference in the size of viewership when in her absence someone else was before the cameras. So, concludes Origo, “the departure of Olga Kálmán is not an irreplaceable loss to ATV.”

Lokál, a free paper owned by the mysterious Árpád Habony, a right-hand man of Viktor Orbán, portrays Kálmán as a workaholic who was still in the studio four days before her son’s birth and, “as soon as she delivered, she was immediately on the phone on a work-related matter.” The impression these publications are trying to convey is that Kálmán is not only an unpopular TV personality but is also a bad mother. Simicska is wasting his money. All this sounds like sour grapes to me.

When it comes to the offerings of ATV, we must keep in mind that during the day the station airs two-and-a-half hours’ worth of infomercials in addition to the dubbed 700 Club with Pat Robertson, lasting 30 minutes twice a day. On Sundays, one has the pleasure of listening to Sándor Németh’s sermon Vidám Vasárnap (Joyful Sunday). Of course, this is also repeated later. ATV receives quite a bit of money from the Orbán government for airing a documentary series called Hazahúzó (Drawing you home), which depicts different regions of the country. These programs are supposed to be magnets for Hungarians living and working abroad. As we know, all these efforts have been singularly ineffective. This daily program is 40 minutes long and is aired twice a day. So, as you can see, there is a lot of filler here.

During the day I also took the time to check out Hír TV’s fare and found quite a few good programs, including their newscast, which was thorough and professional. At first glance it seems that Hír TV has more substantive programming than ATV. They have only 30 minutes of infomercials, they don’t have to air government propaganda for expats, and they don’t have to show such programs as the 700 Club or Németh’s sermons. On the basis of my sampling, it is definitely worth taking a look at Simicska’s station, quite independently from Olga Kálmán’s joining its staff.

December 18, 2016

For Viktor Orbán the Hungarian media is still too free

I understand that Viktor Orbán is mighty annoyed with the independent media, which in his opinion remains far too critical of his government. For instance, hard-working journalists have unearthed an incredible number of corruption cases. I know that people like to complain about the quality of Hungarian journalism, and I myself often grouse about articles that are hard to follow or are sloppy. On the whole, however, Hungarian journalists should be commended for working under difficult circumstances for very little money. There are a couple of politicians who decided to specialize in exposing corruption cases, like Ákos Hadházy (LMP), Péter Juhász (Együtt), and lately Bertalan Tóth (MSZP), but the bulk of the corruption cases came to light thanks to the growing number of investigative journalists.

Investigative journalism was a new field in post-communist Hungary. I still recall how feeble the first attempts were in the first half of the 1990s. But by the early 2000s there was a handful of first-rate investigative reporters who were, for example, instrumental in informing the public about the enrichment of Viktor Orbán and his family, which was of course modest in comparison to the situation today. And by now there are at least two NGOs, Direct36.hu and Atlatszo.hu, that are non-profit investigative journalism centers “with the mission to expose wrongdoings and abuse of power through fair but tough reporting.”

Orbán would like to tone down or, better yet, stifle the media’s outcry over what’s going on in government circles. His government’s first move was to transform the public broadcasting system, whose staff even before 2010 had been less than independent from Fidesz influence, into a totally servile government propaganda machine. An incredible amount of money was and continues to be poured into a TV station that practically no one watches. Once the low viewership numbers became obvious, the government started a new channel specializing in sports, which is used as a “pseudo news channel.” Every fifteen minutes or so “government news” is broadcast between sports events. This way there is no escaping the news–news that bears a suspicious resemblance to that broadcast in the Rákosi and the early Kádár regimes. People in the trade swear that by the second half of the 1980s journalists at the state television and radio stations had more freedom than employees of the state television and radio stations do today. Just one example. Journalists stopped people on the street to ask about their reaction to the migrants. When one woman said that she has no problem with them, she was told that they are not interested in what she has to say.

Prior to February 2015 the government had an extensive, loyal media network thanks to Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán’s high school friend who owned a TV station, a radio station, a daily newspaper, a free paper distributed at metro stations, and a weekly magazine. The last two publications were also available online. With the fallout between the two old friends, however, Orbán lost Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, both of which were critical for his government, especially since the “state television” (MTV) turned out to be a flop. So, the pro-government gurus moved into high gear and within a year and a half managed to build an even larger network of media outlets. And they haven’t finished their job yet. Friends of the government are buying up popular media properties and transforming them into propaganda machines.

To replace Magyar Nemzet a new pro-government daily was created called Magyar Idők, which is not exactly a favorite of the public. On a list of the fifty most popular online news sites Magyar Idők didn’t make the cut. Mind you, neither did Magyar Nemzet, which in my opinion has become a quite respectable paper in the last year and a half. In addition, several other pro-government internet sites came into being, among them ripost.hu, a tabloid that has a decent-sized readership (179,842/day in July 2016).

chain

The two most popular sites are origo.hu (561,494/day) and index.hu (513,854/day). The former was recently purchased by a cousin of György Matolcsy and has since turned decidedly to the right. Apparently the future of index.hu is not at all assured because the current owner, Zoltán Spéder, is no longer a favorite of the prime minister. There are still a couple of popular independent internet sites like hvg.hu and 444.hu that trounce the official government hirado.hu in readership. Could they be in the government’s crosshairs? Surprisingly, nepszabadsag.hu is not a popular news site, despite the fact that the print version is the most popular nationwide daily paper. But even Népszabadság’s fate is not quite settled yet. There is talk about Vienna Capital Partners selling Népszabadság to the owner of Duna Aszfalt, László Szíjj, who was described by Népszava as a possible front man, along with Lőrinc Mészáros, of Viktor Orbán.

On the television front, government propaganda lost HírTV, but after a lot of finagling Andy Vajna, the former American-Hungarian movie producer who is now the owner of several casinos and a loyal friend of Orbán, purchased the German-owned TV2. Vajna, who is not exactly a poor man, didn’t have enough money for the purchase so the Orbán government gladly lent him 8 billion forints, which most people believe will never be paid back. TV2 was heavily indebted at the time of Vajna’s purchase, and it is unlikely that it will suddenly become wildly popular, surpassing the favorite commercial television station in Hungary, RTL Klub. Only a couple of their shows are attracting a larger audience, while RTL Klub has at least six such favorites.

Passing TV2 to Vajna was not quite enough for Orbán, who would like to have a quality television channel specializing in news. It looks as if there is an attempt to upgrade Echo TV, which is owned by Gábor Széles, a rich man of extreme right-wing political views. Echo TV’s current audience is very small. However, I just read that Ferenc Szaniszló, who had a weekly program and who belongs to what I call the lunatic fringe, was fired and that Echo TV is being reshaped to be a more respectable outlet of news and political discussions serving the government’s needs.

Apparently, Orbán hoped that Lajos Simicska would give up his losing media outlets. In the past, when the two men were still friends, Magyar Nemzet and HírTV received government ads galore in addition to thousands of subscriptions for government offices. Since the blow-up no government advertising money has come Magyar Nemzet’s way. Moreover, the paper isn’t getting much in the way of ads from the private sector either since rich businessmen who are heavily dependent on government orders are afraid to advertise in opposition papers. This is the way the government ensures that papers they consider to be disloyal will starve to death.

Orbán’s aim was the total destruction of Simicska’s media outlets, but so far he hasn’t succeeded. The only victim was the free newspaper Metropol, which used to be distributed at metro stations. One day the Budapest Transit Authority (BKV) broke its contract with Simicska on the grounds that he had received the right of distribution without a tender. BKV immediately signed a contract with Árpád Habony’s Modern Media Group Zrt., whose new publication, Lokál, took its place. I might add that Modern Media Group also received its contract without any competition. Lokál, being a free paper, depends on advertising, and it is chock full of government ads. The government is keeping it afloat.

The picture is grim and, I’m afraid, it can be grimmer still. One can only hope that Orbán, in his insatiable appetite for a servile media, will not gobble up every important outlet, leaving only crumbs for the opposition. If, for example, pro-government owners were to acquire hvg or index, it would be an irreparable blow to the democratic opposition.

September 22, 2016