Tag Archives: media

Hungarian secret agent on the Russian threat

A real bombshell exploded yesterday when Index published both in English and in Hungarian a lengthy interview with Ferenc Katrein, who worked in the civilian counter-intelligence agency for 13 years. His highest position at the agency was “executive head of operations.” He dealt with such sensitive issues as the country’s defense against the Russian secret service. In 2013 he left the agency because he “no longer could identify with the leadership,” which was following the decidedly pro-Russian policies of the Orbán government.

Katrein considers the Russian threat in Europe very serious, “the highest level” in recent years. The Russians are putting a great deal of work into “aggravating the migration crisis and especially in using it for propaganda and gaining influence.” A few months ago Ferenc Gyurcsány estimated the number of Russian agents in Hungary to be somewhere between 600 and 800, which, according to Katrein, might not be an exaggeration. If one includes “the complete web of connections employed by Russian intelligence to serve Russian interests, including dark intelligence, this number looks … realistic.”

In general, Katrein complains about the passivity of the agency. He realized at the time of the 2006 disturbances that “we are a sleeping agency,” that the agency was overlooking threats from extremist elements. It took some time to become more or less proactive.

We know that Fidesz, while in opposition, had close relations with former agents who had been booted out of the service but who still had friends in the agency who were passing information about government members and others to Fidesz. It is quite possible that some of these agents were sympathetic to extremist groups that could serve the interests of Viktor Orbán.

Ferenc Katrein / Index / Photo: István Huszti

After the 2010 change of government, when the agency became subordinated to the ministry of interior headed by Sándor Pintér, a former police chief, “the philosophy of the police” triumphed over “the philosophy of the secret service. …Something has to happen, a crime, a murder for the mechanism to start.” A good example of this mindset was the agency’s unwillingness to interfere in the activities of the Hungarian National Front (Magyar Nemzet Arcvonal/MNA) and GRU, the Russian military secret service. You may recall that István Győrkös’s group was playing war games with officers attached to the Russian Embassy in Budapest. By the time officers of the agency were sent out to confront the head of MNA, it was too late. One of them was killed by Győrkös.

In Katrein’s opinion, cooperation between an extremist group and the Russian military secret service is something that must be reported to the government by the head of the agency. Moreover, such a piece of vital information must be sent to partner agencies in NATO because “everybody’s fighting its own far-right organizations in Europe.” Katrein expressed his hope that the information was sent to Hungary’s partners. I wouldn’t be at all certain about that.

In the interview Katrein said that Russia placed a large number of agents in the former Soviet satellites in the late 1980s because it was becoming clear that the socialist order’s days were numbered. But this generation of “deep cover agents is close to retirement, which means that the Russians are looking for opportunities to refresh the personnel.” Apparently the Hungarian residency bond program is such an opportunity. Thousands of Russians can be placed in Hungary this way.

Moreover, if one looks at the media or among the so-called advisers and national security experts, it is apparent that the Russians have already deeply penetrated that vital sector for propaganda purposes. The personnel of the Hungarian state television and radio wittingly or unwittingly work as Russian agents. The same is true of government mouthpieces like Magyar Idők, Pesti Srácok, and 888.hu. National security experts talk about the failure of the West, the uselessness of the European Union, and the sins of the United States. They portray the refugees marching toward Europe as a controlled invasion. Lately, these “experts” have begun attacking NATO while remaining silent about Russia. In fact, some of them even deny Russian interference in the U.S. election on the side of Donald Trump. These “experts” surely couldn’t spread their falsified information without the authorization and support of the Hungarian government. Katrein’s opinion of these people “who consider themselves experts while they panic and talk about war and invasion are not experts but something else.” He didn’t spell it out, but I will. They are likely Russian agents.

When the conversation turned to the relations of NATO’s partner agencies with their Hungarian counterparts, Katrein described the situation this way: “You are in the international bloodstream if you have joint issues with other agencies, not only in counter-espionage but in counter-terrorism as well. If these are there, you are in the club. If these are not there, you are on the periphery.”

Although Magyar Idők, at least in one of the editorials published after the interview, tried to portray the conversation with the former counter-intelligence officer as a condemnation of the national security services before 2010, Katrein’s main critique was reserved for the situation created as a result of the Orbán government’s so-called “Eastern Opening” and the pro-Russian course that followed. Prior to the merging of the military intelligence services into the Military National Security Service, Hungarian military intelligence was completely pro-NATO. Now, it is very heavily pro-Russian. This was the reason for Katrein’s resignation.

It seems that the Orbán government was unprepared for Katrein’s revelations. Although Viktor Orbán felt he had to say something, his comments were inadequate given the harsh criticism of his pro-Russian policies. The only thing he managed to mutter was that although Hungary is not the largest country on earth, it is situated in an important part of it. Both to the East and to the West there are countries for which Hungary is important. Hungary cannot be isolated. It can only be defended. And, Orbán continued, the country has been well defended ever since 2010.

Orbán left the job of discrediting Katrein to the hacks of his media empire, but the result was confusion. Since the appearance of the interview Magyar Idők has published four articles on the subject, the first of which, as I said, tried to portray the interview as a condemnation of the agency during the socialist-liberal governments before 2010. This feat was accomplished by leaving out all references to the current government’s pro-Russian policies, which agents slavishly follow. In this first article Katrein was portrayed as a hero. But then Magyar Idők realized that the damning interview can’t be handled this way, so it moved into attack mode. It claimed that Katrein didn’t leave the agency on his own volition but was fired. Moreover, “secret service experts” now claim that “well-known foreign groups want to influence the foreign policy of the government, its consistent policy toward migration, and its cooperation with the president of the United States.” Yes, those foreigners are trying to ruin the Hungarian government.

International relations, due mostly to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, are in flux. We have no idea about the nature of U.S. foreign policy toward Russia in the coming months and years. As things stand now, it would be exceedingly risky for Trump to conduct the kind of pro-Russian policy he most likely originally envisaged. In any case, the Hungarian government is trying to get close to the top echelon of the Trump administration. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó already got as far as Sebastian Gorka, the pride of the Hungarian right.

March 22, 2017

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

Fidesz censorship in Transylvania

Today I am venturing into an area about which I know relatively little: the situation of the Hungarian media in Transylvania. Keeping track of the media within the country’s borders is hard enough. I have little time to browse Hungarian news sites outside of the country. I’m not alone, it seems. The Transylvanian-born Gáspár Miklós Tamás, or, as he is known in Hungary, TGM, noted lately that Hungarian-Hungarians are neither interested in nor knowledgeable enough about local affairs to be able to follow the Transylvanian Hungarian media.

I’ve written several posts in the past about Viktor Orbán’s determination to have control over Hungarian political parties in the neighboring countries. As early as 2010 Fidesz refused to finance or even recognize parties that had in any way cooperated with the political majority. In Slovakia the successful Most-Híd party was not even accepted as a Hungarian party because its membership included Slovaks as well as Hungarians. Instead, the Orbán government poured money into the Party of the Hungarian Coalition, which since 2010 has never been represented in the Slovak parliament. Most-Híd, on the other hand, has been an active participant in Slovak politics and is currently a coalition partner in the third Fico government.

Something similar was going on in Transylvania as well. Ever since 1989 Romanian-Hungarian voters have been exclusively represented by the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania or RMDSZ. The Orbán government, however, was anything but satisfied with the party because RMDSZ off and on participated in Romanian coalition governments. Relations between the Budapest government and RMDSZ deteriorated to the point that Orbán opted to support a right-wing party in Romania called Magyar Polgári Párt (MPP). The hope was that MPP would be strengthened to the point that it could assume the leading role in Romanian-Hungarian politics. By 2014, however, when it became clear that MPP would not be able to compete successfully against RMDSZ, Orbán had to change tactics. Hungarian politicians were dispatched to patch up the political division between the two Transylvanian parties to ensure that Hungarians would have representation in the Romanian parliament. Viktor Orbán even went to Transylvania to campaign on behalf of RMDSZ. But although the Orbán government had to give up its original idea, it didn’t leave Romania empty-handed. In exchange for its support, it seems, the RMDSZ leadership had to agree to some major concessions.

With this lengthy introduction, we have arrived at the “compromise” between the party of Transylvanian Hungarians and the Budapest government. In return for the generous support Budapest is now providing to RMDSZ, Fidesz demands obedience and total ideological identification with the Orbán government’s far-right political orientation. RMDSZ until now had given money to publications that were somewhat critical of the Orbán government. No longer. Viktor Orbán demanded the cleansing of all “objectionable” publications.

The first victim was Erdélyi Riport published in Kolozsvár/Cluj. RMDSZ was financing the publication through a foundation which is apparently quite well endowed. The Erdélyi Riport had been in existence for 14 years, but the foundation recently informed the editors that due to a lack of money the publication “will be suspended for an indefinite period of time.”

An internet news site called maszol.ro has also run into difficulties with RMDSZ and its foundation. At the beginning of December the editors of maszol.ro, successor to Új Magyar Szó, refused to publish an article that criticized Péter Szijjártó’s “instructions” to Hungarian diplomats to boycott Romania’s national holiday. The author of the article was immediately fired. The same thing happened a few days ago to Hugó Ágoston, the editor responsible for maszol.ru‘s op-ed page. Ágoston, a well-respected journalist in Transylvania, believes that the reason for his dismissal was his “criticism of the Hungarian government’s anti-democratic policies, especially its poisonous hate campaign and its treatment of the media, in particular the elimination of Népszabadság.

Hugó Ágoston

Although the Hungarian media in Transylvania was never entirely independent since it always relied on RMDSZ for funding, for a long time there was an understanding that RMDSZ wouldn’t foist any ideology on the publications it financed. That changed over the last year or so when Orbán reached an “understanding” with RMDSZ. Ágoston in his letter to kettosmerce.blog emphasized the necessity of returning to the pluralism that existed before 2014. I’m sure that Ágoston doesn’t really believe that this is going to happen any time soon. The fired journalist’s farewell article can be read here.

TGM in his article rightly points out that the Orbán government’s meddling in the affairs of a foreign country is worrisome and legally questionable. The Romanian government also supports Hungarian publications, and therefore it might be troubling to Bucharest that “the Hungarian publications in Romania are being edited, censored, directed, or banned either from the private residence of Viktor Orbán or from the Prime Minister’s Office.” It is truly amazing that Orbán refuses to tolerate even the very small liberal community that exists in Transylvania where the overwhelming majority of Hungarians are loyal supporters of Fidesz. His goal is total control at home as well as abroad.

January 4, 2017

Sabotage at the new Fidesz media company?

Just before the holidays Viktor Orbán gave an exclusive interview to Mediaworks, whose new owner is most likely his own alter-ego/chief stróman/front man, the pipefitter from Felcsút, Lőrinc Mészáros. Part of the Mediaworks stable is Pannon Lapok Társasága (PLT), which owns five regional papers: Fejér Megyei Hírlap, Napló (serving Veszprém County), Vas Népe, Zalai Hírlap, and Dunaújvárosi Hírlap. With the exception of the last paper, each of the regional dailies is printed in 35,000-45,000 copies. They are among the few Hungarian newspapers that actually make money.

National news for these papers comes from the center, which is in Veszprém. The regional offices are responsible for local news. Naturally, the exclusive interview with the prime minister was to be printed in all five PLT papers.

An eagle-eyed reader of Fejér Megyei Hírlap discovered some anti-government sentences in the interview. How embarrassing, especially on Viktor Orbán’s home turf, in Fejér County.

The journalists of 444.hu couldn’t quite believe their eyes when they received a photocopy of the page. But, yes, there they were: four sentences that obviously didn’t belong. Most likely not too many people discovered these sentences. One has to be a real admirer of Viktor Orbán to read every word of his not so sterling prose.

PLT announced that “unknown culprits falsified the interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán,” for which the company apologized. It directed readers to the original text, in the newspaper’s online edition.

Uniform government propaganda

What were the textual alterations? After the sentence “Hungary is a stable island in the seething western world because we asked the opinion of the people,” the culprit added, “although [the answer] didn’t interest us.” Orbán bragged about the raises nurses will receive in 2017 and 2018, which prompted our “editor” to add that “the number of corpses in the hospitals is also rising.” Orbán made the mistake of stating that “the allegation of corruption as a political instrument has become accepted,” to which the sentence “We also use it” was added. And finally, Orbán said that he “wished that many people should again find the original meaning of Christmas because, after all, we are expecting the birth of the Redeemer.” The text was changed to: “wished that many people should again find the pagan meaning of Christmas.”

The PLT spokesman announced that the company will take legal steps. As a first move the management and company lawyers began a ten-hour interrogation of five members of the editorial staff, at the end of which all five were fired. Two were from the Veszprém headquarters and three from Székesfehérvár. Apparently the management of PLT would have been satisfied with lesser punishments in some of the cases, but Péter Csermely, a high official in Mediaworks who used to be the editor-in-chief of Magyar Idők, was adamant.

It seems that the fired employees are not taking their dismissals lying down. The three people from Székesfehérvár argue that local editors are forbidden to touch any of the material that comes from the center, and this material came from Veszprém. They had nothing to do with it, they claim.

Of course, the whole case is intriguing. Soon after the discovery of the interview’s falsification all sorts of hypotheses began to circulate. Those who know about such things are certain that the changes had to be made in the very last minute, perhaps seconds before the final product went to press. The perpetrator, they hypothesize, had to be thoroughly familiar with the process of putting a newspaper to bed.

During the internal investigation it came to light that the computer that was used to alter the text belonged to the Veszprém office and that the person who used that particular computer was not in the office when the offense occurred. The problem for the investigators is that the computers in the different local offices are networked. They can be accessed from anywhere in the system. And so, although the Mediaworks management and company lawyers spent 10 hours interrogating the hapless editors, they still don’t have the foggiest idea who the culprit was. In fact, the company pretty well admitted as much when it filed a complaint with the police against an “unknown perpetrator.”

The second question is: What was the goal of the man or woman who played this particular trick? To make fun of Viktor Orbán? To express disgust with the whole regime?  Perhaps the person simply has a wicked sense of humor. Or, perhaps something else.

Of course, I don’t have an answer, but here’s something that might shed light on the matter. I discovered a local Veszprém online news site called Veszprém Kukac. Kukac means “worm” in Hungarian, but in our computer age the @ sign is called “kukac” by Hungarians. On this modest local website a certain Gabriella Bartuc wrote a lengthy “comment to the firing.” It turns out that Bartuc was one of ten journalists who two years ago were fired by F. Bernadett Németh, the editor-in-chief of Napló, one of the five people that Mediaworks just dismissed. Bartuc admits that she has no sympathy for Németh, who shortly after her arrival from Vas Népe began her career in Veszprém by firing her and nine of her colleagues. She deserved what she got, says Bartuc.

Apparently, Németh started off at Népszava but soon enough discovered that there was a dearth of “conservative” journalists and switched to the “right side.” She also discovered religion practically overnight and began to be a loyal supporter of the Orbán government. After she got rid of her “liberal” colleagues, she hired “people off the street” in addition to friends and relatives to replace the fired seasoned journalists. The quality of the paper quickly deteriorated. Gabriella Bartuc, at the end of her article, recalls that Bernadett Németh intimated in one of her articles that it was God’s will that she became the editor-in-chief of Napló. Bartuc ironically asks: “Did God withdraw the mandate?”

Could it be that someone on the staff of Napló in Veszprém wanted to embarrass a woman who called her colleagues useless no-goods who are worth nothing? I don’t know, but it’s possible. The official position of Mediaworks, however, is that the textual tampering was an act of sabotage committed by journalists who are not friends of the government.

January 1, 2017

Népszava, the social democratic daily, is in socialist hands again

Among the many pieces of bad news both inside and outside of Hungary, I am happy to report a good piece of news. It looks as if Népszava, Hungary’s oldest continuously published newspaper, has been saved. The paper was struggling financially because it received practically no advertisement from either government or private sources. The Orbán government systematically punishes independent media outlets, and private companies heavily dependent on the government’s goodwill are afraid to appear as sponsors.

Népszava was originally the official paper of the Magyarországi Szociáldemokrata Párt (MSZDP). After the communist takeover in 1948, it was relegated to being the paper of the Hungarian trade unions. Since 2005 Népszava has described itself as a “social democratic daily.”

Next year Népszava will celebrate its 144th birthday, marking a long but often difficult life. Perhaps the most tragic event in its history was the murder of the paper’s editor-in-chief Béla Somogyi and his young assistant Béla Bacsó by officers of Miklós Horthy’s National Army in the fall of 1919. Between the two world wars the paper was often silenced because of its critical attitude toward the government. But there were also many triumphs. For example, when Endre Ady wrote a poem to the paper titled “Küldöm a frigy-ládát” (I am sending the Ark of the Covenant). Over the years Népszava had working relations with some of Hungary’s greatest writers and poets, like Endre Ady, Attila József, Gyula Juhász, and Mihály Babits. In 2003, when Népszava was 130 years old, Péter Németh, the current-editor-in-chief, put together a brief history of the paper which is available on the internet. It is hard to imagine Hungary without Népszava.

But let’s return to the recent woes of the paper. About four months ago we heard that Népszava had at last found a buyer. The story is complicated, as always seems to be the case with Hungarian business transactions. According to Magyar Nemzet, the publication rights of the paper were to be sold to Marquard Media International, a company headquartered in Switzerland. Marquard is already present in the Hungarian media market as the owner of Joy, Playboy, and Éva Magazin. Péter Németh, the editor-in-chief, was elated. “I know Jürg Marquard from my days at Magyar Hírlap,” Németh said, “and I find it inconceivable that he would purchase Népszava in order to shutter it,” referring, of course, to the demise of Népszabadság.

János Dési, the former deputy editor-in-chief of Népszava, wasn’t that optimistic. He remembered only too well that in the early 1990s Marquand managed to ruin the liberal Magyar Hírlap. According to Dési, for a few months after the purchase all was well, but then Marquard began pressuring the staff to move toward the right. Marquard didn’t seem to know anything about Hungarian politics because, during 1993 and early 1994, it was obvious that the right-of-center government would be very badly beaten at the forthcoming election. Yet Marquard insisted and fired Péter Németh, who was then the editor-in-chief of Magyar Hírlap. Soon after that Marquand sold Magyar Hírlap to János Fenyő, who, according to Dési, was the only good and caring owner of the paper until his murder by an unknown assailant in 1998.

Soon enough the story of the sale changed. It wasn’t Marquard Media that was buying Népszava but XXI Century Invest AG with headquarters in Liechtenstein. In the background, however, one could still find Jürg Marquard who, as it turned out, was one of the owners of the Liechtenstein company. XXI Century was buying not only Népszava but also Vasárnapi Hírek and Szabad Föld, a weekly that is still very popular among farmers. In the eighties it had at least half a million subscribers and, to my astonishment, its paid readership today is close to 130,000. It may reach as many as 400,000 people. Currently, all three papers are owned by Geomedia Kiadói Zrt.

Months went by. With the exception of the brief news item about the purchase by XXI Century nothing more was heard about the deal until today, when a statement appeared on Vasárnapi Hírek’s website. It announced that “in order to preserve the spirit of the remaining independent newspapers” the earlier contract with XXI Century Invest had been broken due to non-payment. Instead, the three papers were sold to Horizont Handels und Industrie AG with headquarters in Vienna. Horizont is owned by László Puch and Dénes Simon.

Puch’s name is well known because of the important positions he held in MSZP ever since 1992. He was the party’s strongman in Baranya County, he was a member of parliament between 1994 and 2014, and he became notorious as the treasurer of MSZP. Since political parties are inadequately funded in Hungary, a lot of most likely illegal funds flow into party coffers. In MSZP these funds were handled by Puch. About Dénes Simon I know only that he is a businessman who earlier worked as a “political expert” for MSZP. He is a very good friend and close business partner of Puch.

According to Antónia Rádai of Átlátszó, Geomedia discovered that XXI Century Invest’s lawyer is also the lawyer of András Tombor, who “lent” the money to Árpád Habony to start his Modern Media Group, which publishes 888.hu and Riposzt. That discovery must have frightened the few socialists with money. They decided to rescue the three publications, which as a package might actually be profitable because of Szabad Föld. Puch announced that the supervision of the company will remain in the hands of the current management of Geomedia. Otherwise, he is hoping that Népszava, by now the only left-wing daily in Hungary, will be able to expand its staff in the future, giving job opportunities to some of those unemployed journalists from the defunct Népszabadság.

This must be a nice Christmas present for the staffs of Népszava and Vasárnapi Hírek. Let’s hope that Népszava’s troubles are over for a while. At least one doesn’t have to worry about some Orbán stróman buying the paper for the sole purpose of destroying it.

December 20, 2016

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

Viktor Orbán and freedom of the press

I wasn’t very much off the mark in my predictions yesterday. Viktor Orbán didn’t have the opportunity to veto the European Commission’s plans for “compulsory quotas” or, as the failed amendments to the Constitution called them, “compulsory settlements of alien populaces.” For the time being, there is no word about EU-controlled camps in North African countries, Viktor Orbán’s pet project. And, contrary to his repeated protestations against Russian sanctions, he voted to extend them. Nonetheless, he was something of an alien presence himself. As several newspapers noted, the specters of Putin, Trump, and Erdoğan loomed over the summit, all of whom Orbán admires and supports.

Orbán’s press conference for the reporters who showed up was held at the Permanent Representation of Hungary to the European Union instead of the Justus Lipsius Building, where the Council of Ministers is housed. At the press conference hardly anyone asked questions. By and large Viktor Orbán delivered a monologue in which he tried to inflate his role. He stressed that his best ideas haven’t been accepted yet but they are getting ever more popular among the leaders of the member states. He admitted that he failed to convince the others to lift visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens.

He talked at length about the common understanding among the Visegrád 4 countries. As Lili Bayer pointed out in the Budapest Beacon the other day, however, “in Slovakia and the Czech Republic there are growing concerns about both the nature of the alliance and the Hungarian leader’s portrayal of the bloc.” At the end of his press conference, he smuggled in a few words about the European Commission’s evil plans that would prevent his government from lowering utility prices.

The press conference would have been uneventful, even dull, save for an ugly incident. Bertalan Havasi, as assistant undersecretary, is head of the prime minister’s press office. He is thoroughly despised by his former colleagues for at least two reasons: (1) he allows practically no reporter to ever get close to Orbán and (2) he is an arrogant fellow who likes to speak in the name of the prime minister. At one point he used physical force against a Dutch cameraman who in his opinion was too pushy. The poor fellow ended up with a bloodied head. I tried to learn more about Havasi’s background from the government website but got the error message “file not found.”

In any case, among the small number of reporters at the press conference Havasi noticed Katalin Halmai, who used to be the Brussels correspondent for Népszabadság. She is  now an accredited freelancer who writes the blog “Európában.” She informed the authorities about her intention to attend, and she received an invitation to attend. But before the press conference began, the spokesman for the Permanent Representation went up to her and asked her to leave on the order of Havasi. The pro-government and/or fearful journalists said nothing until Gábor Nemes, the correspondent for Klubrádió, rose and objected to Halmai’s treatment. In his opinion, these press conferences should be held in the Justus Lipsius Building, where “one cannot send reporters out of the room.” He reminded Havasi that Halmai is still an accredited reporter who works as a freelancer. Good for Nemes, who I suspect thinks that after what Klubrádió had to suffer as a result of Orbán’s desire to shut it down, not much more can happen to that harassed station.

Viktor Orbán and Bertalan Havasi / MTI, Photo:  Balázs Szecsődi

Havasi’s answer was typical of this impertinent, arrogant, vicious crew. “Thank you, we will make note of your objection for the records. I didn’t know that there is still a newspaper Népszabadság published in Brussels. Do you? This room would be far too small if we invited and allowed in all blog writers.” Apparently, eight or nine reporters were present and there were at least 40 empty chairs. Nemes wasn’t intimidated and asked: “Do you see any problems with space here?” Which Havasi left unanswered. Instead, Orbán said that “we will consider this a suggestion and will take it under advisement.” I assume he meant the venue of future press conferences.

After a couple of more questions, the decision was reached that Viktor Orbán should talk to Halmai, “not in her capacity as a journalist but as a Hungarian citizen.” She returned, and a private conversation lasting about 15 minutes took place between the two of them in the presence of staff of the prime minister and the ambassador of the Permanent Representation. Apparently, Orbán’s greatest concern was that this happened to “a lady reporter.” This is so typical of Orbán. The autocrat had just trampled on the freedom of the press, but he was worried about “a lady reporter,” as if that was the real shame instead of his total disregard of the fundamental democratic right of the free flow of information.

Today Havasi released a statement announcing that his office will allow only reporters of actually existing newspapers (sajtóorganumok) to attend the press conferences under his jurisdiction. He doesn’t consider blog writers legitimate reporters, so they have no place at press conferences. And what is Halmai complaining about? Viktor Orbán personally received Katalin Halmai, who is a Hungarian citizen, and had a conversation with her during which “the lady told him that at the present time she is not a reporter and doesn’t write for any specific newspaper.” Of course, the Orbán government destroyed the largest and most influential newspaper, and now that its sixty-odd reporters are left jobless, the petty prime minister bars the former paper’s Brussels correspondent from his press conference because “she is not a reporter.”

As if banning a reporter from a paper his regime shuttered weren’t enough, he doubled down in answering a question about George Soros, the personification of everything Viktor Orbán hates about liberal democracy and western capitalism. He said: “A man of tight upbrining doesn’t like talking about people who are not present. Especially not if the journalist who represents them is also absent,” referring, of course, to Katalin Halmai.

Apparently, Halmai was specifically targeted because after Népszabadság closed she was quite active on behalf of the paper in Brussels. At the end of November she was one of the speakers at a conference on the freedom of the press, where she explained the circumstances of the demise of Népszabadság. Frans Timmermans, first deputy president of the European Commission, and Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberals in the European Parliament, also participated in the conference.

This is not the first time that a reporter is barred from Viktor Orbán’s press conferences in Brussels. MTI’s reporter, János Kárpáti, just once asked a question from the prime minister that he was not supposed to ask. It was in April 2015, when Orbán’s then hobbyhorse was the reintroduction of the death penalty. Kárpáti asked a question that he apparently hadn’t cleared with his superiors. The question, which he addressed to him in English, went something like this: “You have gotten a great deal of criticism over your point of view on this subject even from your colleagues in the European People’s Party. How do you see Fidesz’s position within the EPP?” That was pretty much the end of Kárpáti’s career. From that time on his superior organized his schedules in such a way that he was unable to attend the next three of four press conferences given by Orbán. After a few months he lost his job altogether. The lives of Hungarian journalists are not enviable, and I’m afraid the situation will only get worse as more and more publications are acquired by Fidesz oligarchs and strómans.

December 16, 2016