Tag Archives: media

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

Fidesz’s preoccupation with Gábor Vona and Jobbik

What’s in a name?

In the first part of this post I will wander off topic a bit to a subject that has been intriguing me over the last few days. As the readers of Hungarian Spectrum know, a few weeks ago I wrote about a kind of show trial that took place in 1920 and 1921. Subsequently, I found among my books a brief journalistic description of the background and the trial itself. Since the book was written in the 1970s, it bears the stamp of the times and hence as a source is pretty useless. But one thing captured my imagination: the family names of the accused and the witnesses. A hundred years ago family names reflected the ethnic diversity of Hungary, which blossomed during the second half of the nineteenth century as the result of urbanization and greater mobility. Here are some of the names: Hüttner, Sztanykovszky, Vágó-Wilhelm, Horvácsanovics, Csernyák, Friedrich, Csermák, Lux, Pekár, Gärtner, Eichner, Littomerczky, Lukachich, Horánszky, and Frömmel. Of course, there were Hungarian names as well, some of which sounded magyarized, but the number of non-Hungarian names is striking. Today far fewer Hungarians have names that point to their family’s non-Hungarian origins. One reason is that all civil servants had to magyarize their names sometime in the early 1940s.

Believe it or not, my musing on the changing map of Hungarian family names is relevant to my main theme today: the Fidesz-Jobbik duel in parliament and the Fidesz media. It looks as if even Gábor Vona’s family name is part of the Fidesz smear campaign. As has been known for some time, Gábor Vona was born Gábor Zázrivecz, a name he changed to Vona. The Fidesz tabloid Riposzt seriously pondered the vexing question: why did he change his name? The journalist found this name change “odd.”

Since in Jobbik rumors circulated that perhaps he was Jewish and the grandson of an infamous communist politician, Vona decided to explain his reasons for the name change. His father László Zázrivecz was adopted by his grandmother’s second husband. Her first husband, the actual father of László, was Gábor Vona, who died in World War II. Otherwise, he added that Vona is an Italian name and that “to this day there is a professor called Piero di Vona who—of all things—is an expert on Julius Evola,” a fascist racist thinker. Riposzt, in order to discredit the Jobbik chairman, wrote that Vona claimed a direct relationship to Piero di Vona and went so far as to get in touch with him, inquiring whether he knows anything about this Hungarian relative. Of course, he didn’t. In fact, Piero di Vona announced on Andy Vajna’s TV2 that he knows nothing about a Hungarian relative named Gábor Vona.

Vona is an Italian name, and I suspect that some Italian Vonas settled in Hungary a very long time ago. I found people called Vona as early as 1722, about as far back as online Hungarian genealogical records go. Apparently, it is a variant of Bona, and it is quite common both in Italy and in the United States. As for why Gábor Zázrivecz changed his name when he did, most likely he was already contemplating a political career. Zázrivecz doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Although Vona’s name change was innocuous, it provided Fidesz with fodder for its smear campaign. After all, going against Viktor Orbán’s political plans is an unforgivable sin.

Fear of a socialist-Jobbik coalition

Behind this attack on Vona is Viktor Orbán’s fear of an alliance of sorts between the so-called “democratic coalition” and Jobbik, which could result in a victory for the opposition parties in 2018. We know from polls that the majority of the electorate is dissatisfied with the work of the government, so an understanding between the left and the far right (or however one can best categorize Jobbik these days) could be deadly for Fidesz’s prospects at the next election. Of course, for the time being there is little chance of such an outcome, but I see signs in the pro-government media that the Fidesz leadership is concerned.

One justification for such apprehension is an article that appeared in Origo yesterday titled “An alliance of the left and Jobbik was born in Szentendre,” where by-elections will be held on January 15, 2017. One of the Fidesz members of the town council died, hence the repeated election. The fate of the seat is not vital for Fidesz. Of the 14-member council nine (now eight) represent the government party. They have a comfortable majority. Yet the party seems to be terribly worried that this seat might be lost to a local civic organization called Társaság az Élhető Szentendréért (TÉSZ), which is already represented by two councilmen.

A view of Szentendre

The worry comes from the fact that neither MSZP nor Jobbik nominated anyone to run at the coming by-election when, as Origo pointed out, in the past both parties were always represented. The paper learned that the local MSZP and Jobbik organizations wanted to participate, but the “ukase came from the two party headquarters, which are trying to defeat Fidesz by supporting TÉSZ.”

There is a good possibility that TÉSZ’s candidate might win. In 2014 Fidesz’s candidate won with 44.5% of the votes, but TÉSZ’s man followed him closely with 37.72%. MSZP received 8.19% and Jobbik 7%. So if past is prologue, this looks promising for TÉSZ’s candidate, a retired diplomat. As far as TÉSZ is concerned, Origo reminded its readers that back in 2014 Jobbik called TÉSZ “a pseudo-civic organization” which was born from the ruins of SZDSZ. Moreover, one of TÉSZ’s representatives on the council is also a member of Együtt. Origo is certain that “the Szentendre model is only an experiment to decide whether cooperation in the 2018 campaign is a possibility or not. The essence of the model is to line up behind a seemingly independent candidate in order to beat Fidesz.” A “red-brown” alliance is likely, predicts Origo, especially since Századvég’s analysis of the pattern of parliamentary voting shows that MSZP and Jobbik members vote in sync more often than Fidesz and Jobbik do.

Index also visited Szentendre, but they see the situation in this picturesque town somewhat differently. It is true that both Jobbik and MSZP decided against running in the by-election, but only MSZP and DK support TÉSZ’s candidate. Jobbik’s reason for not participating is not entirely clear. They claim they had an excellent candidate who “at the last minute changed his mind, apparently for personal reasons.” Jobbik, unlike MSZP and DK, isn’t supporting the TÉSZ candidate openly, but it is certainly helping TÉSZ’s cause by not putting up a rival candidate. Whether this is indeed a trial run, I have no way of knowing. But, whatever the case, Fidesz is concerned.

December 13, 2016

János Lázár gives an interview to a left-wing paper

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

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

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

János Lázár / Source: Népszava

János Lázár / Source: Népszava

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 18, 2016

Breaking news: Opimus Press buys Mediaworks’ Népszabadság

Today Vienna Capital Partners (VCP), the owner of Mediaworks Hungary Zrt., sold Népszabadság to a recently established company called Opimus Press Zrt., part of the Opimus Group, a holding company that is listed on the Budapest Stock Exchange (BÉT). The transaction is somewhat murky, so let’s begin with the two companies’ press releases, starting with that of the VCP Group.

Although VCP purchased “several regional papers” for Mediaworks at the end of September, less than a month later it was willing to part with its very successful business. Several companies had expressed an interest in the purchase of Mediaworks in the past, but VCP decided to sell it to Opimus Press because “its owners had declared their intention to publish the suspended Népszabadság.” VCP “decided on the earliest sale of Mediaworks Hungary Zrt. because of the misleading and malicious rumors that had surfaced.” The announcement emphasizes that the offer came after the October 8 suspension of the paper.

In their press release the new owners of Mediaworks explain that in March 2016 the Opimus Group (described by the Financial Times as active in the pharmaceutical preparations manufacturing sector and engaged in the manufacture and distribution of veterinary medicinal products), seeing great possibilities in the media market, established Opimus Press Zrt., “which has an adequate financial underpinning for the implementation of the necessary investments.” Opimus Group, like VCP, emphasizes that the offer to buy Mediaworks came after the suspension of Népszabadság. Even with the suspension of the paper, Opimus Press’s management, “after reviewing the situation of the company’s finances and its market position, decided that its already significant value could be further enhanced in the future.” VCP accepted Opimus’s offer on October 17, and today the Hungarian Competition Authority approved the sale.

In purchasing Mediaworks, Opimus is interested only in running the company in an economically efficient way. It “doesn’t want to influence their content in any way, especially as far as the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press are concerned.” The owners will take stock of the situation. They will, “first and foremost, attend to the possibility of the resumption of [Népszabadság’s] publication and will make a decision as soon as possible.” Opimus Press Zrt named Gábor Liszkay, János Lóczi, and Andrea Pintér to be members of the board of directors. Liszkay is the owner of Magyar Hírek and Lóczi is the CEO of its publisher. Andrea Pintér, according to LinkedIn, is a civil servant with a law degree.

The two statements were carefully crafted, perhaps by the same hand. The deal was certainly fast-tracked, if we are to believe the timeline of the statements. The whole multi-billion forint deal was closed in nine days, possibly fewer, and the owners convinced the Hungarian Competition Authority to give its blessing to the deal in another eight days. An amazing feat, especially if we consider that there were three weekends in the seventeen days between October 8 and October 25.

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Instead of getting involved with the checkered history of the Opimus Group, let’s concentrate on what investigative journalists have managed to learn so far about the background of the sale of Mediaworks. I should say, for starters, that I have no doubt that the purchase of Mediaworks was orchestrated, most likely Viktor Orbán himself, quite some time ago but that it was only in March 2016 that there was sufficient assurance that the purchase of an expanded Mediaworks would be possible. It was at that time that Opimus moved and established Opimus Media Zrt.

My take on this sordid affair goes along the following lines. Viktor Orbán dearly wanted to acquire Nemzeti Sport, his favorite daily paper. He always has a copy of it in his Volkswagen mini-bus. Apparently, when he is not in Hungary, his office makes sure that he gets a copy of it. And to add Népszabadság to his media empire, or in the worst case to subtract it from the already dwindling media portfolio of his adversaries, must have been a deal clincher.

Mediaworks’ portfolio was impressive even before the addition of the seven regional papers, which are a real goldmine. At the time that Heinrich Pecina of VCP bought up several Hungarian newspapers and magazines in 2014, rumors circulated for weeks that his purchase may serve the interests of the Orbán government. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that turned out to be the case. Perhaps there was already an understanding between Orbán and Pecina two years ago that, after a suitable length of time, a deal could be struck between them. The deal most likely entailed the purchase of the additional papers that took place at the end of September. In support of this hypothesis, in March 2016 nyugat.hu, a liberal online news site, reported that Miklós Szabó, the managing director of Pannon Lapok Társasága (PLT), a company that owned five regional papers, had been fired because he negotiated about the possible sale of the company without the okay of its German owner. That is, he negotiated with someone other than Heinrich Pecina. Once Szabó was gone, negotiations about the sale of PLT to Mediaworks began and were, by the end of September, successfully concluded.

Now comes the big question mark: how could Opimus Group, which is “massively losing money” and lost five billion forints in 2015 alone, buy Mediaworks less than a year later? Apparently a few weeks after the establishment of Opimus Press, the company floated a three-year, 20 million euro bond offering. (The company’s market cap is only about 48 million euros.) According to hvg.hu, so far Opimus hasn’t managed to raise the full amount, but because of rumors about the possible purchase of Mediaworks, the price of Opimus shares on the Budapest Stock Exchange has soared, rewarding stockholders with a gain of 707% in a year. But what, in absolute terms, “soaring” means tells us a lot about the company. Opimus shares currently sell for 46 forints (€0.14 or $0.16). This is the stock’s highest price in the last three years.

By all indications this company should have hit the dust a long time ago. But last December two mysterious investors appeared: Cariati Holding, registered in the Cayman Islands, and TAC from Nigeria. Bloomberg’s description of the former tersely says that the company “does not have any Key Executives recorded.” TAC is “a composite one stop professional and consulting firm providing Professional Services, Business Consulting & Financial Advisory Services to clients in various sectors of the economy.” A strange company to invest in the Hungarian media market. These two companies own 40% of the outstanding Opimus shares.

The suspicion is that behind Opimus is Viktor Orbán’s alter ego, the former gas-fitter now billionaire Lőrinc Mészáros, the ultimate stróman (front man). The Budapest Beacon reported that “Opimus’ new manager, Zoltán Csik, holds leading positions in a number of Mészáros’ business ventures.” Orbán’s dirty tricks are hard to unravel, but I’m sure that investigative journalists will do their best to do just that in the coming days.

October 25, 2016

The state of media freedom in Hungary as the citizens see it

Yesterday I wrote very briefly about a fascinating public opinion poll conducted by the Publicus Research Institute between October 11 and 13. Thanks to the staff of The Budapest Sentinel the Institute’s findings are now available in English.

In my last post I indicated that I was comforted by the good news that this poll conveys: Hungarians, despite intense government propaganda to the contrary, know full well that media freedom is trampled on more savagely today than at any other time in the history of the Third Republic. Yet in December 2015 Orbán had the temerity to claim that “the freedom of thought, speech, and the press in Hungary is more colorful, more encompassing, and more profound than in countries to the west of us.”

Today, after thousands of people had gathered to demand media freedom, the cynical Gergely Gulyás, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz, had the gall to express his bafflement at the purpose of the demonstration.

The original poll can be found on the webpage of the Publicus Research Institute.

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The Publicus Institution, at the behest of Vasárnapi Hírek (Sunday News) conducted a survey of 1000 people representative of public opinion with regard to their attitudes towards freedom of the press and their opinion about the suspension of Népszabadság. The majority of respondents believe that in Hungary today the press is not independent of the government, even though nine out of ten respondents believe press freedom to be important.  85 percent of Hungarians have heard of the suspension of Népszabadság, but only one-third have heard that it had come under the influence of a company close to Fidesz.  Almost every second person surveyed said they read Népszabadság or nol.hu either regularly or intermittently.  Most respondents believe the reason the paper is no longer being published is because it criticized the government and governing party politicians and because Fidesz limits press freedom.  Two-thirds of respondents believe that currently Fidesz has the greatest influence over media, and nearly as many believe that of all the governments today, it is the Fidesz government which has greatest influence over media. Nearly two-thirds of respondents believe that the free press is seriously limited in Hungary today, and that state media coverage of the news is one-sided.

The majority of those asked believe that the press is not independent of the government in Hungary today.  On a scale of one to five, the situation of domestic press freedom scored 2.7, meaning Hungary’s media is judged as not being free.  It is rather MSZP voters who do not find the press to be free and independent.  On average their score came to 2.1.  Of all the social groups surveyed, only Fidesz voters thought the press to be free—their score averaged 3.4.

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Nearly nine (87%) out of ten respondents think it is important that the free press remain independent of the government.  On this question every societal group surveyed agrees.

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85 percent of those surveyed had heard that Népszabadság had suspended its operations, but only one-third had heard that it had come under the influence of a company close to Fidesz.

Almost every second (43%) of respondents said they read either the print or online version of Népszabadság.  The print version was rather read by MSZP voters, those over 60, and those with college diplomas.  The online version was mostly read by MSZP and Jobbik voters, and people under 45 with high school or college diplomas.

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The most common reason given by those surveyed for why the paper is no longer being published is because it criticized the government and government politicians (29 percent), or because Fidesz imposes limits on the free press (23 percent).  Out of ten people, two (22 percent) list among the cause the fact that it was loss-making.

However, the final reason is only mentioned frequently (37 percent) by Fidesz voters.  Among MSZP, Jobbik and uncertain voters the most important cause for the suspension was that it was critical of the government, the governing party and its members (53, 35 and 28 percent, respectively).  Discounting Fidesz voters, every societal group examined believes limitations on the free press to be the second most important cause for the suspension (22 and 28 percent, respectively).

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Two-thirds of respondents (67 percent) believe that presently Fidesz has the largest influence over the media, and altogether 2 percent think the left-wing does.  In this question every societal group examined had a similar opinion.  The Fidesz influence is best seen by Jobbik and MSZP voters (77 and 72 percent, respectively), while the left-wing influence is mostly seen by MSZP and Fidesz voters (8 and 5 percent, respectively).

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Nearly two-thirds (59 percent) believe it is under Fidesz that the government exercises the largest influence over the press.  Only 16 percent think that it was under the MSZP government.

Even Fidesz voters agree (46 percent to 25 percent opposed), but especially MSZP voters see this (75 percent to 20 percent opposed).

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Nearly two-thirds of those questioned (59 percent) believe that in Hungary today the free press is greatly limited, and that state media is one-sided.  A similar proportion (58 percent) think this is the case of the news reaching the most people.

A small majority of Fidesz voters agree that the freedom of the press is greatly limited in public media (45 percent to 43 percent opposed), while the vast majority of MSZP, Jobbik and undecided voters (70 percent, 69 percent, and 60 percent, respectively) believe this to be the case.

More details about the results of the study can be found in the Sunday News appearing on Saturday.

October 16, 2016