Tag Archives: Ildikó Csuhaj

Freedom of the press in Hungary: an American critique

Today David J. Kostelancik, minister counselor and deputy chief of mission of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, delivered a speech before members of the diplomatic corps and journalists at the headquarters of Magyar Újságírók Országos Szövetsége (MÚOSZ / National Association of Hungarian Journalists). This was the second time since the installment of Donald Trump as president of the United States that the new Republican government, through its Budapest embassy, made it clear publicly that, contrary to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s expectation, Washington is not at all happy about the state of affairs in Hungary. The first time was in April when the U.S. Embassy in Budapest issued a warning in connection with the Hungarian government’s pressure on Central European University. A month later this message was reinforced by the spokesperson of the U.S. State Department, who urged the Hungarian government to suspend its amended law on higher education law, which would place “discriminatory, onerous requirements on U.S.-accredited institutions in Hungary.” Today the topic was freedom of the media.

Before I summarize the speech itself, I should note one way in which the Hungarian government restricts the flow of information. In fact, this Kostelancik speech is an excellent example of a centralized media in the grip of an autocratic government. The method is simple and effective. Prior to the new media law introduced by the Orbán government, media outlets had to pay a fee for news gathered by Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI), Hungary’s official news agency. After the change of leadership, access to MTI’s materials was made free. The downside was that MTI’s reporting became distorted in favor of the government, and the free access to MTI’s materials made certain that the same colored information reached all media outlets. So, if the authorities don’t want a piece of information to reach a wide audience, it is enough to instruct MTI to remain quiet. Or, it is possible that special coaching is not necessary because the people at MTI know what is risky to report on. Hungarians have experience with this kind of self-censorship from the pre-1990 days.

This is exactly what happened this time. The chargé d’affaires of the United States delivers an important speech titled “Freedom of the Press: Enduring values in a dynamic media environment” and MTI “forgets” to report on it. Well, I’m not entirely fair because, if one searches hard enough, one finds an MTI report on a press conference by Gergely Gulyás, the new leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, where Ildikó Csuhaj of ATV asked Gulyás his opinion of Kostelancik’s “comments on the state of Hungarian freedom of the press.” MTI added that, according to index.hu, the chargé of the American Embassy talked about the “alarming state” of Hungarian media freedom and about “the government’s responsibility.” End of reporting. This MTI report appeared in today’s Magyar Idők, but the details of Csuhaj’s question to Gulyás could be learned only from ATV’s website.

But let’s return to the speech itself, which was indeed hard-hitting. Perhaps the most important message was that “defense of a free press” is “fundamental to [U.S.] foreign policy interests.” Given Donald Trump’s frequent outbursts against the “fake news” concocted by mainstream journalists, one can only admire Kostelancik’s handling of this apparent contradiction. He admitted that the U.S. president “is not shy about criticizing the media,” but “in the finest traditions of our free press, those on the receiving end of his criticism are quick to respond and make their argument about why they think the president is wrong.” In brief, freedom of the press in the United States is still thriving.

David J. Kostelancik / Source: zoom.hu / Photo: Viktor Veres

He then listed the ways in which undemocratic governments attempt to silence their critics: legal and regulatory blockades, monopoly control and pressure on advertisers, attempts to manipulate the advertising market, or outright threats and intimation of journalists. Kostelancik indicated that all of these tactics have been tried in Hungary in recent years. He talked about “government allies” who have acquired control and influence over the media market “without objection from the regulatory body designed to prevent monopolies,” having in mind Lőrinc Mészáros’s recent acquisition of all the regional papers. He is well informed about the central directives issued to the journalists who work for these papers. The U.S. Embassy hears “reports that businesses are told they must not advertise with independent outlets, or they will face retribution.” 888.hu’s list of “foreign propagandists” of George Soros didn’t go unnoticed either. “In a recent alarming development, some media outlets closely linked to the government published the names of individual journalists they characterized as threats to Hungary. This is dangerous to the individuals, and also, to the principles of a free, independent media.” Finally, he said that “the United States unequivocally condemns any attempt to intimidate or silence journalists.”

MTI didn’t want to cover the U.S. chargé’s harsh words on the lack of media freedom and therefore it simply disregarded the whole event. But the Hungarian foreign ministry could not afford to ignore the American message. On the contrary, the response from the ministry was practically instantaneous. Tamás Menczer, undersecretary in charge of “coordination,” suggested that Kostelancik get a translator, with whose assistance he can sit down and take a good look at the Hungarian papers, where he will find “numerous news items critical of the government every day.” He added that a few weeks ago the U.S. Embassy in Kiev welcomed the modification of the Ukrainian law on education despite its restrictions on the rights of minorities. “We are forced to think that U.S. diplomats in Kiev and Budapest are ignorant of what they are talking about.” A typical response from the ministry of foreign affairs of the Orbán government, the kind of clumsy, gauche comment to which by now, I’m sure, the American diplomats in Budapest and Washington are accustomed.

What I find more worrisome is a sentence the much more courteous and diplomatic Gergely Gulyás uttered as an answer to Ildikó Csuhaj’s question about Kostelancik’s message: “It is harmful to America’s reputation in Hungary to meddle in the country’s internal affairs.” I wonder what the government’s next step will be. Perhaps once the anti-Soros campaign is over, a major anti-U.S. drive will come, picking up on the journalistic offensive the two government papers, Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap, are already waging.

October 17, 2017

Scandal after scandal: trying to hide the real meaning of “ethnic homogeneity”

It doesn’t happen too often that I have to return to a topic that I thought we had discussed quite thoroughly only yesterday. But this time such a revisit is definitely warranted. Without it, the story is incomplete. Readers would not be able to grasp the extent of the depravity and duplicity of the government that rules Hungary today.

Of course, I’m talking about the controversial speech Viktor Orbán delivered on February 28 at the annual gathering of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce. When I’m writing about a speech, I normally wait to have the full text in front of me as opposed to relying on summaries that appear right after it is delivered. I consider the written text to be more reliable and more detailed, allowing me greater room for analysis. So, I checked the prime minister’s website several times for the appearance of the complete text.

In my piece I concentrated on two paragraphs. The first was about the “ethnic homogeneity” desired by Orbán, and the second was about “the greatness” of the Hungarian nation. In both cases I translated practically the whole text.

There was one sentence, which happened to be the lead sentence of the paragraph on “ethnic homogeneity,” that after some pondering I decided to leave out. It was jarring. It didn’t make any sense. So I decided that the best solution was simply to omit it, especially since it wasn’t vital to our understanding of Orbán’s message. It read: “First, I find the preservation of cultural homogeneity very important.” This lead sentence was followed by two sentences that I did translate: “By now one can say such things. A few years ago one could be executed for such sentences, but today one can say it because life confirmed that too much mixing brings trouble.” These sentences, coming one after the other, made no sense to me. One may think that “cultural homogeneity” is desirable, but one cannot be branded for life for espousing such a thought. So, as I said, I decided that the best solution was to drop that first sentence.

It now seems that my instinct was correct. We learned today that someone in the prime minister’s office changed the original sentence “I find the preservation of ethnic homogeneity very important” to “I find the preservation of cultural homogeneity very important.” Who ordered the change we don’t know. Was it the prime minister himself who upon reflection decided that such a statement was inappropriate or was it one of his subordinates who concluded that this sentence would cause an uproar? It really doesn’t matter because the falsification of facts is unacceptable, or at least it should be unacceptable. But in Hungary’s case one can say with confidence that there will be no fallout from this latest “editing.”

It is bad enough that high government officials fiddled with the true message of the prime minister, but one would have expected more finesse from them. What good does it do to change the wording in one instance but in four other cases in the same paragraph leave “ethnic homogeneity” unaltered? Moreover, when the video of the speech becomes available on the government website, this tinkering with the transcript will be called out in no time, as it was this afternoon at János Lázár’s Thursday afternoon séance, “government info.”

Faithful readers of Hungarian Spectrum surely remember Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság, who was known for her scoops on the affairs of Fidesz. She was always the first one to come up with breaking news on people close to Viktor Orbán. Now that there is no more Népszabadság, Csuhaj got a job at ATV as a provider of background news. She was the one who brought up the presence of “ethnic homogeneity” in Orbán’s speech at Lázár’s press conference. Lázár and his faithful companion at these occasions, Zoltán Kovács, were outraged: Hungary’s prime minister said nothing of the sort. Lázár even told Csuhaj to stop bothering them with such annoying and obviously nonexistent claims. Kolozsvári Szalonna captured their pique in its headline to the story: “Ildikó, you little goose, don’t bother the gentlemen with your nonsensical questions.”

I’ll bet they were not so happy after the press conference was over

Interestingly, Ildikó Csuhaj’s take on Orbán’s racist remarks came from a vantage point quite different from that of the reports and analyses coming from abroad. Foreign assessments objected to the racism inherent in the concept of “ethnic homogeneity” in general. Ildikó Csuhaj’s probe, on the other hand, centered around Orbán’s attitude toward the introduction of a guaranteed basic income, which had been proposed by László Botka of MSZP and the leadership of Párbeszéd. Orbán, as a believer in a “work-based society,” naturally rejects such a plan out of hand, but he finds its introduction especially problematic in his own country because “ethnic relations in Hungary are complicated.” That was translated to be a specifically racist remark in connection with Hungary’s Roma population. Even if Orbán were in favor of a guaranteed basic income, given the presence of the large Roma population the idea couldn’t be introduced in Hungary because of the enormous unemployment in the Gypsy community. The reasons for this high unemployment? Well, “ethnic relations in Hungary are complicated.”

The Orbán government must have been embarrassed because it moved to salvage what could be salvaged abroad. Zoltán Kovács wrote an opinion piece for a new government propaganda site called About Hungary. Here we learn that it wasn’t the Orbán government that falsified the prime minister’s remarks; the culprit was “the liberal media.” Kovács had the temerity to summarize Orbán’s speech this way: “The prime minister, after delivering a speech at the Hungarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce, was talking about threats to Hungary’s strong economic performance and stability. One of those threats is illegal migration, and he said that preserving the European cultural identity of Hungary is a priority for the well-being of the country.” After these introductory words, he quoted Orbán’s lead sentence correctly but cagily left out all the sentences in which the phrase “ethnic homogeneity” appears. As Kovács put it, “if you’re having trouble seeing why that’s racist, that’s because it’s not. He was talking about preserving the ethnic identity we have, and that’s associated with culture, language, sometimes religion, and so on.” Indeed, in his version it is difficult to find the original meaning of Orbán’s message. According to Kovács, “the loud, ideologically-driven press simply don’t have ears to hear the real meaning of a statement and refuse to report the full picture. Instead, these journalists with an agenda quote out of context.”

I was spared, unlike Lili Bayer, a freelance journalist working out of Budapest, who has written some excellent articles on Hungarian affairs for Politico and lately a piece for The Forward on Sebastian Gorka’s connections with the Hungarian far right. Kovács discovered the following tweet by Bayer: “Today Orban called for ethnic homogeneity in Hungary. 73 years ago my grandma was taken to concentration camp by others making same argument.” Kovács accused her of “manipulative editing” and decried “the rigged media [which] is … blinded by their own bias.”

The Hungarian government works exceedingly hard to massage the news to their political advantage, and domestically they have had significant success with their propaganda campaigns. Internationally, however, as is clear from Kovács’s pitiful attempt to explain away this latest scandal, they are much less successful at pulling the wool over our eyes.

March 2, 2017

Is Viktor Orbán’s next project to undo the Treaty of Lisbon?

Today’s big news in Hungary is that Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság learned “from a source close to the government” that, after a valid and successful referendum, Viktor Orbán is planning to move onto the larger stage of the European Union. There he is planning to lead the fight for a modification of the Treaty of Lisbon, the fundamental law of the European Union, also known as the Treaty on European Union (TEU).

For weeks now a guessing game has been going in the media and among opposition politicians about the real purpose of the referendum, which by itself doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. What kind of legislative act will follow a valid and successful referendum? After all, the people are ostensibly empowering the government to do something with the mandate. Will parliament be asked to vote on new amendments to the constitution or will it simply issue “a declaration of independence” of sorts as it did after the Tavares Report in 2013? The government, so the argument goes, will have to do something because otherwise it will become far too obvious that the referendum was not about the compulsory quotas and the Hungarian parliament’s sanctioning them but about something else.

If you ask the politicians of the Demokratikus Koalíció what purpose this referendum serves, they will tell you that it is about the eventual Hungarian exit from the European Union. As soon as no more money is coming from Brussels, Orbán will be only too happy to rid himself of the restraints imposed on him. Although I don’t doubt that there might come a time when Orbán would be inclined to say goodbye to Brussels, for such an eventuality he doesn’t need the results of a referendum today.

Many opposition politicians are inclined to think that the referendum is a kind of “trial election.” If more than half of the eligible voters go to the polls, it will be safe for Fidesz to consider holding elections sometime in early 2017. An added benefit would be that the opposition in 2017 would be even more divided and scattered than it presumably would be in 2018. Talk about Fidesz contemplating an early election is nothing new, though these predictions all turned out to be baseless. But now, people argue, this might become a reality. Jobbik politicians are already busy devising plans for such a possibility. Again, I don’t think that Fidesz needs a referendum to learn about its electoral support. Moreover, the party is politically savvy enough to know that the result of a referendum on the “migrants” cannot be translated into votes at a national election.

Viktor Orbán himself was rather secretive about his post-referendum plans in his September 18 radio interview when the reporter specifically asked him about “the legal [közjogi] consequences of a valid and successful referendum.” He indicated that he knows what the next step will be, but he doesn’t want to divert attention from the task at hand, the campaign for the referendum.

Csuhaj’s source claims that these “legal consequences” are not domestic in nature: “Orbán wants to enter the larger stage of Union politics for good” or, in the original, “Orbán végleg ki akar lépni az uniós politika nagyszínpadjára.” Such a decision, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with “legal consequences” in the accepted meaning of the term. I also don’t know what to do with the word “for good” (végleg). It might simply be an ill-constructed sentence. Perhaps what she actually wanted to say was that “Orbán finally decided to enter the stage of European politics.”

In my reading, the information Csuhaj received about Orbán’s plans to change the fundamental law of the European Union might have been correct a few weeks ago, but I don’t believe that this is what he referred to in his interview when asked about the “legal consequences” of the referendum.

Csuhaj herself admits that there is nothing new about Orbán’s desire to change the TEU to give less weight to the European Parliament and the European Council and to strengthen the European Council of heads of member states. The first time he talked about it was very early in his second term as prime minister. After a summit in Brussels in October 2010 Orbán said at a press conference that with the present constitution post-2008 Europe cannot be governed. For years, however, he made no effort to promote the idea. He only talked about it at home.

The first time it looked as if he was seriously thinking about such a move and that he may even have had preliminary talks about it with David Cameron was in January 2016, at the time of the British prime minister’s visit in Budapest. Bence Tuzson, the government spokesman, gave a long interview to pestisracok.hu in which the reporter said: “If I understand it correctly, Hungary will initiate the modification of the fundamental law of the European Union.” To which Tuzson answered in the affirmative. “Yes, because Hungary has an interest in making sure that these documents and values should be in their proper places.” A couple of days later pestisracok.hu seemed to know that the modification of the TEU might be one of the topics discussed during the Orbán-Cameron exchange.

The official picture after the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon, 2007

The official picture after the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon, 2007

From the interview with Tuzson it is clear that at that point Orbán didn’t feel strong enough to propose such a modification without David Cameron. He emphasized that “we are no lone wolves,” but with the help of Great Britain Hungary was ready to face criticism or even scorn as a result of their upcoming fight. Well, it didn’t work out that way. Came Brexit and the departure of David Cameron, and Orbán had to set aside the project. A few months ago Népszabadság was told by a member of the government that Orbán has no intention of trying to force the issue of treaty modifications because “he so far hasn’t gotten involved in hopeless tasks.”

If Csuhaj’s source is correct, after a valid and successful referendum he would feel empowered to lead the battle for treaty modifications. At least this is what Fidesz stalwarts seem to think. But it is highly unlikely that this meaningless referendum would make such an impression on either Brussels or the other member states that they would be ready to sit down and negotiate with Viktor Orbán.

Csuhaj’s informer heard Orbán talk about this plan “in the past few weeks,” which I assume means before the Bratislava summit. Since for such an ambitious undertaking Orbán would need the solid backing of the Visegrád 4 countries, I wonder whether Orbán is still so sanguine about taking on Brussels anytime soon. The other three Visegrád 4 countries were less than thrilled with Orbán’s disapproving remarks about the Bratislava summit, and by now it seems pretty clear that Orbán doesn’t have the strong support of the group he pinned his hopes on. What he might be looking for is a sharp shift to the far-right in those countries where national elections will be held soon. But that’s a long shot.

In the meantime, we still don’t know what the possible legal consequences will be of a government victory in the referendum.

September 21, 2016

Viktor Orbán looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and was reassured

Yesterday, given the very crowded news day, I had  neither time nor space to discuss an article by Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság about some of the details of the negotiations between Russia and Hungary over the Paks nuclear plant. What you have to know about Csuhaj is that she seems to have fantastic connections to important Fidesz and government officials and usually comes up with impressive “scoops.”

As we discussed in the comments, information coming from these circles cannot always be trusted and, in fact, one suspects that some of the leaks that reach Csuhaj might be purposely planted in the leading left-of-center paper. In any case, Csuhaj received lots of information about the Paks deal from her unnamed sources. Some of the information sounds entirely plausible. For example, that the plan to have the Russians build the extension to the power plant was first discussed in January 2013 during Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow.

I don’t know whether any of you remember, but the opposition belittled the significance of the meeting last January and pointed to the extremely short duration of the visit. The left media drew the conclusion that Viktor Orbán offered himself to Vladimir Putin but the president of Russia wasn’t interested. In brief, the meeting was no more than a courtesy visit. Today we know that during that visit Orbán got an offer of Russian collaboration on the Paks project. Apparently he pondered the issue for a few months and by the summer made the decision to go ahead. In mid-summer serious negotiations began, which continued all the way to the last days of December.

According to Ildikó Csuhaj’s source, what inspired the Orbán government to add two extra reactors to the existing plant was its desire to achieve sustainable economic growth. Building such a large project, especially if the story is true that 40% of the work will be done by Hungarian companies, will be a stimulus to employment and will give impetus to faster growth.

So far the story sounds plausible, but what comes after that must be taken with a grain of salt. According to the Fidesz story, Viktor Orbán began making inquiries at large German industrial concerns. Apparently, negotiations were conducted with RWE AG, the second largest utility company in Germany, and Deutsche Telekom. On the basis of these conversations, according to the Fidesz source, Orbán came to the conclusion that what German industry will need in the future is cheap energy. But those nasty German environmentalists are against building reactors on German soil. Given the Russian offer, Orbán apparently hatched the idea of building a large nuclear power plant that will be more than enough for Hungary’s energy needs. The rest of the capacity could be sold to Germany’s energy-hungry industrial complex.

The project couldn’t be financed from private sources as the Finnish nuclear power plant will be. Moreover, Orbán apparently made it clear that the plant must remain in state hands. Thus, a bilateral financial agreement signed by Russia and Hungary was needed which is a first within the European Union.

Csuhaj’s Fidesz source claimed that Viktor Orbán received the European Union’s blessing for the bilateral agreement. Allegedly, János Lázár talked to Günther Oettinger, EU commissioner for energy. The EU Commission even sanctioned closing the deal without a tender.

Apparently, the Edmond de Rothschild Group, a private Swiss banking concern which among other things offers investment advisory services, was especially helpful to the Hungarians in handling all these sticky negotiations with EU officials. The Rothschild Group advised the Hungarian government to get in touch with the law firm Hengeler Mueller, which has offices in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Munich, Brussels, and London. It is a large firm with 90 partners and 160 associates. They give “high-end legal advice to companies in complex business transactions.” It was allegedly this law firm that managed “to convince” the European Commission about the legality of the transaction.

Well, it seems that the European Commission has not yet blessed the deal. Eszter Zalán, the Brussels correspondent for Népszabadság, asked Sabine Berger, the spokeswoman of Günther Oettinger, who informed her that Oettinger’s office will examine the agreement and decide whether it conforms to European laws. This legal scrutiny may take weeks to complete. It also became clear that details of the agreement reached Brussels only in December. The announcement yesterday, however, didn’t come as a surprise to the European Commission.

Domestically, there is an outcry over the agreement, signed secretly with no consultation with the opposition, experts, or the general public. Fidesz politicians responded to this criticism by claiming that it was during Bajnai ‘s tenure that parliament authorized the government to conduct negotiations about doubling the capacity of the Paks nuclear power plant. They called members of the opposition, including Bajnai, liars for denying their authorization of the negotiations.

Well, this is not a correct description of what happened in 2009 when the topic of the enlargement of the power plant came up in parliament. Csaba Molnár, then minister in charge of transportation, communication, and energy, was the man who turned in the resolution to which Fidesz is now referring. In it there is not one word about permission to start negotiations with anyone concerning building two more reactors. It simply talks about authorization to begin a study of its feasibility, its environmental impact, future requirements of the population, etc. However, all Fidesz politicians keep referring to this resolution as authorization for making a deal with the Russians.

Finally, let me tell you a funny story that I read in today’s Magyar Nemzet. The article quotes Viktor Orbán as saying, “It was three years ago at one of the meetings of the Valdai Club that Vladimir Putin turned a bit to the right and winked; his eyes told me that everything will be all right. He talked about energy cooperation, about Paks, and about many other matters. He made it clear that Hungary can only win from all his plans. I looked into his eyes and saw that he means it, and Hungary will be a winner of all this.”

Putin turned a bit to the right and squinted

Putin turned a bit to the right and winked

I assume many of you remember another quotation, this time from George W. Bush, about Putin’s eyes. It was uttered in 2001: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.” So, I wouldn’t rely on Putin’s eyes if I were Viktor Orbán. And while we are at Putin’s eyes, John McCain said in 2007 : “I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes and I saw three things — a K and a G and a B.” Viktor Orbán should keep that in mind when he gazes into eyes of Vladimir Putin, whom he apparently admires greatly.