Tag Archives: János Sánta

The Hungarian media scene is still in flux

Although the Hungarian government’s only concern of late seems to be how to keep asylum seekers out of the country, I don’t want to succumb to the same tunnel vision. And so today I’m turning to the state of the Hungarian media.

So-called public (közszolgálati) television and radio are by now mere mouthpieces of government propaganda. Magyar Rádió is still, by default, the station that most people who are interested in more than pop music listen to. Magyar Televízió’s M1, a news channel, turned out to be a flop. On the other hand, a few days ago MTV began broadcasting a sports channel that is, not surprisingly, a hit since most Hungarian football games can be seen there and only there. Of course, the government’s media experts made certain that the canned news of MTV can also be heard on the sports channel. So one cannot escape the barrage of propaganda.

Back in May I wrote a post on the new media landscape, which included the purchase of Napi Gazdaság, a financial daily that imitated the look of The Financial Times. Former editors of Magyar Nemzet followed their editor-in-chief and began transforming Napi Gazdaság into a second Magyar Nemzet. As far as the contents are concerned the work has been pretty well completed, but the name of the newspaper doesn’t really fit, nor does its colored paper. A few days ago we learned that the new quasi-government paper will be called “Magyar Idők” (Hungarian Times), and soon enough it will be printed on normal newsprint.

The capital that was originally sunk into the paper was relatively modest, but subsequently János Sánta, the beneficiary of the latest redistribution of the wholesale sector of the tobacco state monopoly, purchased a 49% stake in the new paper. I wrote about the details of this redistribution, which benefited only Sánta’s Continental Tobacco Group and British American Tobacco, in a post titled “The Orbán government in action: Graft and fraud.” Clearly, Sánta was told that it was time to pay his benefactor, Viktor Orbán, for the fantastic business opportunity. The deal was most likely struck way before the government decision was announced.

Meanwhile Árpád Habony, Orbán’s mysterious adviser, and others are working on new projects. They want to come out with an online news site, but nothing has materialized yet. On the other hand, they put together Lokál, a free paper that is supposed to replace the very strongly pro-Fidesz Helyi Téma that went bankrupt a few months ago. According to Origo, this new paper seems to avoid political topics altogether and concentrates on the activities of Hungarian celebrities.

It has also been widely reported that Andy Vajna, formerly producer of the Rambo and Terminator movies, who was rumored to be interested in buying TV2, is now thinking of starting a cable television station of his own. There is no question in whose service Vajna’s station will be if it materializes. Andy Vajna, who left Hungary as a young boy in 1956, has made a spectacular career for himself in Hungary. His latest coup is that he will run five of Hungary’s eleven gambling casinos. His life in and out of Hungary certainly deserves a post or two.

Heti Válasz only last week published a very critical article about Andy Vajna's  financial affairs

Heti Válasz only last week published a very critical article about Andy Vajna’s financial affairs

These accomplishments are not, however, enough for Viktor Orbán. He wants to get rid of all of the media outlets still in the hands of Lajos Simicska and his business partner, Zsolt Nyerges: Magyar Nemzet, HírTV, Lánchíd Rádió, Heti Válasz, and Class FM, the only commercial radio station that can be heard everywhere in the country. An unlikely person has surfaced as a potential buyer of a couple of print and online publications: Mária Schmidt, the court historian and director of the House of Terror. Apparently, Schmidt is interested in buying Heti Válasz and perhaps Origo.

Mária Schmidt is a very rich woman. She inherited quite a fortune from her husband, who died unexpectedly in 2006. Népszabadság learned that she recently established a company called “Médiaháló” (Media Net) and is looking for newspapers to buy. She put out feelers to Magyar Telekom, which apparently has been wanting for some time to get rid of Origo. The other paper she is interested in is Heti Válasz. But Lajos Simicska, despite his recent troubles at the hands of Viktor Orbán’s government machine, is not ready to sell any of his media holdings. I don’t know how long Simicska will be able to maintain his unbending attitude because, as things stand now, Viktor Orbán has made sure that Simicska’s firm, Közgép, will not be able to bid for any government contracts in the next three years. Simicska is ready to fight the decision and, if necessary, go to the European Court of Justice, but that takes time. And who knows what other “misfortunes” will befall Simicska in the interim.

Whether Origo will land in Mária Schmidt’s lap is not at all certain because another newly established media firm, Brit Média Befektetési Zrt, already started negotiations with Telekom months ago. The company’s majority stake belongs to B’nai B’rith International, based in Brussels. András Jonatán Megyeri is a minority owner. Megyeri at one time worked for TV2 and Viasat, a high-speed internet company. He is a religious Jew who serves as the volunteer cantor of the Bét-Sálom Synagogue. A couple of weeks ago his new company invested 40 million forints in KlubRádió, which is still in dire financial straights. Mária Schmidt versus B’nai B’rith International, I’m curious whom Magyar Telekom will choose. I’m sure that opponents of Viktor Orbán are keeping fingers crossed for Brit Média.

The Orbán government in action: graft and fraud

I didn’t think that I would have to return to the topic of the tobacco monopoly and concessions after writing at  least three articles on the subject in 2012 and 2013. The allocation of tobacco shop concessions became such a scandal that I hoped that the Orbán government would leave the tobacco business alone for a while. Obviously, I was wrong. In December, a new bill was submitted to parliament that was designed to eliminate tobacco wholesalers and replace them with one “retail supplier.” The original draft bill provided for two options. Either the government would set up a company for that purpose or it could call for an open tender for a 20-year concession. At this point an individual Fidesz MP introduced an amendment which “allowed the government to appoint a ‘reliable company’ for the task.” This parliamentary procedure was itself highly suspicious and what followed was even more so.

The “reliable company” actually turned out to be two companies that bid for the concession together. The British American Tobacco Hungary  (BAT), which has a factory in Pécs, and the Continental Tobacco Group, “an independent family-owned private company” that, according to its promo, supplies cigarettes and other tobacco products to 25 different countries. That’s all one can learn about this family business online. What one naturally doesn’t learn from its website is that the owner, János Sánta, is a good friend of János Lázár. Sánta’s name surfaced already during the scandal of the tobacco shop concessions when Napi Gazdaság, then still an independent daily, discovered that the final corrections on the proposal the government sent to the European Commission for approval were done by János Sánta. It turned out that Lázár relied heavily on the “advice” of Continental Tobacco all along.

Giving the whole job to a small family business would have been too obvious, so BAT, Hungary was chosen to assist the Hungarian government in this dirty deal. It cannot be a coincidence that Tamás Lánczi of Századvég, who is involved in a business venture of Árpád Habony and Arthur J. Finkelstein called Danube Business Consulting Ltd., became a board member of BAT at the end of March. Lánczi is an avid Fidesz supporter and the son of András Lánczi, an important adviser to Viktor Orbán.

cigarettes

The whole deal was done in such secrecy that the competitors of BAT and Continental were not even aware of the tender before it was a fait accompli. And the competitors can’t turn to the office that is supposed to be the watchdog of fair competition practices because the government designated the arrangement as “of strategic importance to Hungary.” Such projects cannot be questioned or investigated.

Three multinational tobacco companies–Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco, and Philip Morris–protested the decision and proposed a joint bid that included the amount they were prepared to pay for the concession. Their offer was ten times greater than that of BAT-Continental. Over twenty years, instead of 8.91 billion forints they offered 89 billion. Once the ministry of national development received the counter-offer, government officials had a very hard time explaining themselves, but they eventually settled for “the proposal being invalid and incomprehensible.” They came up with all sorts of excuses why the proposal was invalid and incomprehensible and hence couldn’t be considered, but with the exception of one–that the Hungarian government had already signed a contract with BAT-Continental–they all sounded bogus.

According to Index, the European Commission has been keeping an eye on the Hungarian government’s interference in the tobacco industry for some time. In the spring Elżbieta Bieńkowska, commissioner in charge of internal market, industry, and entrepreneurship, wanted to have details of this latest assault on private enterprise. It seems that the Hungarian government gave some kind of an explanation for what happened, but Bieńkowska and her staff were not satisfied with the answers. Index quoted the commissioner as saying that “there are other tobacco monopolies in Europe, but nowhere is it as obvious as in Hungary that only those can sell tobacco products who have good connections to the government.” She indicated that they “have to investigate the case very thoroughly.” She added that “strictly speaking we still cannot talk about corruption but it is clear that contracts and economic advantages which foreign companies enjoyed earlier now moved elsewhere.” Index had the impression that yet another infringement procedure is in the offing.

The Hungarian government reacted sharply to the Index story. The prime minister’s office released a statement in which they accused Bieńkowska of representing the interests of the multinational tobacco companies. In fact, she did something that was unprecedented: she became “the instrument of political pressure.” The government made it clear that it will fight to the bitter end, all the way to the European Court of Justice in order to win this case. Such a court case would be “a war of the multinational tobacco companies against Hungary, which is fighting against tobacco use” in defense of the public.

Meanwhile at home, János Lázár tried to explain why Hungary is in trouble in Brussels on account of the tobacco distribution concession. He announced at his press conferences last Thursday that it is Philip Morris that is behind the attacks against Hungary. He revealed that the government is planning to introduce “plain packaging” of cigarettes, as is already done in Australia. Philip Morris, he said, is upset about this change that will be introduced sometime next year. Mind you, no one had ever heard of this plan before. But that wasn’t enough. Lázár also charged Philip Morris with playing a role in anti-government protests.

I left the best to last. A few days ago the Hungarian public learned that János Sánta, the owner of Continental Tobacco Group, became part owner of Napi Gazdaság, the new government organ. The current owner of Napi Gazdaság is Gábor Liszkay, a long-time friend of Simicska and formerly part-owner of Magyar Nemzet. After Liszkay refused to follow Simicska’s demand for a more independent editorial policy, he purchased Napi Gazdaság from Századvég. Sánta apparently now has a 47% stake in the company, for which he paid 70 million forints. I guess this was the price he had to pay for his company to become the co-distributor of tobacco products.

This is how business is being conducted in Hungary. What these kinds of business practices do for Hungarian competitiveness we can only imagine. It’s no wonder that László Seres in an opinion piece expressed his fears that Orbán state capitalism with its mafia-like foundations will bury Hungarian democracy and the country’s economic well-being.