Tag Archives: Johannes Hahn

Hungary’s press is no longer free

Freedom House’s latest annual report on freedom of the press worldwide was released on April 28. The assessment of the Hungarian situation was so devastating that the best excuse the Hungarian government media could come up with was that Freedom House is under the thumb of George Soros. So, what do we expect?

Those who are familiar with Hungarian media affairs had predicted way ahead of the publication of the report that Hungary’s standing had suffered to such an extent that its listing as a country with a “free” press might be jeopardized. Pál Dániel Rényi of 444.hu described 2016 as the “darkest year of the free press in Hungary.” This unusually sharp turn of events began with the March 2015 rift between Viktor Orbán and his old friend Lajos Simicska, which resulted in an editorial shift at Simicska’s holdings: Magyar Nemzet, Hír TV, Class FM, Metropo, and Lánchíd Rádió. The government spent the rest of the year trying to strangle Simicska’s media and simultaneously set about to create a new government media empire practically from scratch. By now, the pro-government media presence is larger than ever before. Almost all of the regional papers are in government-friendly hands, and even such formerly respectable organs as Origo and Figyelő are now part of the Fidesz stable. The venerable Népszabadság ceased publication. “Public” radio and television now broadcast brazen government propaganda.

The Hungarian government’s expansion of its own media resources at the expense of independent media was of great concern to the compilers of Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Press, 2017.” Hungary figures large in this latest assessment. It is one of the countries that saw the biggest declines in press freedom in 2016. Mind you, Poland and Turkey did even worse, but Hungary found itself in the company of Tajikistan, Congo, South Sudan, Maldives, Bolivia, and Serbia. Hungary is also mentioned under the rubric “Milestones of Decline” together with Venezuela, Turkey, and Poland. Although Hungary’s media freedom has been steadily losing ground since 2010, not until 2016 was Hungary considered to be a country with an “only partly free” press.

In the ranking of 199 countries, Hungary is 84th, along with Montenegro. It tied with Greece for being the worst in the European Union with a total score of 44. (The lower the score, the freer the press.) Even Bulgaria (42) and Romania (38) have better scores than Hungary. While the freest presses in Europe can be found in Norway (with a total score of 8), the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, and Switzerland, Hungary is near the bottom of the heap. It outranks only Turkey (76), Macedonia (64), Bosnia and Herzegovina (51), Albania (51), Serbia (49), and Kosovo (48). Even if geographically speaking Hungary is considered to be part of Central Europe, culturally it shows a close affinity to countries of the Balkans.

So far the Orbán government has been silent on the report, unlike a month ago when the whole cabinet “repudiated the charges” that the state of democracy in Hungary had deteriorated. The charges, they said, were bogus because the organization is financed by George Soros. The office of the government spokesman at that time claimed that the Hungarian press is perfectly free because all political opinions can be found in the Hungarian media. “In Hungary freedom of speech is undiminished and Hungarian democracy is powerful, blossoming and alive.” Lajos Kósa, head of the Fidesz parliamentary group, was especially offended by Romania’s being ahead of Hungary on that list. He came up with the following “joke.” Two Romanian politicians are having a conversation. One of them says to the other: “Did you hear that we have improved our corruption score by five points?” The other answers: “Yes, I’ve heard. It wasn’t cheap.”

As for Freedom House being financed by George Soros, it should be noted that toward the more than $2 million annual budget of the organization, Open Society Foundations contributed just a little over $5,000 last year.

But it seems that facts don’t matter–even though today we learned from Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó that “now is the time that facts will be more important than opinions” in the European Union. Which brings me to Pesti Srácok‘s interview with the head of the Fidesz delegation in the European Parliament, András GyürkHere are a few of Gyürk’s “facts.” (Keep in mind that he was the first signatory to the mea culpa letter the Fidesz MEPs sent to their colleagues in the European People’s Party.) We learn from Gyürk that it wasn’t the Hungarian government that began the attack on Central European University but it was the “Soros network” that picked this particular time to attack the Hungarian government. The reason for the timing is the “fact” that “forces supporting illegal immigration want to force their will on the whole of the European Union this summer.” He doesn’t divulge who these forces are, but from the rest of the interview one gets the impression that Gyürk suspects that “the secret negotiations” between Jean-Claude Juncker and George Soros have something to do with this nefarious plot to import masses of “illegal immigrants into Europe.” Gyürk creates a conspiracy theory out of nothing. Pitted against these evil characters is Viktor Orbán, the savior of Europe, who must be eliminated because he stands in the way of the enemies of the continent. And while he is at it, Gyürk charges the Soros network with fomenting anti-government protests in Hungary just like it did in Ukraine and Macedonia. These are all lies.

But as I just learned this morning listening to four journalists talking about the habitual lying of Fidesz politicians, the concept of falsehood doesn’t really exist in Fidesz mental maps. Gábor Bencsik, brother of the notorious András Bencsik of Magyar Demokrata, was one of the journalists present. One of the participants pointed out that Viktor Orbán for the first time ever admitted during the plenary session of the European Parliament that the dreaded migrants didn’t want to stay in Hungary. With this he implicitly acknowledged that he lied when he plastered the whole country with posters about migrants taking away Hungarian jobs. At this point Bencsik said: “You keep talking about lying. What nitpicking.” The Fidesz team has built a communication network based on lies, a fact that is becoming increasingly evident to the politicians of the European Union.

Today Péter Szijjártó read the riot act to Johannes Hahn, EU commissioner of European neighborhood policy and enlargement negotiations and deputy chairman of the Austrian People’s party, because he dared to criticize Viktor Orbán’s “Stop Brussels!” campaign. “We expect respect for Hungarians,” he demanded. But I’m afraid it is difficult to respect habitual liars and cheats, and unfortunately the Orbán government is rife with such people.

May 1, 2017

Viktor Orbán did not attend the Balkan Summit

Although most commentators are critical of the European Union’s handling of the flood of refugees, today I’m more optimistic that a viable solution will be found, which might not be to the liking of Viktor Orbán. I came to this conclusion after reading summaries of speeches at the second West Balkan Summit, held today in Vienna. These summits were originally designed to prepare the ground for the eventual EU membership of six so-called West Balkan states–Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia, but today’s gathering was completely overshadowed by the migration crisis.

It was perhaps for that reason that HVG wanted to find out from the prime minister’s office why Viktor Orbán didn’t attend the summit. The prime minister’s office rightly pointed out that Hungary is not a Balkan country, and therefore “the question of the prime minister’s attending the summit hasn’t come up at all.” Subsequently, KlubRádió interpreted the information from the prime minister’s office in a way that implied that the invitation came but was turned down. The headline read: “Orbán didn’t go to the conference on migration” (Orbán nem ment el a menekültügyi konferenciára). We don’t know for sure whether Orbán was invited to the meeting or not, but I suspect that he was because, in addition to EU officials (Federica Mogherini, responsible for foreign affairs, Maroš Šefčovič, president of the Energy Union, and Johannes Hahn, in charge of enlargement negotiations), the German delegation (headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier), and the delegation of the host country of Austria (headed by Chancellor Werner Faymann and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz), all the countries that have been most affected by the refugee crisis were present: Greece, Italy, Macedonia, and Serbia. Only Hungary was missing.

Chancellor Werner Feymann, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Denis Zvizdić

Werner Faymann, Angela Merkel, and Denis Zvizdić of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Why am I optimistic after reading reports on the summit? First of all, because the reports show that European politicians have started thinking about finding a common solution to the problem. Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian foreign minister, put forth one plan that would create “safe havens” in the migrants’ home countries and elsewhere where those seeking asylum would be under UN protection. Here the refugees would be processed and, once cleared, would be given safe passage to Europe. All 28 countries would have to take their share of the new immigrants. Although I see quite a few problems with these “safe havens” as envisaged by Kurz, this suggestion could be a beginning to a comprehensive handling of the crisis.

Prior to the conference, Kurz told the media that Austria currently has more refugees than Italy and Greece together. If other EU countries refuse to cooperate, Austria will have to tighten its borders to restrict free passage to and from Austria. Although Hungary and Bulgaria refused to accept any refugees under the quota system, it looks now as if the European Commission has returned to the idea. In fact, Commissioner Johannes Hahn told reporters that “we’re going to have a quota settlement approach, and in light of recent developments, I believe all 28 member states are now ready to accept and approve that.” Does this mean that Viktor Orbán behind the scenes changed his mind and that all his saber rattling is for home consumption only? It looks that way.

Chancellor Faymann had just finished telling the other European leaders that there was an urgent need to do something about human traffickers when the news came that at least 20 refugees but perhaps as many as 50 had been found dead in a truck just a few miles away.

The story as it is unfolding is complicated. The truck itself belonged at one point to a meat processing plant, Hyza, located close to Žilina/Zsolna in northern Slovakia. It was one of 21 trucks the company sold to somebody in Slovakia who then resold it to a Hungarian company in Budapest called MasterMobilKer Kft., established in 2011 but by now defunct. The first story, told by János Lázár himself, that the temporary license plate on the truck was issued to a Romanian citizen turned out to be false. Apparently, the man who went to the Hungarian equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles was a Hungarian who lives on a ranch near Kecskemét. The truck, however, began its journey in Budapest and crossed the Austro-Hungarian border sometime between Wednesday at 9 p.m. and Thursday at 6 a.m. Yet when the truck was found on the roadside this morning the bodies were already in an advanced stage of decomposition with bloody fluids dripping from the truck. Although the temperature has been very high, I find it difficult to believe that the people in that truck had been traveling for only for a few hours.

While Angela Merkel was “shaken by the awful news,” which “reminds us that we in Europe need to tackle the problem quickly and find a solution in the spirit of solidarity,” Fidesz’s reaction was accusatory. According to the party’s official statement, “this shocking event shows that the migrant policies of the European Union have failed.”

What would the official Hungarian solution be? It sounds simple enough: the borders must be properly defended and crossings should occur at designated places under the watchful eyes of the authorities. In this way such tragedies could be avoided. The problem is that it doesn’t matter whether the refugees come through designated “gates” of some sort or over the fence as long as they can fall prey to unscrupulous smugglers, who in this case, it seems, happened to be Hungarians. In fact, I heard György Kakuk, the author of El Camino de Balkan, say in one of his interviews that the smugglers he encountered in crossing the Serb-Hungarian border came from Hungary. Building fences will only increase the number of enterprising smugglers. Thus, the Hungarian government is, wittingly or unwittingly, encouraging men like the one(s) who is/are responsible for the horrendous crime discovered today. It would be time to sit down with others and come up with a better solution than the one the Hungarians devised on their own.

Brussels’ suspension of payments for most of Hungary’s cohesion projects

It was on May 1 that I first reported that 444.hu, a new Internet website, published an article according to which sometime during the summer of 2012 the European Union suspended payment for cohesion fund projects. The apparent reason was that Brussels discovered that there was discrimination against foreign engineers. Only engineers who belong to the Hungarian Society of Engineers could be hired.

I expressed my doubt that the only reason for the suspension of billions of euros was discrimination against foreign engineers, although I do know that such discrimination within the EU is strictly forbidden. I suspected that Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció, which had brought Lajos Simicska’s Közgép to the attention of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) , might have had something to do with the suspension of funds.

At that time the government offered only a couple of soothing assurances that all was well. One government official even insisted that the requisite membership in the Hungarian Society of Engineers was not really discriminatory because, after all, foreign engineers could join the society. The Hungarian government seemed to be quite sure of itself.

By now, however, the Orbán government seems to be in a total panic. There is still no resolution of the European Union’s suspension of payments for 13 of the 15 operative programs financed from Brussels, and in the worst case scenario Hungary might lose somewhere between two and four billion euros in EU grant money.

Let’s look at a few of the details. I should note here that I feel sorry for those journalists who don’t speak Hungarian and have to rely on information that is available on government sites because very often the English version of the press releases bears no resemblance even to the government doctored news in Hungarian. The August 12 press release on “Action plan to avoid losing EU funds” is a good example of this practice because it says not a word about the suspended funds. The Hungarian version published on the Office of the Prime Minister’s site is more informative.  János Lázár, the new head of the Nemzeti Fejlesztési Felügyelet (NFÜ, National Development Agency), announced at his press conference that “the European Union raised concerns with several large development programmes” and that  Lázár “has already asked European Commissioner for Regional Policy Johannes Hahn to assure completion of related negotiations at the earliest opportunity so that Hungary may utilise the maximum amount of funds available within the 2007-2013 programming period.” This, however, is still not the whole truth.

Lázár actually said that of the 20 billion euros allocated to Hungary for 2007 through 2013 there is a good possibility of losing about 2 billion euros if no agreement is reached before the end of the year. He didn’t dwell on the reasons for the suspension of funds but showed himself eager to “close the disputes between Hungary and the European Union.” The Hungarian government is ready to pay the fines that will most likely be forthcoming without turning to the European Court of Justice because of the urgency. He indicated that he would be happy if Hungary had to pay only 50-70 billion Hungarian forints.

János Lázár at his press conference / Photo Károly Árvai

János Lázár at his press conference / Photo Károly Árvai

This withholding of funds is only one of the problems. The other is that Hungary has only a few more months to utilize the remaining grant money, about 1 billion euros, that until now has not been allocated.

What happened? In 2010 the Orbán government completely reorganized NFÜ, which entailed firing 170 of the 210 employees of the agency. Brussels was apparently stunned. They may also have considered Viktor Orbán’s “reorganization” illegal because the Hungarian government was supposed to ask approval of these changes from the European Union. Because of the reorganization there was practically no work on projects at the agency. And not a single new project was launched. I might add here that today NFÜ has 600 employees and, as Lázár made clear at his press conference, there is no plan to reduce the size of the staff.

Meanwhile, just as I suspected back in May, concern was raised in Brussels over the alleged widespread corruption in the dispersion of funds, currently being investigated by the police. Most of the corruption that is under investigation happened when the Hungarian government tried to allocate money to small- and medium-size Hungarian businesses. Then there was the case when NFÜ wanted to decide the winner by lottery, which Brussels gravely objected to and eventually managed to stop. Sometimes grants were handed out without open competition. It is also known that there were occasions when firms with close ties to Fidesz offered assistance (naturally for a fee) to smaller companies without political connections. As far as I know, Közgép, the largest recipient of EU funds and according to some the most tainted, is not under investigation.

The question of the operative project funds was discussed yesterday at the cabinet meeting. As usual, not much can be learned from the press release except that the decision was made to create a new “working group” within NFÜ called “Tervezési Támogatási Munkaszervezet” (Planning and Assisting Working Organization) which is supposed have “functions of direction within the organization units.” Whatever that means.

According to MSZP’s Gábor Harangozó, although Lázár talked about 2 billion euros (500-600 billion forints) that needs to be approved by the European Commission and spent this year, in his opinion the real figure might be as high as 1,500-1,200 billion forints or about 4 billion euros. Right now no money is coming from Brussels, not even for projects that are already under construction. Moreover, it seems that the Hungarian government, which is supposed to be the guarantor of EU subsidies, doesn’t have the resources to pay the companies that are working on these projects.

Harangozó inquired in writing from Viktor Orbán about key details of the case. For example, how long has the Hungarian government known about the European Union’s objections to the government’s handling of the grants? When did Brussels turn off the spigot? Did the European Union complain about government corruption? MSZP also inquired about the situation from the director-general of the European Council.

Today the government, obviously feeling the pinch, reacted to Harangozó’s statements. They countered that Hungary “has lost billions of euros due only to the incompetence of the Gyurcsány-Bajnai governments.” According to the government press release, during Gordon Bajnai’s tenure as the head of NFÜ “76% of the money for development that was spent was not in accordance with rules and regulations.” In any case, one of the first announcements of Lázár after the cabinet meeting yesterday was that the Orbán government will re-examine all projects, including those long since finished, beginning with 2007.

In brief, a new attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai is in the offing. If they follow their usual pattern they will darkly hint at all sorts of irregularities, fraud, and corruption. Then the police and the prosecutors will madly search for evidence while Magyar Nemzet reports on lurid details of the investigation that they gleaned from reliable sources. The whole circus will last at least until the elections. A tried and true campaign strategy.