Tag Archives: journalism

Gábor Szabó: The Media in Hungary – The Example of Environmental Journalism

As always, Hungarian Spectrum welcomes democratic voices from and about Hungary. Today Gábor Szabó, a well-known Hungarian environmental journalist, summarizes the experiences he gathered during his 37 years of work in this field. While the article describes the changes in the situation of environmental journalism, it reflects very well the tragic deterioration of the conditions for free media in all fields in Hungary. Gábor Szabó wrote this article at the request of the Hungarian NGO Clean Air Action Group (Levegő Munkacsoport).

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Under the old (Socialist) regime, between 1948 and 1990, the official standpoint was that the development of the economy and raising of living standards comes first, and “when we can afford” (in Communism?) we will protect the environment (in spite of the fact that environmental pollution had a detrimental effect on the quality of life). Facts about environmental pollution had to be hidden from the public. Hence environmental journalism was the least desired by the authorities, and articles about health damaging pollution cases practically did not exist until the 1980s.

Then, as the Socialist era began to collapse, it turned out that there were too many skeletons in the closet. As the limits for press got looser, more and more hidden facts came to daylight. Still, revealing a pollution case was automatically an anti-government action, not because the author was a revolutionary or an anti-communist but because it was the officials who let state-owned enterprises compromise people’s health. What else could show more evidently the inhumanity of the system? (In which it was declared that the most important value was the health of the working class.)

So it was quite natural that those practicing environmental journalism – beginning to flourish by the end of the 1980s – closely cooperated with civil society organisations (which until 1990 were informal groups, as they could not be registered officially). The latter gradually gained ground by the end of the Socialist era. Bad ambient air quality in the inner districts of Budapest brought thousands to demonstrate, the planned joint Hungarian-Czechoslovakian giga-investment of regulating the natural flow of the Danube river by an enormous dam led tens of thousands to the streets. Rising environmental awareness gave ammunition for the opposition. In other words: environmental issues were in focus when the old era collapsed.

After the collapse of the one-party system new environmental bodies were set up, new programs started and the NGOs gained numerous legal opportunities to have a say in legislation and control in their closer and often even their wider environment. Journalists had relatively good opportunities to report on environmental issues. Even so it took 5 years, till a new Environmental Law (Act 53 of 1995) was adopted by the Parliament. Meanwhile a relatively powerful ministry of environment was set up; powerful, among others, thanks to the competent environmental inspectorates. In contrast to the situation in the old times, now it was already possible to obtain relevant data, and quite often with the active assistance of the environmental authorities! Instead of “fighting” against them, a spirit of cooperation prevailed. It was a golden age for environmental journalism.

Just one example of the openness of those times: with the help of the Central Environmental Inspectorate in 1995, I was able to publish data about the ten companies emitting the largest quantity of air pollutants, the ten companies emitting the largest quantity of water pollutants, as well as the ten biggest hazardous waste producers, i.e. an unprecedented list of polluters.

Shortly after this action the head of the Inspectorate reaped the reward for his openness (not only to my request) – he had to leave his office. This was a clear sign, that almost immediately after the genie was let out of the bottle, a creeping regression started. The above-mentioned Law on Environment originally set practically no limits to the citizens’ right to know environmental facts. Moreover, the group of stakeholders was defined broad enough to let local residents, NGOs to take an active part in the process of granting environmental permits. No doubt, huge investments could be delayed this way even by a tiny group of grassroots environmentalists, but on the other side no polluting activity could easily be rammed down the throat of a local community.

The regression came, when the text of the Law was changed. Originally it said (§ 12): “Everyone has the right to know environmental facts and data, in particular the state of the environment, the degree of environmental pollution, the environmental protection activities and the effects of the state of environment on human health.” After 2005 it said the following (same para): “Everyone has the right to know the environmental information specified in separate legislation as public interest data.” (My translation. G. Sz.) Short sentence, but with two restrictions on open access to environmental data:

1) The “separate legislation” at present is Act 112 of 2011 (earlier it was Act 63 of 1992). This law gave rise to highly bureaucratic processes, and so obtaining the desired data can take months. (The questioner has to submit a form to the Information Authority, unlike in the original 1992 version, where the petition went directly to the environmental – or health – authorities.)

2) Since 2011 the questioner has to pay for the data and the authorities often use this possibility as a weapon against citizens and NGOs, grossly overcharging them. Some court cases started to clear the way for gaining back the citizens’ right to know public information, but the battle is far from being over.

Furthermore, according government decree 305/2005 certain types of information are to be published on official websites, including for example the decisions of environmental inspectorates, and the Central Inspectorate (which is the second instance as well). Government decree 311/2005 makes it compulsory to publish various environmental data. But practically no essential information is published, or, if any, it is not possible to search in the database, let alone to search archive files.

The above mentioned changes made it year after year harder and harder for journalists to obtain hard facts on environmental issues. The toughest period came after 2010, when the right-conservative government introduced the so called Regime of National Cooperation. As almost all government declarations, this formulation means the opposite in everyday practice: new laws and institutional systems are suddenly introduced, and “sold” to the public as a general wish, without consulting the interested and affected parties. The first radical change came in 2010, when the ruling parties changed the system of ministries and the Ministry of Environment deceased. Its tasks were taken over by the Ministry for Rural Affairs, wherein a State Secretariat for Environmental Affairs was set up, with limited power.

The second big change occurred in 2015, when even the environmental inspectorates disappeared. The ten – till 2012 twelve – watershed-based inspectorates merged into the 19 county offices of the government, becoming a department of them each. The consequence for journalists is that inquiries are to be submitted to the county office, and all direct contacts with the environmental authorities had been cut. It is hard to get rid of the feeling, that an essential reason for this organisational change was just that: the farther the press is from the sources of information, the better. When I tried to make a strictly background interview with my old contact person working now in a county office, she said: “Do me the favour, please, erase my handy number from your list and never again call me on this phone. Ask rather the press officer or my boss.” That I did for a while, but no press officer at any government body gave ever a usable answer. Concerning the bosses, they have also lost their right to direct contact with journalists. (An apparent sign of this is the everyday routine formula of the press: “till our deadline we couldn’t get the answer from the responsible persons”.)

Another method of depriving the power of environmental regulations was invented 11 years after the Law on Environment was adopted, and the related new law, symbolically enough, had the same numbering. Act 53 of 2006 made it possible to introduce thousands of exceptions to the general rules. The so-called priority investments (“investments of outstanding importance for the national economy”) get the needed permits from the authorities more smoothly, quickly, no niggling is allowed. To pave the way for these “absolutely important” investments, permits at the first instance are to be granted in extra short time, the competent authority is assigned by the government, and the right of stakeholders is limited. A bright example of this practice is the permit for cutting out 286 trees around the Parliament in 2012. There was no way to appeal against it, the fourth day of the permit saw the execution of the ruling. Four months later the ombudsman declared his serious concerns about granting the permit. This had no legal consequence, and today the square at the Parliament is a stone desert, one of the hottest climate-islands of Budapest as a conspicuous example of environmental legislation in practice.

At present practically any investment can be declared priority investment: a kosher plastic greenhouse, a meat factory, enlargement of a police station, a test track for cars, the investments to commemorate a famous Hungarian poet in the municipality of Nagykőrös, several processing plants, various sport centres, development of a horse breeding farm, development of various industrial zones, building a new campus of the Sports University, building a new high school, refurbishment of the State Opera, building a new wing at the Buda Castle, upgrading several stadiums, building of new stadiums, erecting a fence at the Hungarian-Serbian borderline (thus killing out almost all of the highly endangered endemic mole-rat, Spalax sp.), setting up a Museum at an unused railway station, permitting new devices to combat hail at rural districts, a real estate development in South Buda at the Danube bank (the area belongs to a friend of the Prime Minister) – to mention just a few of the 2 cases in 2006, 1 in 2007, 5 in 2008, 4 in 2009, 4 in 2010, 8 in 2011, 13 in 2012, 30 in 2013, 32 in 2014, 44 in 2015, 50 in 2016, and 25 in 2017 (till May 2). Thus, granting the status of priority investment is already not an exception, rather the rule itself.

It is also not rare that a law on a priority investment annuls important provisions of other laws. For example, the government (actually, rather the Prime Minister) decided to relocate several museums to the City Park (Városliget), a popular green area of Budapest, destroying a large part of this popular green area of Budapest. (The relocation became “necessary” because the Prime Minister wants to move his office to the Castle Hill, 70 meters above the Parliament.) To pave the way for eating up the green area, the Parliament adopted a law which says: concerning this priority investment the regulations on spatial planning in Budapest are void.

As a result of declaring so many investments “priority investment”, the environmental and other authorities generally decline to answer in essence to the questions and comments of journalists, stating that it is the law which requires them to implement the investment at all and in the way prescribed.

To pave the way for investors, other rules have been significantly eased by other methods as well. In contrast to the earlier regulations, today getting a permit for erecting a building is in most cases just the applicant’s and the respective authority’s business, neighbours in most cases have lost their right to be handled as clients according to the Government decree 482/2016 (replacing decree 155/2016). One usually even doesn’t need a permit, there is just an obligation to officially report the planned construction activity in advance.

Protection of the built national heritage disappeared since the annihilation of the Heritage Protection Authority in 2012. Its tasks were partly taken over by an office, but this office also deceased in 2016. There is no existing heritage protection authority. Concerning natural heritage the situation is similar. National Parks have no administrative rights in this respect, and the county offices lack professional knowledge. These changes serve nothing else than creating a favorable legal environment for various investments considered useful by the government or by those, who stand close to the government. This also makes it practically impossible for a journalist to get any information from state sources on the investment concerned.

As a consequence of all these changes, not much space was left for environmental journalists. The harder it was to get information on environmental issues, the less transparent the environmental administration was, the more diminished the group of environmental journalists. The Society of Environmental Journalists, established in 1997, ceased to exist. Press organs changed their policies as well: environmental issues have appeared more and more rarely in the mainstream media. As a logical consequence, at present there are not more than half a dozen of journalists who still possess the professional skills of environmental journalism.

July 3, 2017

 

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

House cleaning at Magyar Nemzet

Although for months all kinds of hypotheses have been floated about the Simicska-Orbán feud, I have judiciously avoided joining the rumor mill. Conjectures about the apparent rift between Lajos Simicska and his old friend, Viktor Orbán, were vague and occasionally far-fetched. I believe that it is better to be cautious, especially in a case like this one where details are extremely hard to come by. Simicska, the foremost oligarch in Hungary, is a very secretive man. The media has not been able to get close to him, and those pictures of him that were, until recently, available on the Internet all dated from the late 1990s when he headed the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service. It was just a few weeks ago that someone managed to get a new photo of him. He has put on some weight and naturally he is about fifteen years older. Here and there a journalist manages to get some information about Simicska and his relationship to Orbán, but a few days later it is usually denied by someone else. So, under these circumstances, the most prudent course is to wait until we have more reliable information about what is going on.

We do have a few confirmed pieces of the puzzle, however. The newly introduced advertisement tax hurt not only RTL Klub but also the Simicska media empire. About a month ago I noticed that suddenly articles critical of the government began appearing in Magyar Nemzet, something that earlier was unimaginable. I devoted a post to that topic at the beginning of August. Since then there have been several more instances when government officials were scrutinized and their behavior condemned by the newspaper’s editors.

Lajos Simicska today

Lajos Simicska today

In the middle of the August Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság learned from a source close to both Simicska and Orbán that the two men had reached a temporary truce. Simicska agreed to sell Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, Lánchíd Rádió, and Class FM to two close associates of Orbán–Árpád Habony, the brain behind Orbán’s political maneuverings, and Andy Vajna, the producer of the blockbusters Rambo and The Terminator. On the same day, however, another “reliable source” close to Magyar Nemzet denied the rumors to a journalist of Népszava. According to the latter source, the feud between Simicska and Orbán was greatly exaggerated but was still on. There are, he said, no plans for a complete or partial sale of Simicska’s media empire. This source admitted that because of the advertising tax, the ever decreasing readership of all print media, and smaller advertising revenues Magyar Nemzet will have to “rationalize” its business practices. The decision was already made at the beginning of August that the price of the paper will have to increase. It had remained constant for the last twelve years, so the hike was clearly overdue.

It seems that Népszava‘s information was the more accurate because today came the news that about thirty journalists have been fired at Magyar Nemzet. As it stands now, the paper employs about a hundred people. Seventy of them work on the print edition and thirty on the online publication. The “rationalization” involves merging these two groups and downsizing the staff.

Was this move necessary for financial reasons? Népszabadság came to the conclusion that although the advertising tax will cut sharply into the profits of Magyar Nemzet, the paper is getting just as much government advertising support as before. Pesti scrácok, a right-wing blog, claimed that Magyar Nemzet receives four or five times as much advertising as other newspapers and that its financial health is robust.

But then why this large-scale firing? And why ax famous journalists who have been zealous supporters of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz for decades? I will stick my neck out and suggest a couple of possibilities.

Let’s start with the advertising revenue. It is a well-known fact that no Hungarian newspaper can survive without indirect government support in the form of advertising and subscriptions. Each ministry and each Fidesz municipal administration has subscriptions for several dozen copies of Magyar Nemzet. The state-owned companies also greatly favor the right-wing publications, Magyar Nemzet and Válasz. But what if the relationship between the paper and the government sours in the future? Let’s assume that critical voices appear increasingly often in the paper, similar to what has happened at RTL Klub. In this case, it is very possible that the generous advertising orders will slow or come to an end. Is it possible that Magyar Nemzet is preparing for this eventuality? Is it possible that Simicska has not given up the fight but has instead decided to use the weapons available to the press?

There is another clue that might indicate a change in the political orientation of the paper. It is enough to look at the list of those who were dismissed: Miklós Ugró, a regular writer of editorials; Emil Ludwig, earlier editor-in-chief of the paper; Matild Torkos, an investigative journalist; Anna Kulcsár and Gabriella Lőcsei, both senior editors; and István Lovas, the paper’s correspondent in Brussels. These have been core people at Magyar Nemzet over the last ten or fifteen years. As Pesti Srácok points out,  “these victims of the Simicska-Orbán feud are the people who steadfastly stood by Magyar Nemzet in its leanest years, at the time of the efforts to destroy the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány governments.” Indeed, Magyar Nemzet actively participated in that demolition job, and these people were perhaps the most zealous propagandists of Fidesz and its leader within the offices of Magyar Nemzet. What does their removal signify, if anything? Is it possible that their total devotion to Viktor Orbán has made them unfit for more balanced reporting in the future by Magyar Nemzet? Perhaps, but only time will tell. Until then this is only a hypothesis.

Sloppy Hungarian journalism misleads the public

It was at the beginning of January that Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, first mentioned rather casually in a television interview that he might release some of the secret service documents related to the leak of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech to the MSZP parliamentary delegation after their electoral victory in 2006.

Regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum are only too familiar with what happened. The newly reelected prime minister rather irresponsibly made a speech in front of almost 300 people that was sprinkled with obscenities and that contained passages which, if taken out of context, could be very damaging. Of course, the speech was leaked. Fidesz, then in opposition, picked out the most damaging couple of sentences from the fairly long speech (almost 18,000 words) and passed them on to the president of Magyar Rádió. The rest is history. Football hooligans attacked Magyar Televízió and another round of riots, fueled by Viktor Orbán and other Fidesz politicians, occurred a month later on the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1956. Ferenc Gyurcsány became damaged goods.

Ever since that time wild speculations have been circulating about who leaked the speech. The most authoritative person in this case, Ferenc Gyurcsány himself, said several times in the last couple of years that there is strong indirect evidence that points to three prominent MSZP members. However, he refuses to divulge the names because he is–as he stated tonight on ATV–only 97% sure that the three people whom he has in mind are actually the ones who turned against their party’s chairman and their prime minister.

And now comes the latest incarnation of this rather tired story. Naturally, it is being resurrected with the national election in mind. Viktor Orbán will never forget what happened to him in 2002 when most opinion polls showed Fidesz about 10% ahead of the opposition parties–and yet he lost. This time Fidesz  is pulling out all the stops, which includes calling attention again to the Gyurcsány speech from 2006. But this time with a twist. The couple of documents Pintér released are only part of the pertinent material. He has not released the most important final report that, according to Gyurcsány and Bajnai, concluded that the Hungarian secret service agents who investigated the case didn’t have a clue who leaked the tape of the speech and in exactly what way it ended up in Fidesz hands.

The two documents are available on the website of the renamed secret service agency that originally investigated the case. One is pretty straightforward and contains nothing new. The second one is a summary report (összefoglaló jelentés) not of the investigation of the leak but of Eduardo Rózsa-Flores who three years later, in 2009, died in Bolivia where he wanted to foment a revolution against the Bolivian government. The report concludes that Rózsa-Flores was a right-wing extremist who was an opponent of the MSZP-SZDSZ government. Although the report is for the most part simply a collection of generalities about Flores’s politics, it touches on the question of the leaked speech. During a conversation with an undercover agent Flores gave details of how he ended up receiving the tape of the prime minister’s speech which he then passed on to Fidesz politicians. It was Flores’s theory that the leak was organized with the knowledge and blessing of Ferenc Gyurcsány who by creating a scandal wanted to divert attention away from the country’s grave economic situation. In brief, what the agents learned from Flores was no more than speculation. A wacky hypothesis offered by someone who couldn’t possibly know the details of the leak.

So, let’s see how the Hungarian media handled the news, starting with Népszabadság. It is normally one of the more reliable newspapers in Hungary, but this time I was amazed at the sloppiness of Gy. Attila Fekete. The headline reads: “Őszöd: Here is the secret service report.” That is really misleading because the “meat” of the story, Gyurcsány’s alleged role in leaking his own speech, is not in the interim report on Őszöd but in the final report on Rózsa-Flores whose surveillance came to an end when he was brutally killed in a hotel room in Bolivia. A brief editorial in the paper is to my mind outrageous. If this is all true, says the editorial, “we just shudder. We can barely comprehend it.” On the other hand, “if the story is not true then we have every reason to feel totally lost in our own country.” At this point I’m the one who is totally lost. What does this mumble jumble mean? Finally, the editors call on Gyurcsány to divulge who leaked the speech. “He indicated several times that he knows what happened. He must tell.”

journalism

Moreover, the great journalists at Népszabadság seem to think that the investigation of Őszöd ended on July 27 2009 and that all the information contained in the final report on Flores has been kept secret for four and a half years. This “final report” was written because Rózsa Flores was killed in Bolivia and therefore his surveillance ended. Őszöd was an entirely different matter; we still haven’t seen the secret service’s final report on the leak which was written in December 2009. Viktor Orbán for very good reason didn’t want to release that document: it contains nothing about either the culprits responsible for the leak or about Gyurcsány’s alleged complicity.

It’s no wonder that Klára Dobrev, Ferenc Gyurcsány’s wife, had some harsh words for Népszabadság. The editors didn’t check the facts; they didn’t question; they presented lies as facts. Népszabadság, according to Klára Dobrev, even managed to outdo Magyar Nemzet. “My friends, I believe that we have one fewer independent newspaper.” She thinks that the shift is due to the paper’s change in ownership. Heinrich Pecina, an Austrian businessman, acquired a majority stake in the paper. In an interview with Márton Galambos and Irén Hermann of Forbes he expressed his admiration for Viktor Orbán’s leadership, without which, in his opinion, Hungary would have ended up like Greece.

All the other online sites pretty much repeated as fact Rózsa-Flores’s theory. As Zsófia Mihancsik pointed out, it was only Origo that gave an accurate description of the two documents released by Sándor Pintér. Origo called Flores’s claim “a bombastic theory.” But since most online sites copy from each other, one can be sure that all the wrong conclusions will be reached regardless of what anyone says. For example, Gordon Bajnai who saw all the reports, including the unpublished final one, announced on his own website that the two released documents try to lead the public to wrong conclusions. Moreover, he claims, the present government deleted information even from these less relevant documents that would reflect badly on Fidesz politicians. He considers this latest Fidesz trick a manipulation of the election which he “finds illegal and unacceptable.” Since then, Gyurcsány gave his side of the story. One thing is sure: only facts can prove someone innocent or guilty and in these documents there is nothing that would prove that Rózsa-Flores’s theory has any merit whatsoever.

What do sugar distribution and drag racing have in common? A lot

Perhaps there is hope yet for investigative journalism in Hungary. When in the mid-1990s I first encountered an article that was supposed to uncover corruption in the police force I was appalled. The author didn’t seem to be aware of the most basic rules of what we used to call expository writing. Moreover, she was so sloppy that she didn’t even bother to learn the simplest facts of the case. I decided to write to her, going through her article practically sentence by sentence. As if she had been a student of mine who wrote a very, very bad essay on some historical topic. After I sent off the e-mail I was sure that I had made an enemy for life. But no, I received a very cordial answer in which she thanked me for my thorough critique of her work. We even stayed in touch for a while: I continued to criticize, and she continued to improve.

In general, however, Hungarian investigative journalism didn’t improve. Investigative articles and even books on the mostly dirty business affairs of Hungarian politicians were still sketchy and largely incomprehensible. One got the impression that the authors had only a vague sense of the complicated legal and business connections they were writing about. Mind you, they were trying to untangle business activities that were intentionally designed to be inscrutable.

So I was happy to read an article in Index by Miklós Jenei the other day that seemed to have uncovered more about a company’s questionable business practices in a couple of weeks than the National Tax and Customs Administration of Hungary (NAV) managed to do in years with its 23,000 employees.

Jenei decided to focus on sugar because András Horváth, the whistleblower at the Hungarian tax authority, mentioned sugar as one of the favorite commodities of the VAT scammers who make millions if not billions by reclaiming their non-existent value added taxes. He visited quite a few large supermarkets and compared prices. He found a Slovak-Hungarian brand called Sovereign which cost 20-30 ft less than the others. This particular brand was produced by Sovereign Slovakia s.r.o. and was sold at Tesco, Lidl, and some other outlets. The price of Sovereign sugar is 229 at Tesco and 200 ft at Lidl.

According to their website, the company was established in 2009 and the owner is Majorbiz Inc. (Seychelle Islands). The CEO is Ilona Ollé Agh. The reporter is fairly certain that the sugar actually comes from Hungary but that for one reason or other it is more profitable for the owners of Sovereign to transport the sugar to Okoč/Ekecs in Slovakia, a village which is almost entirely inhabited by Hungarians, for packaging.

Jenei managed to discover the wholesale price of sugar per ton by posing as a CEO of a sugar distributor. As a result, he came to the conclusion that no one can buy sugar from the factory for less than 185 forints per kilogram. The supermarkets refused to reveal the price they pay for Sovereign sugar, but our investigator figures that Tesco most likely pays 180 and Lidl 173 forints per kilogram. So, something doesn’t add up.

It turns out that over the last few years there were several companies with the name Sovereign. Several of them dealt with sugar packaging. All of them also had business interests in the sale of cars. Almost all of them had their share of trouble with the Hungarian tax authorities. And all of them shared the same address on Farkastorki utca in District III in Budapest. It is a small apartment on the ground floor. These various Sovereign businesses came and went after amassing millions in unpaid taxes. The authorities would regularly shutter the delinquent business, but within a few months a new business with a slightly different name would spring up. The CEOs also appeared and disappeared. One such CEO was Szilvia Marisz who claims that she is a bookkeeper; when Index‘s reporter finally got hold of her he could hear a baby crying in the background. Her successor was a 63-year-old fellow who had interests in thirteen companies of different sorts. Most of them are no longer in existence.

Lately a new company was registered at the same apartment on Farkastorki utca: Tull Trade Kereskedelmi és Szolgáltató Kft. Its owner is Sándor Esztocsák, who had earlier connections with Sovereign. Tull’s business was fabulously profitable. In 2010 it grossed 551 million forints, which is not bad for a company run by one man, Esztocsák, who obviously came cheap: he had the modest salary of 282,000 per year.

What is the connection between Tull and the packaging company in Slovakia? The link seems to be Jenő Rujp, head of the Sovereign Racing Team Kft, a company that also has its headquarters in the ground-floor apartment on Farkastorki utca. The company is involved with drag racing and maintains a sailing team as well as a band. The racers were badly behind with their taxes and therefore their business permit was cancelled. But no problem. They changed the name to Sovereign Sugar Hungary and Rujp ostensibly left the company. This last company with a new CEO is the distributor of Sovereign Sugar.

Sovereign at a drag racing meet

Sovereign at a drag racing meet

Quite a saga! Naturally, Index tried to avoid drawing any conclusions from the findings of Miklós Jenei, but it seems to me that the “sugar business” serves primarily as a vehicle for making enough money–thanks to major funding from the unwitting Hungarian taxpayers–to keep up the expensive habits of some of the characters in the story.

Hungarian attitude toward alcohol consumption

I would like to talk about two incidents that happened only a few days apart. We briefly touched on the first in the comments. István Lovas, Magyar Nemzet’s correspondent in Brussels, wrote an obscene letter full of four-letter words to the foreign correspondents in Budapest. In it he accused them of false reporting, resulting in an unjust and untrue picture of Hungary. The English-language letter can be read here at the end of the Hungarian introduction. Now it turned out that Lovas’s excuse is that he was drunk.

Two days ago there was a curious scene in the Hungarian parliament. An MSZP member of parliament happened to be delivering a question to one of the ministers when István Pálffy (KDNP), who is in his first term in parliament, got up, went by the speaker, shook hands with him, and began unsteadily ambling toward the exit. Then he suddenly stopped and began a conversation with two Jobbik members who, after he had left, indicated that the honorable member was drunk.

We may also add to these two recent incidents that József Balogh, another parliamentarian, hit “Terike” while intoxicated. In fact, he had to be so drunk that the next morning he had no recollection of the events of the night before.

According to the World Health Organization, mortality due to alcohol-related problems in Hungary was over three times the European Union average for men and around two and a half times that of the EU average for women. A full 10% of the population has been officially diagnosed with alcoholism. It is likely that there is a correlation between excessive alcohol consumption and violence of all sorts, not just the domestic variety.

An American researcher reported that during her stay in the country she was offered a drink at practically all the families she visited regardless of the time of the day. I can attest to that myself. People wanted me to drink cognac at 11 a.m. and they could be very insistent, viewing refusal as an insult. Perhaps that’s why there is a certain tolerance toward “being tipsy.”

In an interview with Lovas in Heti Válasz the discussion turned to his unspeakable letter to the foreign journalists. There were jokes about the amount of alcohol he consumed, which turned out to be a whole bottle of wine and two ponies of pálinka. At least this is what he admitted to. Jokes were flying about the Hungarian expression “the glass suddenly became full,” meaning that “it was the last straw” that foreign correspondents were not reporting on the Baja video.

Pallfy Istvan

István Pálffy

As for Pálffy, I suspect that he is an alcoholic. Although he has an engineering degree, he spent most of his adult life as a newspaperman. First in Magyar Rádió and later at MTV. Between 2002 and 2008 he was in charge of the news and, given Pálffy’s political views, MTV’s news even before 2010 was anything but balanced. In addition he shows a keen interest in gastronomy and, not surprisingly, wines. He wrote guides to Hungarian wines with the title “The best 100 Hungarian wines.” I somehow doubt that he could be a great judge.

A Hungarian right-wing Internet site ran a story about these two incidents with the title “Pony” (Kupica). In it the author called Lovas’s letter “astonishingly sweet and obscene.” What was sweet about it I wouldn’t know, but Lovas’s obscene outburst seemed to have been explained away and forgiven.

Today an article appeared by György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, who often publishes short articles in Magyar Narancs. He is bothered about “the jovial manner” in which the topic is treated. The way the interviewing journalist actually condones Lovas’s drinking that ended in great embarrassment not just for himself but for right-wing Hungarian journalism in general.

While Lovas thinks that he was justified in complaining about the alleged “anti-Fidesz” behavior of foreign journalists and only the alcohol made him use inappropriate words, Pálffy threatens anyone who says he was drunk in parliament with a law suit. Although the Hungarian parliament has a pub, according to one article I read its sales are ridiculously modest: one bottle of wine and ten bottles of beer a day! Pálffy claims that he has never bought any alcohol in the parliamentary pub. I believe him. But one doesn’t have to purchase liquor there in order to be loaded by the afternoon. The parliamentary session normally starts at 1 p.m.

Just as the attitude toward the role of women and domestic violence must change in Hungary, so should the attitude towards excessive drinking. But how can this happen when such a widespread “understanding” of the phenomenon exists? Interestingly enough, while there is some attempt at curbing smoking, I see no government effort at educating the public about the pitfalls of excessive drinking. In my elementary school we had a poster on the wall: “Az alohol öl, butít, és nyomorba dönt!” (Alcohol kills, makes you stupid, and reduces you to destitution.) I’m not sure that it shaped later behavior, but at least it was pointing in the right general direction–as opposed to granting a tax exemption for the production of pálinka.

Zsófia Mihancsik: “Zero tolerance”–then let’s begin!

This is not the first time that I’ve provided a loose translation of Zsófia Mihancsik’s writing for English-speaking readers because I consider her to be one of the top analysts of Hungarian politics today. She is the editor-in-chief of Galamus, an excellent Internet forum. Galamus, besides offering outstanding op/ed pieces, also publishes Júlia Horváth’s translations of foreign articles in German, English and Russian while Mihancsik does the translations from French about the political situation in Hungary. For example, Professor Kim Scheppele’s articles on the constitution appeared in Hungarian on Galamus immediately after their publications. These translations fill the gap left wide open by MTI, the Hungarian press agency. Galamus also has volunteers from Sweden and Spain who offer their services to the “translation department.”

Mihancsik, in addition to the arduous task of running pretty much a one-woman show, often finds time to contribute articles of her own. The one that appeared today examines the Orbán government’s duplicity on the issue of anti-Semitism. It reveals to the foreign reader the kind of Hungarian reality that is normally closed to outsiders. Even those Hungarian speakers who pay attention to politics and the media may miss a sentence here and a sentence there that speak volumes about the real nature of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

* * *

On May 5 Prime Minister Viktor Orbán delivered his opening speech in front of the 14th General Assembly of the World Jewish Congress and stated that “today’s Hungarian Christian Democrat government felt that it was its moral duty … to declare a policy of zero tolerance against anti-Semitism.” On May 9 Péter Feldmájer, the president of MAZSIHISZ, said in an interview that Viktor Orbán’s “speech is satisfactory as a reference point but only time will tell what kinds of decisions will be made as a result.”

Between these two dates, on May 8, the new issue of the Demokrata, a weekly magazine, appeared and in it, on page 42, an op/ed piece by Ádám Pozsonyi entitled “Bacon” that included the following sentences:

I read in Magyar Hírlap that  a miserable fellow called András Gerő–I don’t know his original name–reviled the House of Árpád in some kind of libsi gutter-paper…. Should I get myself wound up about this miserable man who couldn’t adapt and wipes his shoes on the past of the people who gave him shelter? … It just occurred to me, breakfast, Mr. Gerő, don’t you want a little bacon? Please have some. I’ll give you some gladly. [Italics by Zs.M.]

This is what is called anti-Semitic talk. Even if the word “Jewish” is not used. After all, the Hungarian right and far right has a lot of practice in the genre. If Viktor Orbán has no ear for the coded anti-Semitic speech I will translate this passage for him. I don’t know his original name means that we know that this Jew had the temerity to Hungarianize his name. So, Pozsonyi makes sure that everybody understands that Béla Kun’s original name was Kohn, and Mátyás Rákosi’s Rosenfeld. So, they were Jewish.

The word libsi rhymes with bipsi, which means Jewish among the racists. It is the nickname for liberals, primarily used by those who consider everything that is not national and Christian–everything that is liberal/libsi, cosmopolitan, European, etc.–Jewish pollution. (The “libsi” gutter paper, by the way, is the prestigious weekly, Élet és Irodalom.)

This miserable man who couldn’t adapt and wipes his shoes on the past of the people who gave him shelter is a Nazi idea expressed by many. It is a variation of the “Galician vagrants” (galiciai jöttmentek) that was often heard in the last ten years. So, the Jews immigrate from God knows where while the Hungarians give them shelter but the the Jews, because of their character, turn against the accepting Hungarians. (Exactly the same way the left turns against the nation, which is another favorite Orbánite turn of phrase.) The Jews desecrate everything that is holy for the nation, mostly because of their always doubting minds.

Bacon naturally means pork, which an observant Jew cannot have. For the author of Demokrata it is totally irrelevant whether the person in question is Jewish or not, or if he is religious or not. The mention of bacon here is about the humiliation of someone outside of the nation who cannot eat the national food of Hungarians. He was an outsider and he remains an outsider.

So, I think that in the name of “zero tolerance” Orbán must have a little chit-chat with Demokrata‘s author.

Before anyone tells me that it is unfair to expect a reprimand of an anti-Semitic author by the prime minister, let me explain why I think that Viktor Orbán should rise to the occasion and do something. Why? Because we are not talking about an independent publication but a branch publication,  a party paper, a mouth-piece, a hired organ. We are talking about a paper that has a political boss in whose interest it functions and on whom it depends.

Here are three reasons that I believe Viktor Orbán is responsible for what appears in Demokrata. After the lost election in 2002 he did two things. He organized the civil cells and he urged his followers to support media close to Fidesz. He said at the time: “I ask every member [of these cells] to subscribe to Magyar Nemzet, Demokrata, and Heti Válasz. Those of you who are better off should subscribe in the name of a less wealthy friend or acquaintance.” And he gave a website where the supporters could fill out the order forms for the above publications.

From left to right: Gábor Széles, András Bencsik, and Zsolt Bayer / fnhir24.hu

From left to right: Gábor Széles, András Bencsik, and Zsolt Bayer / fnhir24.hu

In an article that appeared in Magyar Narancs (April 20, 2012) we could read that Fidesz-led municipalities gave 26 million forints in the previous five years to Demokrata.  Another article that also appeared in Magyar Narancs (April 23, 2012) concentrated on the incredible amount of state-ordered advertisements these right-wing papers receive. Given the centralized nature of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán’s individual leadership style, one can assume that the largess these papers receive depends on “performance.” If they “behave” the money comes; if not, the money supply dries up.

Another reason to assume that the relationship between Demokrata and Fidesz is close is the fact that the paper’s editor-in-chief, András Bencsik, is one of the chief organizers of the “Peace Marches” that were supposed to show the world the incredible support Viktor Orbán has. But in addition to Bencsik, one could find among the organizers Ádám Pozsonyi, the author of the article on “Bacon”; István Stefka, editor-in-chief of Magyar Hírlap; Zsolt Bayer, senior editor of Magyar Hírlap; and Gábor Széles, Magyar Hírlap‘s owner

So, given the cozy relationship between Viktor Orbán and the extremist journalists serving him, it would be the easiest thing for Orbán if he were really serious about this new-fangled “zero tolerance” to say: “Boys, if once more you make anti-Semitic propaganda in your paper or on your television station there will be no more financial assistance. Moreover, you will not receive 3.2 billion forints for organizing peace marches. You will not receive any ads from state companies, and the municipalities will be told to stop payment. In a word, you will starve to death.”*

Moreover, I go further. That message shouldn’t just be whispered into the ears of the journalists at these newspapers but should be announced loud and clear to the Hungarian public.Everybody should understand what will happen to him if  he goes against “our Hungarian Christian Democratic politics.”

When that actually happens Ronald S. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, can make an apology with good reason. If not, then only the shame remains–for us.

*Demokrata sold only 12,000 copies in November 2011.