Tag Archives: Lajos Simicska

The next victims of Orbán’s hate campaign will be the journalists

Hungarian commentators know from past experience that one ought to pay close attention to every word Viktor Orbán utters because his future plans are normally embedded in his speeches way ahead of time. Sometimes these references are too subtle to notice easily; more often, they are dropped in a phrase or two which those who listen to his speeches, especially the soporific ones, are likely to miss.

With the exception of the hired hands of the government media, all other commentators at home and abroad found that Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő-Băile Tușnad was on the dull side, containing practically nothing new. He refrained from announcing any controversial idea that would be greeted with consternation in political circles in the European Union. There was, however, something in that speech that upset Hungarian journalists to no end. Amidst the seemingly endless braggadocio there was one sentence that strongly indicated that, after the attacks on the NGOs and George Soros, the next victims will be journalists critical of the Orbán government, especially investigative journalists who have been unearthing the corruption endemic in Fidesz and government circles.

Orbán made no secret of the fact that, between now and the election sometime in April 2018, Fidesz’s “adversaries will not be the opposition parties at home.” In the forthcoming election campaign “first and foremost [they] will have to hold their own against external forces; against the bureaucrats of Brussels; the Soros mafia network and its media.” That last sentence sent chills down the spines of journalists working for media outlets considered to be unfriendly to the Orbán government.

Magyar Nemzet actually received information from Fidesz circles that this is not the first time that Viktor Orbán has expressed his strong disapproval of the activities of some journalists. Insiders reported that he often talked about the “liberal media” and its unwarranted bias and enmity toward the government, resulting in unfair reporting. The paper learned from several sources that this year’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad was the beginning of a new anti-media campaign. Thus far Fidesz’s targets have been media outlets owned by Lajos Simicska, but now they are apparently planning to go against individual journalists. The informants intimated that investigative journalists concentrating on economic matters will be in his cross hairs. A new enemy is needed after Brussels and George Soros, and the media is an obvious next choice. Especially since Donald Trump’s anti-media campaign has had its influence in Hungary, where the expression “fake news” is spreading in the English original.

Orbán has a point. The opposition in its current state is no threat to him whatsoever. If the chaos that exists on the political left isn’t resolved over the next nine months, Fidesz, especially with the assistance of Romanian-Hungarian voters, will be able to win the election easily and most likely will have the coveted two-thirds majority of parliamentary seats. By now the only threat comes from high-profile NGOs, who insist on legality and diligently pursue government wrongdoings. They keep going to the European Court of Justice or to the European Court of Human Rights, and more often than not they win against the Orbán government. It’s no wonder that Orbán wants to get rid of them. Investigative journalists are also “enemies” as far as Fidesz is concerned. They have been working hard to discover the sources of the newly acquired riches of the Orbán family and to unearth the criminal activities of the oligarchs who are actively supported by the prime minister. If these NGOs and journalists would just disappear, life would be a great deal easier for Orbán and friends.

But Hungary is still not like Russia or Turkey where journalists are killed or jailed. Orbán most likely will choose a different tack. The suspicion in Hungarian journalistic circles is that the plan is to undermine the reputation of the most active investigative journalists. The government will try to find some dirt and, if there is nothing juicy enough, they will create stories from half-truths. As for character assassination, we know that Orbán is a master of the craft. It is enough to think of how effectively he managed to create a monster out of Ferenc Gyurcsány simply because he believed him to be his only effective political foe in the country. In comparison to that, the task of finishing off some journalists’ careers will be child’s play.

The journalists who either work for the handful of media outlets owned by non-Fidesz businessmen or those who have been supported by George Soros’s Open Society Foundation are worried. They wanted to know more about the targets of the new campaign from Szilárd Németh, deputy to Chairman Viktor Orbán, who gave a press conference on the subject. Németh immediately got into an argument with the journalists who were present. He accused Gergely Nyilas of Index of not being a journalist but an emissary of Lajos Simicska, the owner of the internet site. According to Németh, Nyilas is simply performing the task assigned to him, which is attacking Simicska’s enemy Viktor Orbán. Another journalist representing the Simicska-owned HírTV didn’t fare better. He was accused of reciting his questions, which were actually written for him by someone else. Németh most likely again had Lajos Simicska in mind.

The journalists naturally wanted to know which media outlets are the latest targets of the government, but Németh refused to name them, claiming that both he and the journalists know full well which ones the government has in mind. However, in the course of the conversation he talked about “criminal organizations” that will have to be dealt with by the prosecutor’s office.

In addition to Szilárd Németh, the almost forgotten Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary of education, also spoke about the ill-willed, irresponsible journalists. While claiming that Hungary’s reputation in Brussels is improving, “certain journalistic organizations falsely accuse Hungary on many accounts.” She also seems certain that these journalists are following a prescribed script.

We can expect a heightened assault on journalists as well as NGOs. In fact, Orbán promised that much when answering a man in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad who demanded harsher treatment of NGOs. It sounds ominous.

July 26, 2017

A few gems from Viktor Orbán’s “strong and proud” Hungary

There are just too many topics that have piled up in the last few weeks that deserve at least a mention. So I decided that today’s post would be a potpourri.

Lex Felcsút

Hungarians like to use the Latin “lex” for “law” when a piece of legislation proposed by the Orbán government is specifically designed to circumvent already existing legal constraints or has been enacted for the specific benefit or disadvantage of individuals. Here are a couple of examples. When Viktor Orbán wanted György Szapáry, who was over the age of 70, to be Hungary’s ambassador to Washington, he simply changed the law, raising the upper age limit for diplomats. When he wanted Zsolt Borkai, an Olympic champion and former lieutenant colonel in the Hungarian Army, to become a Fidesz member of parliament, the five-year moratorium on members of the armed forces for political office was lowered to three. Thus, Lex Borkai.

In 2015 the Demokratikus Koalíció sued FUNA, the foundation that runs the Felcsút football academy, after the foundation refused to release all the documents between January 2013 and November 2015 that pertained to the billions of tax-deductible forints the foundation received from large corporations. The foundation’s position was that the money certain sports clubs receive this way is not considered to be “public money.” The Székesfehérvár court didn’t agree. It ruled that the so-called TAO money in support of sports facilities (Corporate Tax Program) is considered to be public money and instructed FUNA to provide documentation of their finances. FUNA appealed, but in February the Budapest Appellate Court ruled that the books of the foundation for the required period should be made public. The ruling this time was based not on the public nature of the TAO support but on FUNA’s designation as “a publicly useful nonprofit” (közhasznú) organization. Within 15 days FUNA was supposed to deliver the documents to DK.

Those who had been distressed over this murky set-up full of opportunities for corruption were thrilled. “Here is the end,” said Magyar Narancs in February 2017. But not so fast. Nothing is that simple in Orbán’s Hungary. First of all, 15 days came, 15 days went, and no documents arrived. At that point the Demokratikus Koalíció sued. And the case was moved to the Kúria, Hungary’s highest court, for a final decision. There is no decision yet, but the government doesn’t leave anything to chance. On June 27 Magyar Nemzet noticed a small change in the TAO law enacted by parliament a few days earlier. Sports organizations are henceforth no longer designated as “publicly useful nonprofit” entities. If the appellate court decided that the documents must be released because FUNA is a publicly useful organization, the way to deal with this problem is simply to abolish the designation. That’s why this latest fiddling with the law is called Lex Felcsút.

The Poster War

Another perfect example of Fidesz inventiveness when it comes to legislation is the recent law nicknamed Lex Simicska. After a couple of abortive attempts, the Fidesz majority pushed through a law that should have required a two-thirds majority by amending a piece of existing legislation that needed only a simple majority. President János Áder dutifully signed a clearly unconstitutional law. You may recall that these Jobbik billboards, the target of the law change, featured not only Orbán but also Lőrinc Mészáros and Árpád Habony. Jobbik made the right decision when it included these two on their posters. Only yesterday Iránytű Intézet (Compass Institute) released a poll on the popularity of Habony and Mészáros, in addition to that of politicians. These two are at the very bottom of the heap. Habony is most likely seen as the symbol of Fidesz’s very aggressive method of communication, while Mészáros is the symbol of corruption. Clearly the Hungarian people like neither.

A 2010 Fidesz poster right next to Hungária Circus in Hatvan / Source: 24.hu

Lajos Simicska’s firm, Mahír, gave a substantial discount to Jobbik, which Fidesz tried to portray as concealed party financing. But selling advertising spots is like any other business venture where there are no fixed prices. Sometimes they are cheaper–for example during winter. Sometimes they are more expensive–for example, at election time. And, I assume that in certain circumstances personal preferences may play a role. For example, in Jobbik’s case, Simicska’s by now intense hatred of Viktor Orbán must be taken into consideration. Or, conversely, when Simicska worked hand in hand with Viktor Orbán for the good of Fidesz, he gave, as we all suspected, a very good price to his own party. In fact, at the very beginning of the 1990s Simicska purchased Mahír for that very purpose.

Now we know how good a price Fidesz got from Simicska in 2010 when the whole country was plastered with Fidesz posters. Someone made sure that 24.hu got all the documentation covering Fidesz’s deal. Fidesz paid 63% less than Jobbik did for its recent billboards. One billion forints worth of advertising was purchased for 23 million! That’s a real bargain, all right. But that’s not all. Fidesz ordered 4,700 billboards for 23.2 million forints, and they got an additional 1,300 posters gratis. Thus, Fidesz had 6,000 billboards and posters as opposed to MSZP’s 2,000 posters and Jobbik’s fewer than 500 during the 2010 election campaign. But, of course, these parties didn’t have such a generous benefactor. Nor did they have such well-funded party treasuries.

State support of parochial schools

I just read that the Orbán government spends 200,000 forints on children who attend parochial schools and only 54,000 on those who attend public schools. If all children were considered equal, public schools should receive 112.5 billion forints more than they get now. I feel very strongly about this issue, and I find the trend of passing public schools gratis to various churches unacceptable. The kind of education children receive in parochial schools, given the extremely conservative nature of Hungarian churches, may have an adverse effect on Hungarian society as a whole. Moreover, how can the Orbán government justify that kind of discrimination against most of its own young citizens?

Shooting galleries for school children

I left the best for last. Even the Associated Press reported about two weeks ago that Hungarian educational authorities are currently evaluating the installation of shooting galleries in schools to increase the variety of sports available to students. Officials of the Klebelsberg Center insist that the idea has absolutely “nothing to do with aggression and violence.” I saw a high-ranking official of the Center talk about this plan with great fervor in a TV interview, but about two weeks later came the denial. Márta Demeter, formerly an MSZP member of parliament, asked István Simicskó, minister of defense, about the veracity of the news. He flatly denied any such plans. He claimed that the Klebelsberg Center’s inquiries from school principals about appropriate locations for shooting ranges have nothing whatsoever to do with “the long-range defense development program” of his ministry. I’m sure that the Center’s inquiry and Simicskó’s earlier plans of building shooting ranges all over the country are connected. I also suspect that reactions to the notion of putting firearms into the hands of 13-14-year-olds were so negative that the great plan had to be abandoned.

Conclusion

That’s all for today, but I think these few examples are enough to demonstrate that something is very wrong in Viktor Orbán’s “strong and proud” Hungary.

July 2, 2017

Mission accomplished: Jobbik’s hard-hitting billboards will be removed

On June 14, 2016, a united opposition prevented the adoption of a proposal intended to re-regulate the use of posters and billboards by political parties. The bill, among other things, included the stipulation that if the provider of advertising surfaces sells spaces at a price lower than the current market value, such an action would be considered to be hidden and forbidden party financing. Since a portion of the bill dealt with party financing, in order to pass, the bill needed a two-thirds majority of the members present.

The proposal was submitted in response to thousands of Jobbik billboards carrying the message that while ordinary citizens work, the members of the political elite and their friendly oligarchs steal the country blind. Viktor Orbán’s fury over the posters was only reinforced when he learned that Jobbik had rented the advertising surfaces from one of Lajos Simicska’s business ventures, Mahír, for practically peanuts. Simicska would like nothing more than to get rid of his former friend turned enemy Viktor Orbán at the next national election in the spring of 2018, and he was prepared to be generous to Jobbik in its anti-Fidesz billboard campaign.

The government party was two persons short of the magic two-thirds majority, and therefore it was imperative that all the members of the Fidesz and KDNP delegations showed up. Even György Rubovszky of KDNP, who died a week later, attended the session. The hope was that either a few opposition members would be absent or that the politically diverse opposition would not be well disciplined. But everyone was there with the exception of Lajos Oláh of DK, who was on his way to the hospital with kidney stones. And every member of the opposition voted against the bill. So Fidesz was left with only one absentee, which wasn’t enough. The bill failed to be enacted.

Within hours, however, the government party announced that the bill would be resubmitted. The president of the parliament called for an extraordinary session, where the only item on the agenda was the poster law nicknamed by its co-sponsor Lajos Kósa “Lex Csicska.” Csicska is a person who in jail or in a reformatory is forced to serve others. In this case, the “csicska” is Jobbik, the party which, they claim, is simply an instrument of Simicska’s design against Viktor Orbán and his government.

Since the session was not a scheduled one, the hope again was that many opposition members would be unable to attend. At the same time, just to be sure, Fidesz politicians began negotiations with several opposition parties and members, hoping to get partners to push through this bill that Viktor Orbán found so important. A few days ago I devoted a post to MSZP’s decision to submit a proposal of their own, which was not a hit with the other parties and which was eventually torpedoed by László Botka, the party’s candidate for the premiership. Thus, it looked as if there was no chance for Lex Csicska to be adopted. Moreover, on the day of the extraordinary session (Friday, June 22) Viktor Orbán was supposed to be in Brussels. And György Rubovszky died on June 21, a day before the crucial vote. Yet Viktor Orbán announced that he has no plans to return because “his boss,” i.e. the leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, doesn’t think that his presence is necessary. It was at this point that I became mighty suspicious that the legal wizards of Fidesz had found some clever work-around solution.

And indeed, late on Thursday evening, when Orbán was already in Brussels, the public learned that Fidesz will not resubmit the original law which had been voted down a week earlier. Rather, members of parliament will have to vote on amendments to a 2016 law on the defense of community image (településkép), which required only a simple majority to pass. In Hungary the central government lays down the parameters of what towns can and cannot do in burnishing their images. The original law dealt with advertisements, posters, billboards but only commercial ones, advertising everything from beer to toothpaste. Expanding this law to give municipalities the authority to restrict party advertising is, according to most legal scholars, unconstitutional because the Hungarian Constitution specifically states that “the detailed rules for the operation and management of political parties shall be laid down in a cardinal Act.”

Gergely Gulyás, Fidesz’s wunderkind, enjoying the fruits of his labor

But that wasn’t the only trick Fidesz employed. Gergely Gulyás, deputy speaker of parliament responsible for legislation, breaking house rules, introduced MSZP’s proposal, which was never officially submitted for consideration, as an amendment, putting MSZP in the uncomfortable position that their members had to vote against their own “amendment.” The vote was 123 in favor and 68 against. Fidesz-KDNP parliamentarians knew ahead of time what was coming, so of their 130 members only 123 showed up. On the other hand, all 68 members of the opposition parties and the independents were present and voted against the bill.

Although legal scholars believe that the Constitutional Court should find this law unconstitutional, they admit that, given the composition of the 15-member body, the judges may just rubber stamp it. Zoltán Fleck, professor of sociology of law at ELTE’s law school, with a certain sadness remarked that he wasn’t really surprised to hear about this latest Fidesz ploy because in Hungary “the rule of law has long been officially terminated.” György Magyar, Simicska’s lawyer and civil activist, also tore the law apart on his blog.

An amusing story connected to the passage of this bill shows the cynicism of most of those Fidesz members of parliament who serve as voting robots. Máriusz Révész (Fidesz), under pressure from a journalist of 24.hu about the strange transformation of a law that requires a two-thirds majority into one that needs only a simple majority, got mighty confused. After a lot of prevarication, he blurted out: “obviously this time it is not happening according to the law.” So, he basically confirmed the opposition’s criticism that Fidesz acted illegally. It is not something the Fidesz leadership easily forgives. This afternoon Index, which reported on the 24.hu story, received a letter from Révész in which he tried to convince them that he wasn’t talking about the law itself but about illicit party financing.

Albert Gazda of Magyar Nemzet wrote an opinion piece titled “The cowardly Fidesz.” As the title suggests, Gazda looks upon this latest Fidesz trick, which he considers primitive even by the party’s own low moral and intellectual standards, as a sign of weakness. “Here is the first spectacular and hard-hitting campaign and Fidesz is running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” Gazda also believes that Fidesz is not only cowardly but also fearful. “But fear eats away the soul, takes away strength, and destroys faith.”

I’m not at all sure that Gazda is right. Instead, I would suggest that these posters got under Orbán’s skin in a big way because he found them politically damaging. He had only one goal: the posters must be taken down immediately. Therefore, I believe, he didn’t particularly care in what manner this bill became law. He most likely knows that the law is unconstitutional, but in the short run he simply doesn’t care. Even if the Constitutional Court finds the law unconstitutional, that decision may take months while the billboards will have to be removed immediately. Orbán wanted to stop the political hemorrhaging right now.

June 24, 2017

What’s MSZP up to? Other opposition parties are suspicious

On April Fool’s Day thousands of stark black-and-white billboards appeared all over the country. The message they carried was simple: ordinary citizens work while the political elite and their friendly oligarchs steal the country blind. Jobbik, the party that ran this billboard campaign, hit Fidesz where it hurt. An infuriated Viktor Orbán wanted the billboards gone as soon as possible. In the beginning Fidesz activists were sent to remove or deface them, but, given the number of billboards Jobbik scattered all over the country, a better solution had to be found. In such cases Fidesz’s usual response is to create a new, targeted law.

This is exactly what happened here. On April 27 Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, and János Halász, undersecretary for culture in the ministry of human resources, submitted a proposal to re-regulate the use of posters and billboards. The bill included the stipulation that if the provider of advertising surfaces sells spaces at a price lower than the “current market value,” such an action would be considered to be hidden and forbidden party financing. This regulation would be applicable at times outside of the three months officially designated as the “campaign period.” Owners of poster surfaces must turn in a price list to the State Account Office and will be obliged to make their prices available on their websites.

In addition, and much more worrisome, a government decree signed by Viktor Orbán stipulated that starting on June 1, 2017, local government permission would be needed to place new advertising spots anywhere. The decree also introduced other new regulations. For example, the size of the billboards would have to be reduced from 12m2 to 9m2 and the frame size changed from 14m2 to 11m2. An additional burden on the companies. Much worse, the appendix to the decree stipulated that in the future one will be able to advertise only on properties owned by the state or the municipality. As it stands now, 90% of the advertising surfaces are in private hands and only 10% belong to the municipalities. This decree turns the billboard market upside down and will institute a state monopoly over political advertising.

There was only one problem. Certain parts of the Kósa-Halász bill needed a two-thirds majority, and Fidesz at the moment is short by two votes. Fidesz couldn’t convince any member of the opposition to vote for the bill. The opposition, both right and left, found it unacceptable. And although one of the DK members of parliament had such a serious attack of kidney stones that he had to be taken to the hospital and missed the vote, Fidesz still came up one short. As you can see on this photo, Orbán was anything but happy. Nonetheless, it was decided to resubmit the proposal this Friday at an extraordinary session of parliament.

Zsolt Semjén, Viktor Orbán, and János Lázár after the voting was over Magyar Nemzet / Attila Béres

At the center of this billboard controversy is Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s former friend and business partner. Simicska, in addition to owning Közgép, a construction company that once had a virtual monopoly on government infrastructure contracts, also owns several other businesses, including Mahir Cityposter and Publimont, which rent out billboard spaces and advertising kiosks. Jobbik’s billboards and posters appeared on spaces owned by these two companies. It was suspected from the beginning that Simicska, who broke with Orbán and Fidesz about two years ago, provided space for the Jobbik posters at a cut rate, but until very recently Jobbik refused to divulge the cost. So, in addition to the Kósa-Halász bill and Orbán’s decree, NAV, the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, paid a visit to Mahir’s headquarters. They had the right to check all financial transactions between January 1 and April 30. They were specifically looking for financial transactions connected to the Jobbik posters.

When the price Jobbik paid Simicska’s firm was finally made public last week, it was obvious that “Simicska had sold the surfaces at a ridiculously low price,” as Népszava pointed out. Simicska, who until recently was the “financial genius” behind Fidesz’s coffers, used to favor Fidesz by charging very little for advertising posters. Now he was doing the same for Jobbik.

And so, if Fidesz’s bill were to fail again, because of Jobbik’s special relation with Lajos Simicska, the real winner would be the far-right but lately somewhat mellowed Jobbik. MSZP swung into action. They dusted off an old proposal that they had earlier submitted to parliament, which they now presented as an alternative to the Fidesz proposal. It would, just like the Kósa-Halász bill, forbid political advertising except during the campaign period by parties, municipalities, and the government, but, in addition, it would specifically forbid advertising by CÖF, the government-financed so-called civic organization, and Fidelitas, Fidesz’s youth organization.

With MSZP’s move Fidesz-KDNP was presented with an easy path to victory. Fidesz is “still studying” the matter, but it finds many aspects of the MSZP bill acceptable. Jobbik naturally is not game, and it looks as if LMP is also holding to its original position. According to LMP’s spokesman, unity must be maintained against this bill, which would only help Fidesz. However, as we all know, if MSZP is ready to sit down and negotiate, there will be no problem on Friday. And in that case, Jobbik will have been outfoxed. Not surprisingly, Jobbik politicians are crying foul. János Völner, head of Jobbik’s parliamentary delegation, described MSZP’s move as one of the most obvious and brutal political pacts since 1990. He claims that the poster market was the only one where there was parity among the parties. MSZP with this move contributes to Viktor Orbán’s media dominance.

Alfahír, Jobbik’s online news site, illustrates the mood in the party. The article reporting on MSZP’s offer begins this way: “June 19, 2017. Please don’t forget this date. Today is the birthday of the Orbán regime’s Patriotic Popular Front. Today what we had suspected for years has become official: MSZP became the prostitute of Fidesz.” The Patriotic Popular Front (Hazafias Népfront) was created in 1954 and was dismantled in 1990. It was supposed to be a body representative of the whole society.

Too little time has passed since the MSZP proposal to be able to gauge the reaction of the other smaller parties on the left. I suspect that, similarly to LMP, they will not be thrilled with MSZP’s special deal with the government party. They will be most likely strengthened in their suspicion that MSZP is not playing a fair game and that somehow it has a secret understanding with Fidesz. I wouldn’t go that far, but MSZP’s leadership is not known for its boldness and clear-cut positions. How MSZP voters will react to this unexpected move no one can tell yet, but somehow I don’t think that it will be popular among MSZP voters, most of whom, I suspect, wouldn’t want to have anything to do with Viktor Orbán and his party.

June 19, 2017

Boycotting the media is counterproductive

Until now it was only certain high-level Fidesz party and government officials who refused to give interviews to certain left-of-center newspapers, radio, and television stations. Then, two years ago, after the breakup of the long-lasting and financially fruitful friendship between Viktor Orbán and his old friend-turned-oligarch Lajos Simicska, the boycott was extended to Simicska’s newspaper, television, and radio outlets as well. Simicska’s media holdings include a weekly, Heti Válasz, which initially refused the follow the road his daily, Magyar Nemzet, chose. It remained surprisingly loyal to Viktor Orbán. One reason for this loyalty might have been the person of the weekly’s editor-in-chief, Gábor Borókai, who, after all, was the spokesman for the first Orbán government. Unlike the others since 2010, he served throughout the entire 1998-2002 period. Moreover, it is likely that the two men already knew each other while they were law students. In 2013 Viktor Orbán made sure that Borókai received a high decoration (Magyar Érdemrend tisztikeresztje).

Lately, however, even Borókai has become quite critical of the government. In November 2016 he warned that all the lying and misinformation disseminated by the government will lead to its downfall if Fidesz politicians don’t wake up. Last month Borókai wrote a critical editorial about the government’s handling of the Central European University case and even complained about the state of democracy and freedom in Hungary. The old friendship between Orbán and Borókai was coming to an end.

András Lánczi, Orbán’s favorite philosopher and president of Corvinus University, had written regularly in Heti Válasz for ten years, but when Borókai’s weekly published an interview with Ron Werber, who devised the strategy that assured MSZP’s victory in 2002, he decided to make a clean break with the publication. As he told 888.hu, he had indicated to Borókai earlier that he didn’t approve of “the new direction,” but that interview was the last straw.

Meanwhile, the output of government-paid journalists is of such low quality that serious journalists no longer consider them colleagues. Indeed, most of the young people who staff internet propaganda tabloids like 888.hu and ripost.hu don’t deserve to be called reporters, journalists, or media workers. Even so, I’m not convinced that MSZP’s decision to boycott Echo TV, M1, TV2, Origo, Pestisrácok.hu, 888.hu, Magyar Idők, Lokál, Ripost, and Magyar Hírlap is a good idea. The party’s rationale, according to party spokesman István Nyakó, is that these publications distort the opposition politicians’ answers to their questions. Moreover, these media outlets describe a nonexistent world. “We are not going to assist them in creating manipulated material.” Nyakó told the reporter of Echo TV who happened to be at the press conference that he doesn’t consider him a journalist but a paid spokesman of Fidesz. This may all be true, but I’m not sure how these politicians’ boycott will change the editorial policies of the client media of Fidesz.

MSZP’s decision to boycott Fidesz media is most likely the result of an encounter László Botka, the party’s candidate for the premiership and mayor of Szeged, had with the staff of a weekly program on Echo TV called “Informátor.” According to Botka, the Echo TV people arrived unannounced, cameras in hand, wanting to have an interview with him. Botka already had a scheduled conference, but the Echo TV staff refused to budge, and they even wanted to enter Botka’s room by force. Or at least this is what Botka claims. Apparently, at that point Botka called the police. Of course, Echo TV’s story of the encounter sounds very different from Botka’s version. In any case, Botka seems to be convinced that “the government falsification factory is trying to provoke him.” In his opinion, the journalists who work for government outlets are simple provocateurs. He knows that the goal was not to conduct an interview but to create a scandal. I fully agree with Botka, but then why did he fall for the provocation? Because by calling the police on them Botka managed to fulfill the goal of Echo TV. It might have been better to give them a short dignified interview. If their sole objective was to create a scandal, they would have traveled 300 some kilometers for nothing.

Mutual boycotting will lead nowhere, although I sympathize with those who find the output of the government propaganda close to unreadable and disgusting. Moreover, I can’t believe that such obvious propaganda, rivaling the output of the Rákosi regime, can possibly be effective from the point of view of the government. Just as eight solid years of communist propaganda between 1948 and 1956 failed to convince people that they lived in a socialist paradise, Fidesz propaganda will not achieve its aims either. In fact, it might turn people off.

In a similar vein, the latest “national consultation” seems to be a flop. Of the 8.5 million people who received questionnaires, only 1.3 million have returned them thus far. Kósa is already “asking the government” to extend the deadline from May 20 to May 31 because the post office was late in delivering some of them. Of course, the post office story is bogus. The real explanation is the stupid questions posed and the even stupider answers provided.

It’s time for Viktor Orbán to rethink his communication strategy. His massive pro-government media network may not be the panacea he anticipated.

May 16, 2017

The state of the Hungarian press on World Press Day

Yesterday was World Press Freedom Day, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993 following the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference. So, I think it is fitting to devote a post to media freedom in Hungary.

Only a few days ago I took a look at Freedom House’s latest assessment of press freedom in 199 countries, which concluded that Hungarian media freedom has been severely constrained since 2010 when Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won the election. Although the Orbán government proclaims that the media enjoys total freedom, the fact is that by now the overwhelming majority of the media outlets in Hungary are either under state control, like the so-called public television and public radio, or have been acquired by Fidesz oligarchs who are willing conduits of government propaganda. Media experts estimate that by now 90% of all media content is in Fidesz hands.

Lőrinc Mészáros, Viktor Orbán’s alter ego and front man, owns, by the latest count, 192 newspapers in Hungary. Most of these are regional papers, which are essential for the Orbán propaganda machine. Relatively few people subscribe to national newspapers anymore. Népszabadság, before it was shut down, had the largest circulation, which by 2016 was only around 40,000. On the other hand, regional papers are sold in great numbers. Propaganda through these newspapers reaches far more people than propaganda placed in the few nationwide dailies.

The real bonus of these papers from the government’s point of view is not so much what they report on but what they leave out. A few days ago I read a fascinating study of a week’s worth of “non-news” in regional papers about the demonstrations in Budapest and some other cities. That’s why I was surprised to learn from Medián’s latest poll that people outside of Budapest were well informed about recent events in connection with the government’s attempt to close Central European University.

Outside observers might be horrified at the overwhelming presence of pro-government media in Hungary, but the government is still not satisfied. I understand that Mészáros’s company would like to acquire the few remaining regional papers that are owned by companies not connected to the government. Origo, once one of the two best internet news sites, has become a servile mouthpiece of the Orbán government rivaling Magyar Idők. Mária Schmidt’s acquisition of Figyelő is another sign of the insatiable appetite of the Orbán government. They even made an attempt to grab Népszava, which was eventually saved in the last minute by László Puch, the former financial director of MSZP. The government wants to have all the media under its control, just like in the good old days of János Kádár.

Apparently Orbán’s next victim was to be Index, considered by many to be the crown jewel of Hungarian-language internet news sites. But 444.hu reported a few days ago that in February 2014 Lajos Simicska, who became Viktor Orbán’s archenemy after March 2015, signed an agreement with Zoltán Spéder, the owner of Index, which stipulated that in the event Spéder decided to sell the site Simicska would have the right of first refusal. Simicska took advantage of this agreement on April 20, 2017, apparently in the nick of time because Orbán, through Árpád Habony and Mária Schmidt, had for some time been pressuring Spéder to sell Index. Simicska will not personally own Index. He transferred ownership of the site to a newly established foundation called Magyar Fejlődésért Alapítvány (Foundation for Hungarian Development), headed by László Bodolai, lawyer for both Lajos Simicska and Index. Without this move, Index would undoubtedly have been gobbled up by the Orbán government or one of its surrogates.

The reaction in the government media to the sale of Index was predictable. In the last couple of days one article after another has bemoaned the loss of Index. What is especially galling is that it was Simicska who prevented the takeover of the internet site. Well, it’s too late for the government to gain control of Index, but it has many ways of discriminating against the site. Independent organs normally don’t receive any advertising income from the government or from state-owned companies, but papers and television stations owned by Simicska are subject to additional hardships. One standard government ploy is that government officials are forbidden to give interviews to Simicska’s Magyar Nemzet and HírTV. Fidesz did the same thing while in opposition, when its politicians were forbidden to appear on Napkelte (Sunrise), an independently produced program Orbán deemed to be too liberal and antagonistic toward Fidesz.

Zoltán Balog has been leading the troops against Magyar Nemzet and HírTV. Simicska treated his brother-in-arms (bajtárs) shabbily, so Balog first announced that he and his ministry will refuse to have anything to do with Simicska’s media empire. Although Balog was aware that the law on public information forbids such discrimination, that didn’t seem to bother him. Moreover, that wasn’t punitive enough for Balog. By December 2016 all employees of institutions under the ministry of human resources–for example hospitals–had to get written permission from the ministry to give interviews or make statements about simple facts to anyone. For example, on December 6, 2016 a reporter for Magyar Nemzet wanted to write a heartwarming story about patients in a children’s hospital receiving gifts on St. Nicholas Day. Two hours before the event she received a telephone call from the hospital saying that she needs written permission to attend. Permission was denied. Not surprisingly, the reporter for MTI, the official news agency, had no trouble receiving permission. I assume that the legal problem of discriminating against certain media outlets and not others is supposed to be solved by requiring every news organization to obtain the requisite permissions. Meanwhile, the ministry’s boycott of Magyar Nemzet continues. When the paper filed charges against the ministry, Péter Polt’s prosecutor’s office decided that everything was in order.

Now Index has been added to the blacklist. Yesterday Sándor Joób, a well-known reporter at the news site, shared a revealing story. Index has been sending hundreds of requests for information about hospitals, for which the ministry’s permission is required. Joób wanted to talk to an official in charge of the reconstruction of Budapest hospitals. The official was most willing, but he needed permission. By mistake the reporter himself was included among the recipients of the message: “We ask you to refrain from giving this interview.” Magyar Nemzet immediately responded: “Welcome to the Club!”

Journalists at independent or opposition media outlets work under extremely difficult circumstances. For instance, Fidesz members of parliament refuse to answer any of their questions, and just the other day Lajos Kósa, head of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, called reporters hyenas. Under these circumstances one can only admire the commitment of the journalists working for Magyar Nemzet and Index as well as other outlets like 24.hu, 444.hu, and Népszava. These journalists work for low wages and their job security is nonexistent. I just read about the former editor-in-chief of Dunántúli Napló, a regional paper in Pécs with a large circulation. After Lőrinc Mészáros’s Mediaworks took over the old Pécs standby, he lost his job. Now he is selling sausages as a street vendor.

May 4, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s answer to the Jobbik campaign against him and his regime

On April 1 thousands of stark black-and-white billboards appeared all over the country. On the left, on a white background, is a single short sentence: “You work.” On the right are photos of either Viktor Orbán and Lőrinc Mészáros or Antal Rogán and Árpád Habony with an equally short message: “They steal.” For good measure, the consequences of the political elite’s corruption–poor healthcare and education plus low wages–appear on an orange background. “Jobbik for the People” is in the lower left corner.

The Fidesz-KDNP leadership didn’t find the April’s Fool Day surprise very amusing. In fact, they were infuriated because they realized the incredible impact these posters make. Everybody understands their simple, damning sentences. The appearance of such bold anti-government posters signaled to Fidesz and the Orbán government that the opposition is becoming increasingly daring and most likely also increasingly effective. They are tapping into a general dissatisfaction with the government that has been expressed recently in large-scale demonstrations. Fidesz came to the conclusion that a new, radical solution must be found to the problem. The old methods of discrediting their opponents no longer work.

Fidesz propaganda over the past few months has been directed mostly against Jobbik. Only recently has the government’s propaganda minister also paid attention to László Botka, MSZP’s likely candidate for the premiership. Disparaging Gábor Vona, the Jobbik party chairman, has been continuous and vicious. Among its many charges, Fidesz claims that Vona is being supported by Viktor Orbán’s arch-enemy, Lajos Simicska. And so it was predictable that Fidesz’s first reaction to Jobbik’s billboard campaign would be to reiterate that Vona is a puppet of Simicska while the left is financed by George Soros. Szilárd Németh, one of the deputies of Viktor Orbán, called Jobbik the party of billionaires and accused Vona of selling the “soul of Jobbik” for this media campaign. Perhaps, Németh continued, Vona swore allegiance to Simicska, promising him special financial deals after Jobbik wins the election.

The Jobbik-Simicska connection has been the topic of political debate for some time. Both Simicska and Jobbik deny any financial arrangement between the billionaire and the party. On the other hand, Simicska and his son have both made pro-Jobbik statements, and Vona admitted that he and Simicska have met at least twice at public events. Moreover, all the recent Jobbik messages appeared on the billboards of two companies, Publimont Kft. and Mahir Cityposter Kft., both owned by Lajos Simicska. Fidesz argues that this is proof of Simicska’s hidden financing of Jobbik.

Of course, it is possible that Jobbik received a special deal from Simicska, but hidden campaign financing would be difficult to prove. Although Simicska’s two companies are among the strongest billboard providers, altogether about 100 companies are involved in this competitive business. A couple of years ago Demokratikus Koalíció’s billboards appeared on Simicska’s properties. When Ferenc Gyurcsány was questioned about the arrangement, he said that Simicska’s firm offered the best deal. Simply capitalism at work.

Fidesz also came to the conclusion that “the constitutional court, led by László Sólyom, developed such an extremely liberal practice regarding freedom of speech” that the government has no way of fighting Jobbik’s messaging in court. At least this is the conclusion Zoltán Lomnici, a right-wing constitutional lawyer, came to. Moreover, he added, even if a Hungarian court ruled in favor of the government, one of the NGOs financed by George Soros would take the case to Strasbourg.

So, as a stopgap measure, Fidesz came up with a billboard of its own showing George Soros and Lajos Simicska as the puppeteers and László Botka and Gábor Vona the puppets. In addition, the personal secretary of Lajos Kósa organized a team of Fidesz activists to systematically deface Jobbik’s billboards all over the country. Unfortunately, he said, they couldn’t be burned because that would have destroyed the billboard structures, so they had to be satisfied with painting them over. That method is actually quite widespread in Hungary. Activists of Momentum, for example, suggest changing the “Stop Brussels” billboards to “Stop Moscow.” But these methods weren’t radical enough to solve the Orbán government’s problem with the the kinds of posters Jobbik put up.

On April 27 Index noticed in the Official Gazette that Lajos Kósa, former leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, and János Halász, undersecretary for culture in the ministry of human resources, had submitted a proposal to re-regulate posters and billboards. If the provider of advertising surfaces sells spaces at a price lower than the “current market value,” such an action would be considered to be hidden and forbidden party financing. This regulation would be applicable at times outside of the three months officially designated as the “campaign period.” Owners of poster surfaces must turn in a price list to the State Account Office and will be obliged to make their prices available on their websites.

In addition, and much more worrisome, a government decree signed by Viktor Orbán stipulates that starting June 1, 2017, local government permission will be needed to place new advertising spots anywhere. The decree also introduces other new regulations. For example, the size of the billboards will have to be reduced from 12m2 to 9m2 and the frame size must be changed from 14m2 to 11m2. An additional burden on the companies. But that is the least of the problems. The appendix to the decree stipulates that in the future one will be able to advertise only on properties owned by the state or the municipality. As it stands now, 90% of the advertising surfaces are in private hands and only 10% belong to the municipalities. This decree turns the billboard market totally upside down and will institute a state monopoly over political advertising.

Jobbik doesn’t seem to be too frightened for the time being because they came out with a variation of their original billboards. The color scheme is the same. The billboard pictures Viktor Orbán and Lőrinc Mészáros. The text is: “They steal. We will take it back and use it to raise wages.”

The opposition is up in arms over this government crackdown on campaign advertising. In the parliamentary committee on justice, where the Kósa-Halász bill is being considered, there was quite a ruckus. The opposition is convinced, not without reason, that the bill was written specifically to target Jobbik and Lajos Simicska. The Fidesz opposition tried to limit discussion of the matter, and the chairman, György Rubovszky (KDNP), refused to allow Márta Demeter (independent) and Ákos Hadházy (LMP) to take part in the discussion. In turn, the opposition members called the government party cowardly and the procedure shameful. Rubovszky at this point ordered the opposition members to leave the room, which they refused to do. Hadházy suggested that Rubovszky call the Parliamentary Guard to remove them forcibly. The chairman wisely refrained from making an ass of himself.

The opposition has a powerful weapon against this bill. To pass, the measure needs a two-thirds majority which, as we know, Fidesz doesn’t have at the moment. If the opposition, the left as well as the right, hangs together, it can win this battle. If it succeeds, this would be the second time that Fidesz is unable to force its will on the opposition.

As for the heinous governmental decree, I assume that some of those Soros-supported NGOs will start legal proceedings against it.

May 2, 2017