Tag Archives: Lajos Simicska

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

Breaking news: Rosatom was Viktor Orbán’s piggy bank

Lajos Simicska, the former friend of and financial adviser to Viktor Orbán, at last revealed his long-kept secret about the Hungarian prime minister’s plan to buy RTL Klub, the Hungarian subsidiary of RTL Group, on Rosatom’s money, 24.hu reported about an hour ago.

The crucial conversation between Simicska and Orbán took place in 2014, right after the electoral victory in which Orbán’s party again won two-thirds of the seats in parliament. In the course of the conversation, which was mostly about Fidesz’s media program for the next four years, Orbán announced his plan to purchase RTL Klub, the most popular and profitable television network in Hungary. Once it was under his control, he would put an end to the network’s programing. When Simicska expressed doubts about the feasibility of such a move, Orbán wanted to know the approximate purchase price, which Simicska estimated to be about 300 million euros, or 100 billion Hungarian forints. Orbán’s reaction was: “No problem, Rosatom will buy it for me.” It was at this point, Simicska contends, that their friendship came to an end. A week later, when they met again, Simicska told Orbán that he would not be a party to such an undertaking.

Simicska originally told this story in a two-hour interview with Reuters, but the Hungarian businessman stopped the publication of the interview once he realized that Reuters refused to include this crucial part of his interview.

Viktor Orbán  never bought RTL Klub, but about three months after the conversation with Simicska took place the Hungarian government began its frontal attack on RTL Klub, announcing its intention to levy heavy taxes on the media based on advertising revenues. The move was structured in such a way as to specifically target the German-owned RTL Klub. The idea was to force its owners to part with the financially squeezed Hungarian subsidiary. Orbán’s plans were foiled by the German company’s forceful resistance.

Gábor Vona is trying to cast doubt on Viktor Orbán’s past

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Interior Minister Sándor Pintér have faced some hard times in the last couple of months. There is, for instance, the Jürgen Roth story about Dietmar Clodo’s testimony that Semion Mogilevich may have bribed both Pintér and Orbán in the 1990s. This story might have induced Pintér to prepare the ground for the possibility of foreign attacks on both him and the prime minister. He added, of course, that whatever foreign secret service agencies have on them are forgeries.

And now Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, is challenging Viktor Orbán about his alleged past as an informer.

The topic came to the fore two years ago when Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s former friend and the financial brain behind Fidesz, talked about the prime minister’s alleged involvement in the state security apparatus in 1981-1982 when he spent a year between high school and university in the Hungarian Army.

Questions about Orbán’s past are not new. Already in 1991 János Kenedi, one of the top experts on the state security apparatus in Hungary, after examining the relevant documents, declared that Orbán, if anything, had been the victim of intelligence gathering and was innocent of any wrongdoing. That testimony, however, didn’t put an end to speculation. Here and there someone finds a piece of evidence that stirs up suspicion again. One such occasion was the discovery by László Varga, director of the Archives of the City of Budapest, that Viktor Orbán’s dossier, titled “Viktória,” whose existence was a known fact, “had disappeared.”

What has been disturbing all along is that Orbán refuses to say outright that he never, ever reported on anyone in his life. At the time of Simicska’s accusation in 2015, Hír24 asked him this question. Orbán’s answer was not a categorical denial. He said that “the facts speak for themselves. All information is available on the internet. I suggest that you study them.” Magyar Narancs, commenting on this statement, asked: “Why can’t the prime minister’s office or the press secretary or he himself put together a simple sentence: ‘Viktor Orbán was not an informer and never reported on anyone.’” A good question.

Now, two years later, Orbán still refuses to utter this simple sentence. At the moment, the release of informers’ names is again a matter of debate in the Hungarian parliament, and Gábor Vona used the occasion to inquire from Viktor Orbán about his possible involvement. “Mr. Prime Minister, I know that during your military service you were in contact with the secret service. I also know, Mr. Prime Minister, that there was a member of your family who during the 1956 revolution was working for ÁVH as an agent.” Orbán’s answer was almost identical to his earlier response to the same question. “All documents are available on the internet, study them.” That was not enough for Vona, who then asked: “Do you have the courage to declare that ‘I have never been an agent and I didn’t report on anyone either in writing or verbally?’ Do you dare to declare it?” Again, Orbán refused to affirm it in the first person singular. Instead, he said that “naturally I was on the other side, just as all of us here. We were on the other side; we were the ones who were persecuted; it was in our apartments that they planted listening devices; we didn’t cooperate with any kind of service.”

Gábor Vona questioning Viktor Orbán

Not only did Orbán refuse to answer these simple questions but he wasn’t really truthful about the ideological commitment of the leaders of Fidesz in the 1980s. In 1985 László Kövér imagined himself and his friends in Fidesz as the future leaders of the existing regime, that is, the socialist people’s republic under Kádár or perhaps, given Kádár’s age, some younger, more dynamic leader. The “college” where these boys and girls from the countryside received extra educational opportunities was created to be “a school for political leadership.”

As for all those Fidesz members sitting in the parliament, who according to Orbán “were on the other side,” that is also an exaggeration. Several important Fidesz politicians were actually members of MSZMP, the party established by János Kádár and others during the days of the October 56 revolution. Just to mention a few: János Martonyi, György Matolcsy, István Stumpf, Sándor Pintér, András Tállai, Béla Turi-Kovács, and Péter Harrach.

The younger members of Fidesz would obviously like to bury the sins of their elders. Only recently, in connection with the demand for the list of informers, János Lázár declared that they were only victims and therefore their identities should be shielded. The real culprits, he claimed, are the former members of MSZMP who “denied the freedom and self-determination of the Hungarian people.” They are the ones who are traitors and who should never have any role in political life. One would like to remind Lázár that in 1989 there were 800,000 party members in Hungary. Moreover, if Fidesz professes to have such a pristine past, it should get rid of those politicians on their side of the aisle who were not exactly on the “other side.”

Viktor Orbán answering Gábor Vona

After the Vona-Orbán encounter, speculation abounded that Vona might have received damaging information about Orbán from Lajos Simicska, especially since Simicska’s son Ádám just recently optimistically announced that Jobbik will win the 2018 election with a two-thirds majority. (At the moment Ádám Simicska’s prediction has a zero percent chance of materializing.) Vona in an interview on ATV denied that he has any new information, but he added that if he learns anything he will not hesitate to make it public.

According to people close to Simicska, he makes no secret of his plan to release “seriously compromising documents” on Orbán close to the election. He talks quite freely about the circumstances surrounding his break with Orbán and keeps repeating that “it is his obligation to do everything in his power to facilitate the overthrow of the prime minister.” According to Fidesz politicians, Orbán as well as the leading members of the party consider Simicska a serious antagonist who “has money to spend and nothing to lose.”

March 21, 2017

Silencing the media: Hír TV

I have noticed in the last month or so that Fidesz and the Orbán government are paying far too much attention to Hír TV, which has gone through quite a metamorphosis since February 6, 2015, the day known in Hungary as G-Day . It was on that day that Lajos Simicska told the world that Viktor Orbán and he had parted ways. Moreover, he called Orbán “geci,” which I “politely” translated at the time as “prick.” In the original it was much worse. After this day Simicska’s daily paper Magyar Nemzet, his radio station Lánchíd Rádió, and his television station Hír TV, ceased to be government mouthpieces. I must say that, as a result, the quality of Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV has vastly improved. It is another matter that one can only marvel at the “ideological flexibility” of those reporters who remained, because the change from a pro- to an anti-government stance took place practically overnight.

The loss of Hír TV must have been a heavy blow to the Orbán government, which it tried to redress by getting Andy Vajna, the former American-Hungarian movie producer, to purchase TV2, a commercial station that serves the whole country. Although the producers of TV2’s newscast have been doing their best to tarnish the opponents of the government, Viktor Orbán is still not satisfied. At least this is the impression I got when I heard that Gábor Széles, a far-right Fidesz supporter, was ready to sell his Echo TV to Lőrinc Mészáros. With the change of ownership, the work of making Echo TV, a formerly right-radical station, into a replacement for Hír TV began. At the same time, Fidesz is doing its best to squeeze Simicska’s Hír TV financially.

Hír TV was Fidesz’s channel from the moment of its inception in January 2003. The first president of the company was the same Gábor Borókai who had been the government spokesman of the first Orbán government (1998-2002). Many of the channel’s early reporters actually ended up working for the government after 2010. In October 2015 Péter Tarr, deputy CEO of Hír TV, admitted that “members of the government’s communication team visited the station at least once a week in order to give instructions” to those responsible for the ideological content of the station. By 2007 Hír TV could reach 2.1 million households.

After G-Day, many of the top brass both at Magyar Nemzet and HírTV left, among them the staff of “Célpont” (Target), who were investigative journalists. For a while this very popular weekly program was off the air. Now, however, it is back, and rumor has it that considerable effort, financial and otherwise, is being expended to make it HírTV’s flagship program, alongside Olga Kálmán’s forthcoming interview show. Given the incredible corruption surrounding the present government, a program of this sort is certainly a good investment, especially since ATV doesn’t have the financial resources to include such a show in its programming lineup.

Distressed by all these changes at Hír TV, Fidesz and the Orbán government moved into action. Even earlier, the Fidesz leadership had forbidden members of the government and high officials of the party to accept invitations from Hír TV. Now they are putting pressure on cable companies, suggesting that they drop Hír TV from their offerings. One company, PR-Telecom, obliged and announced that as of January 1, they had dropped Hír TV along with six other, mostly foreign-language, channels. At the same time the company announced that 14 new channels will be available, among them six that are owned by Andy Vajna. While they were at it, the company picked up two porn channels as well. The majority stakeholder in PR-Telecom is an off-shore company in Malta, Central Eastern Cable & Media Group Limited, whose owner is the same man in whose yacht Lőrinc Mészáros was seen in the harbor of Zadar last summer. What a coincidence, don’t you think?

Soon enough Magyar Nemzet discovered that PR-Telekom had received state aid to the tune of 3.3 billion forints a couple of months before the cable company informed Hír TV of its decision to break its contract. The grant (and it’s an outright grant, not a loan) for improvements of the company’s network in certain regions of the country came from money Hungary had received from the European Union. This is how the EU is unwittingly aiding the undemocratic policies of the Orbán government. Luckily, not all is lost as far as Hír TV is concerned. Since the cable company’s breach of contract was illegal, those subscribers who would like to switch service providers can do so without any penalty. At least this is what Hír TV claims on its website.

Meanwhile Hír TV has been hiring people right and left. Some of them came from the defunct Népszabadság, others from the state television. The government mouthpiece, Magyar Idők, has been watching all this with a certain amount of apprehension. Its articles talked about the alleged tension within Hír TV because the same Péter Tarr who earlier had complained about government interference in its programming now announced that the channel will be even more “critical of the government.” The newspaper provided a long list of reporters who have already joined or will join Simicska’s cable network.

The government-sponsored Pesti Srácok learned that Simicska’s partner in Közgép Zrt., Zsolt Nyerges, had announced that he is no longer ready to sacrifice his quite significant wealth on Simicska’s “pointless fight” with Viktor Orbán while their business is dying. Apparently the “discussion” was so vehement that it almost turned into a fist fight. Whether such an encounter happened or not (Nyerges denies that it did), Közgép announced Nyerges’s retirement as CEO and the appointment of Ildikó Vida in his stead. Her name ought to be familiar to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum since she used to be head of the Hungarian Internal Revenue Service. She was suspected of corrupt practices and thus barred by the U.S. government from entering the United States.

Viktor Orbán takes the remaining few opposition electronic media outlets deadly seriously. As it stands, by now there are only two government-critical television channels left in the country. Both can be reached only by cable. Hungarian political observers are convinced that 90% of all media today is in government hands. Yet it seems that 90% is still not enough. Viktor Orbán seems set on silencing all voices critical of his regime.

This reminds me of an article by Ekaterina Shulman, a Russian political scientist, which I read in a Hungarian summary. She called Putin’s Russia a “hybrid regime,” 80 percent propaganda and 20 percent coercion. This description of the leading illiberal democracy also fits the regime Viktor Orbán has built in the last seven years. Even the arch-conservative Batthyány Circle of Professors, which in the past had found the state of the country to be picture perfect, recently called attention to the gap between “appearance and reality,” the former having the upper hand in today’s Hungary. And to sustain appearance and suppress reality a government needs a full pipeline of propaganda with a healthy dose of coercion.

January 16, 2017

Olga Kálmán is leaving ATV for Lajos Simicska’s Hír TV

The news of Olga Kálmán’s departure from ATV and her move to Lajos Simicska’s Hír TV has spread like wildfire. This unexpected event prompted scores of negative comments on the Assembly of Faith, the fundamentalist sect that owns ATV. Columnists also bemoaned the sad state of the Hungarian media, which leaves someone like Kálmán with only two choices: either ATV or Hír TV. They reminded their readers that only a couple of years ago Hír TV was part of the Fidesz media empire. Its journalists made it their mission to hunt down all those liberals whom they considered Viktor Orbán’s enemies. Since the Simicska-Orbán fallout two years ago, however, quite a few newcomers joined the staff and its most vicious mud-slingers left. They will find a congenial home in Lőrinc Mészáros’s new acquisition, Echo TV.

It is an anomaly that a basically conservative or even right-wing sect like the Assembly of Faith keeps up a liberal television station. So the clash of cultures within the walls of ATV should have been expected. Critics claim that Sándor Németh, the leader of the Assembly of Faith, made a deal with the devil in 2012 when, they suspect, he agreed to some level of cooperation with the government in return for his sect’s “recognized” status. The Assembly of Faith is certainly the odd man out among the 26 accepted churches.

The first program that ATV scrapped was the Újságíró Klub with György Bolgár, Tamás Mészáros, and János Avar. Every Monday night the three seasoned reporters, with the assistance of a moderator, discussed the main political events of the previous week. In June 2014, after 14 years of great popularity, ATV did not renew their contracts, allegedly because of lack of interest in the program. Its replacement was a flop and died after a single season.

In May 2016 Sándor Friderikusz got the boot, ostensibly because his excellent conversations with intellectuals were deemed to be too serious for the station’s audience. Friderikusz’s liberal outlook was most likely the real reason. In October Friderikusz gave a lengthy interview to Index in which he described the state of affairs in the studios of ATV under the direction of Sándor Németh’s son, Szilárd. Friderikusz recounted a conversation in which Sándor Németh inquired from him whether he was purposely working for the downfall of Viktor Orbán.

And about a month ago we learned that András Bánó, the long-time director of ATV’s excellent news, is leaving the station. Most people doubt that his departure is voluntary. The pressure is on to get rid of certain people.

Meanwhile, there have been signs that the Assembly of Faith, under the leadership of Sándor Németh, is supporting the government’s views on the migrant issue. ATV, for example, agreed to air the government’s anti-migrant ads, which many faithful ATV viewers strenuously objected to. As we learned lately, Sándor Németh is also an admirer of Donald Trump, as you can see from the photo he posted on his Facebook page.

Sándor Németh, leader of Assembly of Faith, is a very happy man

While serious programs have disappeared one by one, a few “light” programs have been introduced. I can’t imagine that ATV’s viewers like Péter Hajdú’s Frisbee or Zsuzsa Csisztu’s Csisztus24. These programs simply don’t belong on a television station that has until now functioned as a quasi public television station. Today I took a look at both: they are dreadful.

Another “lighthearted” program is Judit Péterfi’s Magánszféra, which is supposed to let us in on politicians’ private lives. I described the program after the first episode as “an extended flirtation between the reporter and the politician, initiated primarily by Judit Péterfi.” Another new program, this one for women, seems to be superior to the other new shows–as long, that is, as one can tolerate Henrik Havas’s constant bragging.

I have no idea how these new programs are faring, but I doubt that they are hits. Friderikusz characterized Szilárd Németh’s leadership of the station as “amateurish,” and the latest changes in programming seem to justify his opinion. If Szilárd Németh, who is apparently under the thumb of his father, keeps going in this direction, ATV will soon disappear. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if by next season most of the new programs are scrapped. It was time for Kálmán to leave. It’s just too bad that the only television station that it is still independent belongs to Lajos Simicska. At least this is the opinion of Kálmán’s fans.

On a brighter note, ATV announced that Egyenes beszéd will continue but Szabad szemmel (With Open Eyes) with Antónia Mészáros on Friday evenings will be discontinued. My hunch is that Mészáros, who is a fine reporter, will take over Egyenes beszéd.

The Fidesz media was shocked by the news of Kálmán’s departure for Hír TV. They immediately went into attack mode. According to Magyar Idők, “the employees of Hír TV were perplexed when they received the news that Olga Kálmán was joining their station.” It’s not just the old hands at the station who are worried about their jobs but even those who joined Hír TV in the last couple of years. Magyar Idők learned that “the leadership of ATV has been worried for some time that Hír TV wants to compete with them by espousing a political view farther to the left than ATV is at the moment.”

Origo seems to be worried about Simicska, who allegedly will be overpaying Olga Kálmán. According to Blikk and other right-wing tabloids, like Ripost and 888.hu, Kálmán’s Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk) is not at all popular. They seem to know that ATV’s “most often watched program is ATV Start, an early morning show.” Moreover, Kálmán’s presence seems to be immaterial to viewers. There was no appreciable difference in the size of viewership when in her absence someone else was before the cameras. So, concludes Origo, “the departure of Olga Kálmán is not an irreplaceable loss to ATV.”

Lokál, a free paper owned by the mysterious Árpád Habony, a right-hand man of Viktor Orbán, portrays Kálmán as a workaholic who was still in the studio four days before her son’s birth and, “as soon as she delivered, she was immediately on the phone on a work-related matter.” The impression these publications are trying to convey is that Kálmán is not only an unpopular TV personality but is also a bad mother. Simicska is wasting his money. All this sounds like sour grapes to me.

When it comes to the offerings of ATV, we must keep in mind that during the day the station airs two-and-a-half hours’ worth of infomercials in addition to the dubbed 700 Club with Pat Robertson, lasting 30 minutes twice a day. On Sundays, one has the pleasure of listening to Sándor Németh’s sermon Vidám Vasárnap (Joyful Sunday). Of course, this is also repeated later. ATV receives quite a bit of money from the Orbán government for airing a documentary series called Hazahúzó (Drawing you home), which depicts different regions of the country. These programs are supposed to be magnets for Hungarians living and working abroad. As we know, all these efforts have been singularly ineffective. This daily program is 40 minutes long and is aired twice a day. So, as you can see, there is a lot of filler here.

During the day I also took the time to check out Hír TV’s fare and found quite a few good programs, including their newscast, which was thorough and professional. At first glance it seems that Hír TV has more substantive programming than ATV. They have only 30 minutes of infomercials, they don’t have to air government propaganda for expats, and they don’t have to show such programs as the 700 Club or Németh’s sermons. On the basis of my sampling, it is definitely worth taking a look at Simicska’s station, quite independently from Olga Kálmán’s joining its staff.

December 18, 2016