Tag Archives: Magyar Nemzet

For Viktor Orbán the Hungarian media is still too free

I understand that Viktor Orbán is mighty annoyed with the independent media, which in his opinion remains far too critical of his government. For instance, hard-working journalists have unearthed an incredible number of corruption cases. I know that people like to complain about the quality of Hungarian journalism, and I myself often grouse about articles that are hard to follow or are sloppy. On the whole, however, Hungarian journalists should be commended for working under difficult circumstances for very little money. There are a couple of politicians who decided to specialize in exposing corruption cases, like Ákos Hadházy (LMP), Péter Juhász (Együtt), and lately Bertalan Tóth (MSZP), but the bulk of the corruption cases came to light thanks to the growing number of investigative journalists.

Investigative journalism was a new field in post-communist Hungary. I still recall how feeble the first attempts were in the first half of the 1990s. But by the early 2000s there was a handful of first-rate investigative reporters who were, for example, instrumental in informing the public about the enrichment of Viktor Orbán and his family, which was of course modest in comparison to the situation today. And by now there are at least two NGOs, Direct36.hu and Atlatszo.hu, that are non-profit investigative journalism centers “with the mission to expose wrongdoings and abuse of power through fair but tough reporting.”

Orbán would like to tone down or, better yet, stifle the media’s outcry over what’s going on in government circles. His government’s first move was to transform the public broadcasting system, whose staff even before 2010 had been less than independent from Fidesz influence, into a totally servile government propaganda machine. An incredible amount of money was and continues to be poured into a TV station that practically no one watches. Once the low viewership numbers became obvious, the government started a new channel specializing in sports, which is used as a “pseudo news channel.” Every fifteen minutes or so “government news” is broadcast between sports events. This way there is no escaping the news–news that bears a suspicious resemblance to that broadcast in the Rákosi and the early Kádár regimes. People in the trade swear that by the second half of the 1980s journalists at the state television and radio stations had more freedom than employees of the state television and radio stations do today. Just one example. Journalists stopped people on the street to ask about their reaction to the migrants. When one woman said that she has no problem with them, she was told that they are not interested in what she has to say.

Prior to February 2015 the government had an extensive, loyal media network thanks to Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán’s high school friend who owned a TV station, a radio station, a daily newspaper, a free paper distributed at metro stations, and a weekly magazine. The last two publications were also available online. With the fallout between the two old friends, however, Orbán lost Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, both of which were critical for his government, especially since the “state television” (MTV) turned out to be a flop. So, the pro-government gurus moved into high gear and within a year and a half managed to build an even larger network of media outlets. And they haven’t finished their job yet. Friends of the government are buying up popular media properties and transforming them into propaganda machines.

To replace Magyar Nemzet a new pro-government daily was created called Magyar Idők, which is not exactly a favorite of the public. On a list of the fifty most popular online news sites Magyar Idők didn’t make the cut. Mind you, neither did Magyar Nemzet, which in my opinion has become a quite respectable paper in the last year and a half. In addition, several other pro-government internet sites came into being, among them ripost.hu, a tabloid that has a decent-sized readership (179,842/day in July 2016).

chain

The two most popular sites are origo.hu (561,494/day) and index.hu (513,854/day). The former was recently purchased by a cousin of György Matolcsy and has since turned decidedly to the right. Apparently the future of index.hu is not at all assured because the current owner, Zoltán Spéder, is no longer a favorite of the prime minister. There are still a couple of popular independent internet sites like hvg.hu and 444.hu that trounce the official government hirado.hu in readership. Could they be in the government’s crosshairs? Surprisingly, nepszabadsag.hu is not a popular news site, despite the fact that the print version is the most popular nationwide daily paper. But even Népszabadság’s fate is not quite settled yet. There is talk about Vienna Capital Partners selling Népszabadság to the owner of Duna Aszfalt, László Szíjj, who was described by Népszava as a possible front man, along with Lőrinc Mészáros, of Viktor Orbán.

On the television front, government propaganda lost HírTV, but after a lot of finagling Andy Vajna, the former American-Hungarian movie producer who is now the owner of several casinos and a loyal friend of Orbán, purchased the German-owned TV2. Vajna, who is not exactly a poor man, didn’t have enough money for the purchase so the Orbán government gladly lent him 8 billion forints, which most people believe will never be paid back. TV2 was heavily indebted at the time of Vajna’s purchase, and it is unlikely that it will suddenly become wildly popular, surpassing the favorite commercial television station in Hungary, RTL Klub. Only a couple of their shows are attracting a larger audience, while RTL Klub has at least six such favorites.

Passing TV2 to Vajna was not quite enough for Orbán, who would like to have a quality television channel specializing in news. It looks as if there is an attempt to upgrade Echo TV, which is owned by Gábor Széles, a rich man of extreme right-wing political views. Echo TV’s current audience is very small. However, I just read that Ferenc Szaniszló, who had a weekly program and who belongs to what I call the lunatic fringe, was fired and that Echo TV is being reshaped to be a more respectable outlet of news and political discussions serving the government’s needs.

Apparently, Orbán hoped that Lajos Simicska would give up his losing media outlets. In the past, when the two men were still friends, Magyar Nemzet and HírTV received government ads galore in addition to thousands of subscriptions for government offices. Since the blow-up no government advertising money has come Magyar Nemzet’s way. Moreover, the paper isn’t getting much in the way of ads from the private sector either since rich businessmen who are heavily dependent on government orders are afraid to advertise in opposition papers. This is the way the government ensures that papers they consider to be disloyal will starve to death.

Orbán’s aim was the total destruction of Simicska’s media outlets, but so far he hasn’t succeeded. The only victim was the free newspaper Metropol, which used to be distributed at metro stations. One day the Budapest Transit Authority (BKV) broke its contract with Simicska on the grounds that he had received the right of distribution without a tender. BKV immediately signed a contract with Árpád Habony’s Modern Media Group Zrt., whose new publication, Lokál, took its place. I might add that Modern Media Group also received its contract without any competition. Lokál, being a free paper, depends on advertising, and it is chock full of government ads. The government is keeping it afloat.

The picture is grim and, I’m afraid, it can be grimmer still. One can only hope that Orbán, in his insatiable appetite for a servile media, will not gobble up every important outlet, leaving only crumbs for the opposition. If, for example, pro-government owners were to acquire hvg or index, it would be an irreparable blow to the democratic opposition.

September 22, 2016

The Hungarian media scene is still in flux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new media landscape: Magyar Nemzet versus Napi Gazdaság

Back in 2010 I devoted a post to a comparison of the domestic news reporting of two Hungarian dailies: Magyar Nemzet, then a government mouthpiece, and Népszabadság, a paper close to the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSZP). All the articles appeared on the same day, and the results were startling. As I said then, “Two papers, two worlds.” Nowadays, when the print and online Hungarian media world is in turmoil, I thought it might be useful to take a look at the contents of the new Magyar Nemzet and the paper that took its ideological place, Napi Gazdaság.

In 2010 the most obvious difference between the two newspapers was which news items the editors picked from the offerings of MTI, the Hungarian news agency. Magyar Nemzet neglected to report on news that was unfavorable to the government while it picked up items of perhaps lesser importance if they showed the Orbán government in a good light. Népszabadság, on the whole, covered the events of the day more accurately, but there was a tendency to overemphasize matters that reflected badly on the government.

napi gazdasag2

Fast forward to 2015. Let’s start with Napi Gazdaság. If you recall, Viktor Orbán in his interview claimed that the reason for his government’s problem is the loss of the media that in the past explained the policies of his administration and directed public opinion “appropriately.” Looking at today’s Napi Gazdaság, one finds at least one article that aims to explain the government’s position on what it considers to be an important issue: the objections of the European Commission to certain provisions of the law on the use of agricultural lands, something I wrote about yesterday. Although other papers, including Magyar Nemzet and Népszabadság, didn’t consider the announcement of the chairman of the parliamentary commission on agricultural matters concerning the issue important enough to cover, Napi Gazdaság found it newsworthy. The message the paper wants to convey is that “the Hungarian law doesn’t contain anything that cannot be found in some other, older member states,” and therefore the Hungarian government finds the EU objections discriminatory.

There is another important task Napi Gazdaság must perform–anti-Gyurcsány propaganda. Although the news that Ferenc Gyurcsány’s consulting firm received the job of supervising an international team to improve the quality of decisions on contracts subsidized by the EU is old, Napi Gazdaság decided to include an article on the opinion of Ildikó Pelcz (née Gáll), who thinks that “the case is still full of question marks.” For good measure, the paper ran an editorial titled “Pinocchio.” The editorial combats Ferenc Gyurcsány’s newly announced program on utility prices. More than half of the editorial is designed to show the superiority of the government’s earlier decreases in utility prices over Gyurcsány’s suggestions.

One must always keep alive anti-communism, even if it takes some ingenuity to find a reason for talking about it. Gergely Gulyás made a speech at a conference held in the parliament building in which he called attention to the sufferings of the people on “this side of the iron curtain.” He also charged that “no one ever asked for forgiveness for the sins of communism” but immediately added that “those who maintained that regime can never be forgiven.”

A good government paper must also include some cheerful news, which is hard to come by of late. Therefore, a misleading headline always comes in handy. For example, one of the articles claims that “85% of Hungarian youth believe that they will be successful in life.” The other results of the survey, however, are not so rosy. That these young people believe that “to be successful one needs connections” should make readers wonder about the true state of affairs in Hungary when it comes to job opportunities. Or that over 40% of them would like to work abroad. On the other hand, we ought to rejoice at learning that the Raoul Wallenberg School, after so much tribulation, will be able to move, although “the final decision” will be reached by Zoltán Balog only at the end of May. But then why the announcement now? 

And finally, one ought to hit the opposition hard and, if possible, accuse them of dishonesty and possible fraud. Ferenc Papcsák, former mayor of Zugló, accuses the new administration of Gergely Karácsony of PM (who was supported by all the democratic opposition parties) of wasting the 2.5 billion forints he left behind. According to him, the salaries of employees haven’t been paid, certain projects had to be shelved, and the local paper, for the first time in 19 years, cannot appear because of a lack of funds.

There are several important pieces of news that Napi Gazdaság simply ignores. One is that Béla Turi-Kovács, a Fidesz member of parliament, is turning in a request to re-examine the abandonment of the M4 project. Turi-Kovács began his political career in the Smallholders party and served as minister of the environment in the first Orbán government between 2000 and 2002. This piece of news was reported by Magyar Nemzet, but the abandoned M4 is not something that should be talked about in a government paper.

The other significant news of the day that Napi Gazdaság failed to report on is that the head of Lombard Kézizálog Zrt., a financial institution that went bankrupt back in April, was arrested. Eight banks suffered a loss of about four billion forints. Perhaps even more interesting is another piece of news, this time about Lombard Lízing Zrt., a company being sued by a former customer who received a loan of 3.5 million forints in Swiss francs. Without going into the very complicated details of the case, the Hungarian National Bank and the government are siding with Lombard Lízing Zrt. against the customer. Fidesz seems to be so interested in the case that a Fidesz member of parliament between 2010 and 2014 will represent Lombard in the suit. That piece of news was discussed in a lengthy article in Magyar Nemzet but not in Napi Gazdaság.

Another topic that Magyar Nemzet, like other dailies, spends time on is the question of capital punishment. After all, there will be a discussion of Viktor Orbán’s reference to the death penalty tomorrow in the European Parliament. Magyar Nemzet actually has two interviews on the subject. One with Tamás Lattmann, a professor of international law, and another with Dóra Duró of Jobbik. Lattmann explains that no referendum can be held on the subject, while Duró tells about a debate within the party. The interviews were conducted by Lánchíd Rádió, another Simicska concern.

It is again not surprising that news that the association of history teachers and historians called on the government to condemn the 1915 genocide of Armenians did not appear in Napi Gazdaság. On the other hand, Magyar Nemzet is sympathetic to the cause of the Armenians, and the paper had a number of articles on the subject in the middle of April. Napi Gazdaság would never report on the historians’ request because, first of all, the historians involved are not exactly favorites of this government. Second, the Orbán government has exceedingly good relations with Turkey. Finally, Armenia broke off diplomatic relations with Hungary after the Orbán government sent an Azeri national who murdered an Armenian in Hungary back to Kazakhstan as a friendly gesture to the Azeri dictator.

Magyar Nemzet nowadays provides space for opposition members to express their views. For example, in today’s paper they reported on the opinion of Bernadett Szél, an LMP member of parliament, that the taxpayers will be responsible for the cost of taking care of atomic waste that will accrue at Paks.

The latest news about Vladimir Putin’s remarks on Hungary’s economic interest and the Paks II nuclear power plant naturally appeared in both papers. But there is an important difference. The Magyar Nemzet article consists of four sentences. It is restricted to the bare facts. Napi Gazdaság, on the other hand, spends considerable time on the issue, adding details about the size and the nature of the Russian loan.

Magyar Nemzet can no longer be considered a “government mouthpiece.” That role was taken over by Napi Gazdaság. The question is whether the new Magyar Nemzet will be able to retain its readership. Moreover, for the last month or so, we’ve heard about more and more Magyar Nemzet employees abandoning the paper and joining Napi Gazdaság. I assume they are offered higher salaries. And most likely the journalists who switch believe they will have better job security since the future of Napi Gazdaság, given its favored position, is assured, at least for three more years, while this might not be the case with Magyar Nemzet.

Viktor Orbán explains what went wrong

If I hadn’t already known that Viktor Orbán is in serious political trouble, I would certainly have discovered it last night while watching an interview he gave to Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of Fidesz and a foul-mouthed racist who thinks he is a journalist. The interview was aired on Echo TV, a far-right television station catering to Jobbik supporters and to those Fidesz voters whose political views are practically indistinguishable from the ideology and racism of Jobbik.

After his falling out with Lajos Simicska, a former friend and financial wizard of Fidesz, Orbán no longer wants to use HírTV, Lánchíd Rádió, or Magyar Nemzet, all Simicska businesses. László Kövér indicated that the party considers these media outlets to be mouthpieces of the opposition. Fidesz politicians have been advised to keep away from them. In the meantime the government, behind the scenes, is creating a new “independent” media empire.

Why did Orbán use the far-right Echo TV instead of the new state television’s news channel, M1? Although M1 is a flop, it still has a wider audience than Echo TV. The only explanation I can think of is that Fidesz is sending a message to Jobbik supporters, who most likely prefer Echo TV above all others, that Fidesz is no less radical than Jobbik is.

It was a long interview, a little over 45 minutes, and a lot of topics were covered, but what I personally found most interesting was the discussion about “the confusion” in the party and the government. I assume Bayer was addressing the party’s lack of direction and the resultant slide in its popularity. He introduced an idea he had written about earlier, that Fidesz has lost its “soul.” Naturally, Viktor Orbán doesn’t believe that there is any intrinsic problem with his leadership. The “confusion” is not in Fidesz or in the government but in the heads of his right-wing supporters. The reason for this confusion is the government’s loss of the media that in the past explained the policies of his administration and directed public opinion in the proper way.

So, if I understand it correctly, Orbán more or less admits here that without a Fidesz-created servile media he and other Fidesz politicians would be nowhere today. They needed Magyar Nemzet, Heti Válasz, and HírTV, which were financed by Fidesz operatives such as Lajos Simicska. Try to imagine a similar situation in a truly democratic country where the president’s or the prime minister’s success depends on the existence of a secretly financed media empire. And once, for one reason or other, something goes wrong and the owner of that media conglomerate withdraws support, the whole government and the government party are suddenly heading toward oblivion. Because this is what seems to have been going on in Hungary for more than a decade. At least since 2002.

Perhaps I should add here that a large chunk of that money came straight from Brussels. Even during the socialist-liberal period Lajos Simicska’s companies received plenty of government projects. There is also a strong possibility that Simicska was not the only Hungarian CEO who secretly worked for Fidesz. Of course, after 2010 the government coffers were opened wide to Fidesz-supporting entrepreneurs who surely paid the party back for favors received.

At the time of the Simicska-Orbán confrontation the majority of commentators were convinced that Lajos Simicska would come out the loser. After all, the power and purse strings of the state are in Viktor Orbán’s hands. He is the one who can destroy Simicska’s business ventures. In the past, it was Viktor Orbán who made sure that huge government projects landed at Simicska’s concerns, and now those orders will go elsewhere. Of course, this may be true in the short term, but what if the “confusion” in the heads of the Hungarian people remains because there are no longer industrious scribblers who try to point their minds in the “right direction”?

Orbán obviously realizes how important it is to create another servile Fidesz media, and I’m sure they are furiously working on it. Orbán specifically mentioned Gábor Liszkay’s purchase of Napi Gazdaság as a first step toward rebuilding a government-servile media conglomerate, but it will take time, if it’s even possible, to make a second Magyar Nemzet out of what used to be a financial paper. And second, there is a good possibility that by now a lot of Fidesz supporters can no longer be so easily swayed. It is enough to read the comments in Magyar Hírlap following the article that describes the interview. Keep in mind that this is a far-right paper. Here’s a tiny sample. “Something was broken. This is not the same Fidesz any more. There is too much senseless arbitrariness. Too much János Lázár.” This is not a left-wing troll writing here. I’m sure that he used to be a true believer. Another reader realizes that “if there is no media on the right, just on the left, then there will be big trouble. By now all media are anti-Orbán and anti-Fidesz.” Of course, there are still many who are glad that Viktor Orbán explained so clearly what the real trouble is, but another reader suggests that perhaps the prime minister should have mentioned some of the mistakes he and his government made. It will be difficult for the government to pick up where they left off.

Another topic I found fascinating was Viktor Orbán’s evaluation of his tenure as prime minister between 2010 and 2015. There seems to be a new twist in his interpretation of his own role as well as the accomplishments of his government. Until now we have been told that in April 2010 a revolution occurred, a revolution in the voting booths. Now, however, he sees the whole four years following the election of 2010 as a revolution, which he considers a fantastic accomplishment. After all, there have not been too many “victorious” revolutions in Hungarian history. Now the gates to a “polgári Magyarország” (a prosperous Hungary with a well-off middle class) are open. “We just have to enter them.” But one must be vigilant because “the opposition wants [to stage] a counterrevolution,” and therefore they are doing everything in their power to prevent the establishment of that long-sought “polgári Magyarország.” What followed was even more bizarre than his description of the opposition as a bunch of counterrevolutionaries. “We have been victorious and that the opposition is attacking us is an excellent sign. They would like to take our place because now it is good for us and bad for them.” A true democrat is speaking here.

Is Fidesz’s soul lost, or is there more to it?

At the moment a fairly sizable crowd of students is marching from the ministry of human resources to the new university for civil servants, policemen, and officers nicknamed “the school for janissaries.” The students were not impressed by the government’s gesture to allow them to major in subjects the authorities find irrelevant to the national economy. They want freedom not just within the walls of the university but in the whole country. I don’t think it will be long before others join them. The Orbán regime is in trouble. When a conservative university professor, a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, openly suggests that Viktor Orbán retire, the Fidesz edifice begins to look increasingly precarious.

I’m talking about Frigyes Solymosi. He has been critical of government policies for almost a decade, but his criticism was always packaged in such polite language that I found his opinion pieces on the boring side. Even now, Solymosi suggests only a temporary retirement, which might help restore “our international credibility.” Then, after a few years of rest, Orbán could again return to politics “with renewed energy either as the successor to the president or as the candidate of your party for the premiership.” The comments are less kind. “Nice, nice that you urge Viktor to take a short retirement, but please, don’t delude him. He must leave for good while he can.”

I heard an interview with Solymosi this morning, and I suspect that deep down even he doesn’t believe that his suggestion of a temporary retirement is realistic. He admitted that Viktor Orbán is not a man who is ready to change his ways, and therefore a “second coming” wouldn’t make the slightest difference.

Solymossy at least has been critical of Orbán and his political system for years while others on the right have remained quiet. But something has happened of late to induce them to speak out. A number of right-wing journalists at Magyar Nemzet, Heti Válasz, and Mandiner have recently written critical articles. Starting with the last, I would like to call attention to a piece by Gellért Rajcsányi that was translated into English by Christopher Adam, editor-in-chief of Hungarian Free Press.  Rajcsányi claims that “Fidesz has lost its political buoyancy.” He suggests that it can recover but only if it can change and be reborn. And, he cautiously adds at the end, “it’s quite the challenge to be born again from this state or to hit the re-start button … if Fidesz is at all capable of this.”

Another right-wing journalist, András Stumpf, formerly of Heti Válasz, now with Mandiner, wrote an opinion piece in Magyar Nemzet two days ago, which is just one of the many devastating critiques of Viktor Orbán coming from the right. Zsolt Bayer, whose unspeakable racist prose I’ve called attention to many times, wrote an article in which he bitterly complained that in the last few years “Fidesz has lost its soul.” Stumpf is convinced that the problem is not only with the party’s “soul,” which is why he titled his own piece: “Soul? Come on!” And then he catalogues the sins of Fidesz rule in the last five years.

The Damned Soul by Michelangelo c. 1525

The Damned Soul by Michelangelo c. 1525

A party whose original mission was the creation of a country made up of a comfortably well-off citizenry cannot possibly turn away from the West, where the very idea of the bourgeoisie was born. But Viktor Orbán did exactly that and created a system in which it is not merit that counts but loyalty. Behind government decisions one always finds selfish political goals. The word “nemzeti” (national) became an empty phrase where even tobacco shops offered to party loyalists are called “nemzeti dohányboltok.” And Orbán created a country that allowed a murderer to return to Azerbaijan, where he was hailed as a national hero. Where was the soul then?

It is incredible to hear from a journalist who worked for years at Heti Válasz that “a new media empire is in the making, except now the dough will end up in different pockets.” He doesn’t even spare Fidesz when it comes to its relation to Jobbik. Orbán cannot attack Gábor Vona for his pro-Russian sentiments; after all, he himself is a great admirer of Vladimir Putin. The only weapon that remains in his hands is labelling the party neo-Nazi. No wonder that Vona makes every effort to rub the SS tattoo off. Once this is done, Vona “will stand there in a snow-white shirt not soiled yet by the dirt of prior governance and he will say more or less the same thing that [Orbán] does. And he doesn’t have a beer belly.” Quite an indictment.

What surprised me even more was an op-ed piece in today’s Magyar Nemzet written by Gy. László Tóth, who in the past was a loyal Fidesz “political scientist.” Years ago, by mistake, I picked up a book of his essays that I simply couldn’t get through. And now what do I read? He talks about the “ruthless fight for Orbán’s trust and for getting into the charmed circle around him from where it is possible to step into his shoes.” He tells about the “servility” of these people, about “the low level of intellectual capacity” in the leadership, about “the total lack of morality,” about “arrogant, cynical communication often accompanied by lack of manners” which “is rejected by the whole right.”

These criticisms are not voiced by some hopeless liberals but by people who have been enthusiastic supporters of Viktor Orbán and his party. So, there is a growing number of former Fidesz supporters who have had enough of Orbán’s vision of Hungary. They see the same corruption, greed, immorality, and cynicism as the other side does. What these critics haven’t realized yet, perhaps because they don’t know enough about the subject, is that the situation is not much better in the economy. Yes, I know, some people will point to the good GDP figures for last and perhaps even this year. But these figures are misleading. The growth is fueled by subsidies coming from Brussels. The amount has been especially high in the last two years because we are nearing the end of the European Union’s seven-year budget cycle when every country tries to spend as much money as possible in order not to lose a penny from the allocated amounts. But this happy state of affairs will soon come to an end.

It has taken five years, but Viktor Orbán has managed to alienate even his most ardent supporters. Now the question is whether the two sides can find some common ground. Reading these essays, I don’t think it would be impossible.

The right-wing media in turmoil

At the moment the government’s only absolutely reliable mouthpieces are Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió. Lajos Simicska’s media empire is still in transition, and the government’s new media complex has not yet been launched. So, the media confusion on the right is considerable, which is bad news for a government that thinks that the real key to success is communication. As it stands now, MTV’s new all-news channel is a flop, and Fidesz for all practical purposes is boycotting Hír TV, Simicska’s television station.

After Simicska publicly broke with his old friend Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the true Orbán loyalists left Magyar Nemzetthe flagship of the pro-government media, most likely knowing that Viktor Orbán was already working on a replacement of the media conglomerate financed by Simicska and that they would have no difficulty finding jobs in the future. Meanwhile, rumor had it that part owner and editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV, Gábor Liszkay, might be taking over Napi Gazdaság, a financial paper, transforming it into a full-coverage daily in the spirit of Magyar Nemzet.

The first issue of Napi Gazdaság under the editorship of Gábor Liszkay

The first issue of Napi Gazdaság under the editorship of Gábor Liszkay

The recent history of Napi Gazdaság is intriguing. It shows how easily Viktor Orbán can pull strings with allegedly independent enterprises if and when he needs their cooperation. In 2013 Századvég Intézet purchased Napi Gazdaság, which until then had been an independent organ. Now that the government and Fidesz need a daily paper, it was enough for Viktor Orbán to call on Századvég and ask the management to sell the paper to Gábor Liszkay and Árpád Habony, about whom I’ve written earlier. Indeed, as of yesterday Napi Gazdaság belongs to Liszkay, and the group of people who left Magyar Nemzet have followed him to his new venture. I understand that even the typesetters and the proofreaders are from Simicska’s paper. At Napi Gazdaság changes have already taken place. For example, the paper became two pages longer. After a few months its name will also be changed.

While preparations for the establishment of genuine pro-government media have been underway, Fidesz was also working on punishing Simicska for his disloyalty. It wasn’t enough to entice Magyar Nemzet‘s and Hír TV’s staff. There was also talk in town about Fidesz politicians boycotting Hír TV. Fidesz denied the charges. As a result, there was quite an exchange between János Lázár and one of the editors of Hír TV, in which the editor called Lázár a liar. Well, the truth is that Antal Rogán didn’t use the word “boycott,” but his words strongly indicated that it would not be advisable for a Fidesz politician to accept an invitation from Hír TV. In the past, Rogán said in his interview on M1, there were “compulsory appearances” on Hír TV and “mandatory interviews” in Magyar Nemzet. From here on Fidesz politicians “can go if they want.” It will be their personal decision. Boycott or no boycott, if I were a Fidesz politician I wouldn’t rush to accept an invitation from Hír TV or Magyar Nemzet.

László Kövér, right after the falling out between Orbán and Simicska, declared in an interview with Magyar Hírlap, a paper that espouses Jobbik ideology and that lately has become a favorite organ of Fidesz politicians who can’t or don’t want to have any dealings with Hír TV, that Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV are “opposition organs.” What does “opposition” mean here? In my reading, Kövér thought that the paper moved too far to the left and often “criticized the government unjustly.” But lately, especially after the Tapolca by-election when Fidesz at last realized that Jobbik is a threat, the party line changed. Now the charge is that Lajos Simicska is moving over to Jobbik and is offering his services to this neo-Nazi party. Surely, this is another Fidesz lie. I have been diligently reading Magyar Nemzet‘s op-ed pages and there is not a morsel of truth in this allegation.

Sándor Csintalan, who works for Lánchíd Rádió, another Simicska concern, in a Facebook note accused Rogán of losing touch with reality. Csintalan himself has quite a past, and he has few if any friends among politicians and commentators on the left, but this time I think he is right. Csintalan pointed out that “when Jobbik wins, an event you do a lot for, then thank your pals, Habony and Vajna, and look into the mirror. Stop and think a little before it’s too late.” Even if one doesn’t believe Csintalan, one should read László Seres’s short piece in HVG. He quotes Rogán as saying that “one must be blind not to see that Magyar Nemzet, Hír TV, and Lánchíd Rádió are getting closer and closer to the extreme right.” Seres responded: “We must be blind because we don’t see it.”

Yes, Magyar Nemzet became critical of the Orbán government, but it is not the only right-wing organ that carries such opinion pieces. Even such old loyalists as András Bencsik or Zsolt Bayer, the organizers of the Peace Marches, have become disillusioned. Their articles in Demokrata and Magyar Hírlap criticize Fidesz because it has abandoned its ideals. They are disappointed, but they still talk longingly of old Fidesz, especially during the period between 1998 and 2002 when Fidesz had a mission: to create a “bourgeois democracy,” a “polgári Magyarország.”

Now that the shackles of party restraints have been removed, the more talented members of Magyar Nemzet are putting out a good right-of-center paper. If it finds an audience, it will provide some real competition to papers on the left. Tomorrow I will sample some op-ed pages I especially found revealing, offering insights into the mood of former Orbán loyalists.

American rapprochement with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary?

While readers of Hungarian Spectrum continue to discuss the possible reasons for André Goodfriend’s departure, let me share one right-wing Hungarian reaction to the exit of the former chargé, István Lovas’s opinion piece in yesterday’s Magyar Hírlap titled “The Bell Change.”

One could devote a whole series of posts to István Lovas himself, from his brush with the law as a teenager to the open letter he wrote recently to Vladimir Putin in which he asked him to start a Hungarian-language “Russia Today” because the Russian propaganda television station is actually much better than BBC. Lovas lived in Canada, the United States, and Germany, where he worked for Radio Free Europe. He was considered to be a difficult man who caused a lot of turmoil in the Hungarian section of the organization.

For many years Lovas was a devoted Fidesz man. He already held important positions in the first Orbán government (1998-2002). For years he worked for Magyar Nemzet, most recently as its Brussels correspondent, but a few months ago Lovas, along with a number of other Orbán stalwarts, lost his job. Mind you, the European Parliament had had enough of Lovas even before he was sacked by Magyar Nemzet, especially after he presented a bucket of artificial blood to Sophie in ‘t Veld, the Dutch liberal MEP. The bucket of blood was supposed to symbolize the Palestinian children who were victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lovas, himself of Jewish descent, is a well-known anti-Semite.

After having lost his job at Magyar Nemzet and after Putin failed to respond to his plea for a Hungarian “Russia Today,” Lovas moved on. Gábor Széles, who owns Magyar Hírlap and EchoTV, offered him a job. Now he has a weekly political program called “Fault Lines” (Törésvonalak) on EchoTV, and he also writes opinion pieces for Széles’s newspaper.

So how does István Lovas see American-Hungarian relations in the wake of the arrival of Colleen Bell and the departure of André Goodfriend? To summarize his opinion in one sentence: from here on the United States and the Orbán government will be the best of friends.

According to Lovas, André Goodfriend was the darling of those lost liberals who have been wandering in the wilderness “ever since SZDSZ was thrown into the garbage heap of history.” They are still hoping that nothing will change. Originally they were certain that Goodfriend would run the embassy while the newly arrived ambassador would be its public face. Meanwhile, Goodfriend would continue visiting “left/neoliberal SZDSZ or MSZP politicians and intellectuals.”

These liberal hopes were dashed soon after Colleen Bell’s arrival. The new orientation was clear from day one. Bell went and laid a wreath at the statue of the unknown soldier on Heroes’ Square. She visited the Csángó Ball organized every year to celebrate a fairly mysterious group of Hungarians living in the Romanian region of Moldavia, speaking an old Hungarian dialect. These are important signs of the new American attitude toward things dear to the current government: fallen heroes and national minorities. Certainly, says Lovas, Goodfriend would never have been found in such places. Yet liberals don’t seem to have grasped the significance of all this. They think that more Hungarians will be banished from the United States and that Hungary will have to pay a high price for peace with the United States. Most likely, Orbán will have to compromise on Paks, on Russian-Hungarian relations in general, and/or will have to buy American helicopters.

But Lovas has bad news for them. There will be no more talk about corruption cases, and Hungary will pay no price whatsoever. Colleen Bell realized that Goodfriend’s methods had failed. Of course, Lovas is talking nonsense here. Even if Lovas is right about a change in U.S. policy, it was not Bell who decided on this new strategy but the United States government.

Lovas is certain that the change has already occurred. It is enough to look at the new website of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. There are no more programs on tolerance, on Holocaust events, “all those things that are kicks in the groin of the Hungarian people and their elected government.” A drastic change occurred in U.S.-Hungarian relations which even such liberal-socialist diplomats as Péter Balázs, foreign minister in the Bajnai government, László Kovács, foreign minister under Gyula Horn, or András Simonyi, ambassador to Washington (2002-2010), couldn’t explain away.

This change couldn’t have taken place if Goodfriend had stayed or if the Orbán government had conducted “the kind of servile atlantist policy recommended by Géza Jeszenszky,” foreign minister under József Antall and ambassador to Washington during the first Orbán government. Jeszenszky, who just resigned as ambassador to Norway, had a long interview in which he expressed his deep disappointment with Viktor Orbán and his foreign policy, especially with his attitude toward the United States.

According to Lovas, what happened recently is a victory for Orbán’s foreign policy, a feat that “could be achieved only by the courage and tenacity” of the Hungarian prime minister. The United States government tried to mend its ways by sending someone to Budapest who is not worried about such things as tolerance or the Holocaust. From here on the Budapest embassy will function just as American embassies do in other capitals. The U.S. Embassy in Vienna, for example, does not report “breaking news” about the Anschluss.

Lovas might exaggerate, but something is going on. When was the last time that Viktor Orbán called together the whips of all political parties for a discussion on Hungarian foreign policy? As far as I know, never. As Magyar Nemzet put it, “Viktor Orbán asked for the support of the political parties in reaching the nation’s foreign policy goals.” Among the topics was the objective of “strengthening the American-Hungarian alliance.” Péter Szijjártó, who was of course present, claimed that “political relations with the United States are improving” and that the Orbán government “will take further steps toward the restoration of earlier economic, political, and military cooperation.”

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations  Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations convened by Viktor Orbán
Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

I’m sure that we all want better relations between Hungary and the United States, but the question is at what price. The United States can’t close its eyes to Viktor Orbán’s blatant attacks on democracy, the media, human rights, and civil society. And then there is the timing of this alleged renewed love affair between Budapest and Washington. If true, and that’s a big if, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Hungarian democracy–yes, liberal democracy. Just when Viktor Orbán’s support is dropping precipitously and when it looks as if he may lose his precious two-thirds majority in spite of all the billions of forints he promised from taxpayer money to the city of Veszprém to buy votes. When a large part of the hitherto slavish right-wing media at last decided to return to more critical and balanced journalism.

No, this is not the time to court Viktor Orbán. It would be a grave mistake. It is, in fact, time to be tough because the great leader is in trouble. Trouble abroad, trouble at home. Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European Commission, in a speech to the European Parliament said the following without mentioning Viktor Orbán’s name: “We cannot let our societies imperceptibly slip back; we cannot allow illiberal logics to take hold. There is no such thing as an illiberal democracy…. We are keeping a close eye on all issues arising in Member States relating to the rule of law, and I will not hesitate to use the [EU Rule of Framework established last March] if required by the situation in a particular Member State.”