Tag Archives: Népszabadság

Viktor Orbán and freedom of the press

I wasn’t very much off the mark in my predictions yesterday. Viktor Orbán didn’t have the opportunity to veto the European Commission’s plans for “compulsory quotas” or, as the failed amendments to the Constitution called them, “compulsory settlements of alien populaces.” For the time being, there is no word about EU-controlled camps in North African countries, Viktor Orbán’s pet project. And, contrary to his repeated protestations against Russian sanctions, he voted to extend them. Nonetheless, he was something of an alien presence himself. As several newspapers noted, the specters of Putin, Trump, and Erdoğan loomed over the summit, all of whom Orbán admires and supports.

Orbán’s press conference for the reporters who showed up was held at the Permanent Representation of Hungary to the European Union instead of the Justus Lipsius Building, where the Council of Ministers is housed. At the press conference hardly anyone asked questions. By and large Viktor Orbán delivered a monologue in which he tried to inflate his role. He stressed that his best ideas haven’t been accepted yet but they are getting ever more popular among the leaders of the member states. He admitted that he failed to convince the others to lift visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens.

He talked at length about the common understanding among the Visegrád 4 countries. As Lili Bayer pointed out in the Budapest Beacon the other day, however, “in Slovakia and the Czech Republic there are growing concerns about both the nature of the alliance and the Hungarian leader’s portrayal of the bloc.” At the end of his press conference, he smuggled in a few words about the European Commission’s evil plans that would prevent his government from lowering utility prices.

The press conference would have been uneventful, even dull, save for an ugly incident. Bertalan Havasi, as assistant undersecretary, is head of the prime minister’s press office. He is thoroughly despised by his former colleagues for at least two reasons: (1) he allows practically no reporter to ever get close to Orbán and (2) he is an arrogant fellow who likes to speak in the name of the prime minister. At one point he used physical force against a Dutch cameraman who in his opinion was too pushy. The poor fellow ended up with a bloodied head. I tried to learn more about Havasi’s background from the government website but got the error message “file not found.”

In any case, among the small number of reporters at the press conference Havasi noticed Katalin Halmai, who used to be the Brussels correspondent for Népszabadság. She is  now an accredited freelancer who writes the blog “Európában.” She informed the authorities about her intention to attend, and she received an invitation to attend. But before the press conference began, the spokesman for the Permanent Representation went up to her and asked her to leave on the order of Havasi. The pro-government and/or fearful journalists said nothing until Gábor Nemes, the correspondent for Klubrádió, rose and objected to Halmai’s treatment. In his opinion, these press conferences should be held in the Justus Lipsius Building, where “one cannot send reporters out of the room.” He reminded Havasi that Halmai is still an accredited reporter who works as a freelancer. Good for Nemes, who I suspect thinks that after what Klubrádió had to suffer as a result of Orbán’s desire to shut it down, not much more can happen to that harassed station.

Viktor Orbán and Bertalan Havasi / MTI, Photo:  Balázs Szecsődi

Havasi’s answer was typical of this impertinent, arrogant, vicious crew. “Thank you, we will make note of your objection for the records. I didn’t know that there is still a newspaper Népszabadság published in Brussels. Do you? This room would be far too small if we invited and allowed in all blog writers.” Apparently, eight or nine reporters were present and there were at least 40 empty chairs. Nemes wasn’t intimidated and asked: “Do you see any problems with space here?” Which Havasi left unanswered. Instead, Orbán said that “we will consider this a suggestion and will take it under advisement.” I assume he meant the venue of future press conferences.

After a couple of more questions, the decision was reached that Viktor Orbán should talk to Halmai, “not in her capacity as a journalist but as a Hungarian citizen.” She returned, and a private conversation lasting about 15 minutes took place between the two of them in the presence of staff of the prime minister and the ambassador of the Permanent Representation. Apparently, Orbán’s greatest concern was that this happened to “a lady reporter.” This is so typical of Orbán. The autocrat had just trampled on the freedom of the press, but he was worried about “a lady reporter,” as if that was the real shame instead of his total disregard of the fundamental democratic right of the free flow of information.

Today Havasi released a statement announcing that his office will allow only reporters of actually existing newspapers (sajtóorganumok) to attend the press conferences under his jurisdiction. He doesn’t consider blog writers legitimate reporters, so they have no place at press conferences. And what is Halmai complaining about? Viktor Orbán personally received Katalin Halmai, who is a Hungarian citizen, and had a conversation with her during which “the lady told him that at the present time she is not a reporter and doesn’t write for any specific newspaper.” Of course, the Orbán government destroyed the largest and most influential newspaper, and now that its sixty-odd reporters are left jobless, the petty prime minister bars the former paper’s Brussels correspondent from his press conference because “she is not a reporter.”

As if banning a reporter from a paper his regime shuttered weren’t enough, he doubled down in answering a question about George Soros, the personification of everything Viktor Orbán hates about liberal democracy and western capitalism. He said: “A man of tight upbrining doesn’t like talking about people who are not present. Especially not if the journalist who represents them is also absent,” referring, of course, to Katalin Halmai.

Apparently, Halmai was specifically targeted because after Népszabadság closed she was quite active on behalf of the paper in Brussels. At the end of November she was one of the speakers at a conference on the freedom of the press, where she explained the circumstances of the demise of Népszabadság. Frans Timmermans, first deputy president of the European Commission, and Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberals in the European Parliament, also participated in the conference.

This is not the first time that a reporter is barred from Viktor Orbán’s press conferences in Brussels. MTI’s reporter, János Kárpáti, just once asked a question from the prime minister that he was not supposed to ask. It was in April 2015, when Orbán’s then hobbyhorse was the reintroduction of the death penalty. Kárpáti asked a question that he apparently hadn’t cleared with his superiors. The question, which he addressed to him in English, went something like this: “You have gotten a great deal of criticism over your point of view on this subject even from your colleagues in the European People’s Party. How do you see Fidesz’s position within the EPP?” That was pretty much the end of Kárpáti’s career. From that time on his superior organized his schedules in such a way that he was unable to attend the next three of four press conferences given by Orbán. After a few months he lost his job altogether. The lives of Hungarian journalists are not enviable, and I’m afraid the situation will only get worse as more and more publications are acquired by Fidesz oligarchs and strómans.

December 16, 2016

A more fitting celebration of the 60th anniversary of ’56 in Washington

About a week ago I included a sentence about the reception Réka Szemerkényi, Hungarian Ambassador in Washington, was giving for the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the October Revolution. I reported that to the best of my knowledge a number of important American officials serving in the White House, Congress, and State Department had declined the invitation over concerns about the alarming political developments in Hungary. In addition to their general concerns, they may well have also noticed the systematic falsification of Hungarian history, which includes the events of the ’56 uprising as well. Mária Schmidt, Viktor Orbán’s court historian who had already perverted the history of the Hungarian Holocaust, rewrote the history of the revolution for the anniversary. The result is a monstrosity that bears no resemblance to reality.

This assault on the revolution prompted a group of people in Washington to organize a gathering to celebrate the real events of sixty years ago. They chose not to celebrate with those who claim that executed Imre Nagy “died nicely but wasn’t a hero.” Yes, this is a direct quotation from the chief organizer of the anniversary, Mária Schmidt. Thomas Melia (who as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, had extensive dealings with Hungary), former Hungarian Ambassador to Washington András Simonyi, and Professor Charles Gati of Johns Hopkins University organized the event that took place last night. About forty people attended, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser; Charles Kupchan, currently special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council; Damian Murphy, senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs and her husband, Robert Kagan, well-known author, columnist and foreign policy commentator; Hoyt Yee, deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs; André Goodfriend, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest between August 2015 and January 2016;  Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post, who writes many of the paper’s editorials on foreign affairs; and Pál Maléter, Jr. son of the minister of defense in the last Nagy government who was reburied along with Imre Nagy on June 16, 1989. Anthony Blinken, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, couldn’t make it but sent his greetings.

Professor Gati briefly retold the story of the revolution, which is admittedly complex because the intellectual unrest that preceded it began as a factional struggle in the communist party between the Stalinists and the reformers but quickly led to a coalition government in which four parties were represented. This coalition government, which naturally included the communist party, decided to leave the Warsaw Pact. Gati emphasized that the revolution was “profoundly democratic—demanding freedom of the press and checks and balances (called ‘socialist legality’ )—and profoundly pro-Europe. These demands were at the top of the list presented by the students.”

One of the few pictures of members of the Nagy government: Zoltán Tildy, Imre Nagy, and Pál Maléter

One of the few pictures of members of the Nagy government: Zoltán Tildy, Imre Nagy, and Pál Maléter

Of course, we know that the Orbán regime’s narrative is very different: the revolution was transformed into an anti-communist crusade led by right-wing representatives of the pre-1945 period. Those intellectuals who were disillusioned communists were removed from the historical narrative prepared for the anniversary celebrations, as were social democrats and liberals. As if they never existed. They simply don’t fit into Orbán’s worldview.

Professor Gati then moved on to the situation in Hungary today and brought up the speeches of Péter Boross and László Kövér. “This Monday, the speaker of the Hungarian parliament blamed the United States not Moscow for crushing the revolution while another high official spoke of the heinous deeds of U.S. imperialism,” adding “I’m not making this up.” And, Gati continued: “Even in Washington, where Hungarian officials work hard to mislead us by praising transatlantic relations, on Sunday they somehow forgot to read Vice President Joe Biden’s message to their invited guests; I guess their feelings were hurt that they didn’t hear from President Obama.”

Gati told his personal story as a refugee after the revolution. “I came here penniless and was treated fantastically by everyone: the International Rescue Committee, Indiana University, and various employees of Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, even the State Department.” He recalled that the quota for Hungarians (4,400) was quickly filled but that within days Congress was authorized to allow another 40,000 Hungarian refugees to come. He contrasted this behavior with the situation today. In Hungary they build a razor wire fence to keep refugees out and even in the United States some people contemplate building walls. “My hope is that the old spirit of generosity will guide us again someday soon. There is another Hungary there that deserves our attention and support,” he concluded. I think that every Hungarian refugee should join Charles Gati in remembering the generosity of Austrians, Germans, Brits, Swedes, Swiss, Canadians, Australians, and Americans in those days and feel profoundly sad at the behavior of the Hungarian government, which incited ordinary Hungarians against the refugees.

I should add that Anita Kőműves, a young journalist who used to work for Népszabadság, happened to be in Washington and was invited to speak. The applause that followed her words honored those journalists who paid for their bravery with their livelihood because Viktor Orbán doesn’t believe in a free press, one of the very first demands of the Hungarian students in 1956.

October 28, 2016

Breaking news: Opimus Press buys Mediaworks’ Népszabadság

Today Vienna Capital Partners (VCP), the owner of Mediaworks Hungary Zrt., sold Népszabadság to a recently established company called Opimus Press Zrt., part of the Opimus Group, a holding company that is listed on the Budapest Stock Exchange (BÉT). The transaction is somewhat murky, so let’s begin with the two companies’ press releases, starting with that of the VCP Group.

Although VCP purchased “several regional papers” for Mediaworks at the end of September, less than a month later it was willing to part with its very successful business. Several companies had expressed an interest in the purchase of Mediaworks in the past, but VCP decided to sell it to Opimus Press because “its owners had declared their intention to publish the suspended Népszabadság.” VCP “decided on the earliest sale of Mediaworks Hungary Zrt. because of the misleading and malicious rumors that had surfaced.” The announcement emphasizes that the offer came after the October 8 suspension of the paper.

In their press release the new owners of Mediaworks explain that in March 2016 the Opimus Group (described by the Financial Times as active in the pharmaceutical preparations manufacturing sector and engaged in the manufacture and distribution of veterinary medicinal products), seeing great possibilities in the media market, established Opimus Press Zrt., “which has an adequate financial underpinning for the implementation of the necessary investments.” Opimus Group, like VCP, emphasizes that the offer to buy Mediaworks came after the suspension of Népszabadság. Even with the suspension of the paper, Opimus Press’s management, “after reviewing the situation of the company’s finances and its market position, decided that its already significant value could be further enhanced in the future.” VCP accepted Opimus’s offer on October 17, and today the Hungarian Competition Authority approved the sale.

In purchasing Mediaworks, Opimus is interested only in running the company in an economically efficient way. It “doesn’t want to influence their content in any way, especially as far as the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press are concerned.” The owners will take stock of the situation. They will, “first and foremost, attend to the possibility of the resumption of [Népszabadság’s] publication and will make a decision as soon as possible.” Opimus Press Zrt named Gábor Liszkay, János Lóczi, and Andrea Pintér to be members of the board of directors. Liszkay is the owner of Magyar Hírek and Lóczi is the CEO of its publisher. Andrea Pintér, according to LinkedIn, is a civil servant with a law degree.

The two statements were carefully crafted, perhaps by the same hand. The deal was certainly fast-tracked, if we are to believe the timeline of the statements. The whole multi-billion forint deal was closed in nine days, possibly fewer, and the owners convinced the Hungarian Competition Authority to give its blessing to the deal in another eight days. An amazing feat, especially if we consider that there were three weekends in the seventeen days between October 8 and October 25.

plt

Instead of getting involved with the checkered history of the Opimus Group, let’s concentrate on what investigative journalists have managed to learn so far about the background of the sale of Mediaworks. I should say, for starters, that I have no doubt that the purchase of Mediaworks was orchestrated, most likely Viktor Orbán himself, quite some time ago but that it was only in March 2016 that there was sufficient assurance that the purchase of an expanded Mediaworks would be possible. It was at that time that Opimus moved and established Opimus Media Zrt.

My take on this sordid affair goes along the following lines. Viktor Orbán dearly wanted to acquire Nemzeti Sport, his favorite daily paper. He always has a copy of it in his Volkswagen mini-bus. Apparently, when he is not in Hungary, his office makes sure that he gets a copy of it. And to add Népszabadság to his media empire, or in the worst case to subtract it from the already dwindling media portfolio of his adversaries, must have been a deal clincher.

Mediaworks’ portfolio was impressive even before the addition of the seven regional papers, which are a real goldmine. At the time that Heinrich Pecina of VCP bought up several Hungarian newspapers and magazines in 2014, rumors circulated for weeks that his purchase may serve the interests of the Orbán government. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that turned out to be the case. Perhaps there was already an understanding between Orbán and Pecina two years ago that, after a suitable length of time, a deal could be struck between them. The deal most likely entailed the purchase of the additional papers that took place at the end of September. In support of this hypothesis, in March 2016 nyugat.hu, a liberal online news site, reported that Miklós Szabó, the managing director of Pannon Lapok Társasága (PLT), a company that owned five regional papers, had been fired because he negotiated about the possible sale of the company without the okay of its German owner. That is, he negotiated with someone other than Heinrich Pecina. Once Szabó was gone, negotiations about the sale of PLT to Mediaworks began and were, by the end of September, successfully concluded.

Now comes the big question mark: how could Opimus Group, which is “massively losing money” and lost five billion forints in 2015 alone, buy Mediaworks less than a year later? Apparently a few weeks after the establishment of Opimus Press, the company floated a three-year, 20 million euro bond offering. (The company’s market cap is only about 48 million euros.) According to hvg.hu, so far Opimus hasn’t managed to raise the full amount, but because of rumors about the possible purchase of Mediaworks, the price of Opimus shares on the Budapest Stock Exchange has soared, rewarding stockholders with a gain of 707% in a year. But what, in absolute terms, “soaring” means tells us a lot about the company. Opimus shares currently sell for 46 forints (€0.14 or $0.16). This is the stock’s highest price in the last three years.

By all indications this company should have hit the dust a long time ago. But last December two mysterious investors appeared: Cariati Holding, registered in the Cayman Islands, and TAC from Nigeria. Bloomberg’s description of the former tersely says that the company “does not have any Key Executives recorded.” TAC is “a composite one stop professional and consulting firm providing Professional Services, Business Consulting & Financial Advisory Services to clients in various sectors of the economy.” A strange company to invest in the Hungarian media market. These two companies own 40% of the outstanding Opimus shares.

The suspicion is that behind Opimus is Viktor Orbán’s alter ego, the former gas-fitter now billionaire Lőrinc Mészáros, the ultimate stróman (front man). The Budapest Beacon reported that “Opimus’ new manager, Zoltán Csik, holds leading positions in a number of Mészáros’ business ventures.” Orbán’s dirty tricks are hard to unravel, but I’m sure that investigative journalists will do their best to do just that in the coming days.

October 25, 2016

After an attack on the media, an assault on Energiaklub

Today I will report briefly on some new developments that may add to our understanding of the current political climate in Hungary.

Still about the media

To continue with the sad state of the media. The announcement that Népszava, the daily that proudly calls itself a “szociáldemokrata napilap,” was sold couldn’t have come at a worse time, only a few days after the demise of Népszabadság. The Swiss Marquard Media, which bought the paper, is no stranger to Hungary. It has been present in the Hungarian media market ever since the 1990s. Currently it owns Playboy, Runner’s World, Men’s Health, JOY, and InStyle. In Poland Marquard publishes Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, and Playboy. In addition, the company owns several magazines in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

Népszava will be an odd man out in Marquard’s portfolio, but we should keep in mind that in the 1990s Marquard owned Magyar Hírlap, which in those days was my very favorite Hungarian daily. At that time the editor-in-chief of Magyar Hírlap was the same Péter Németh who is heading Népszava’s editorial team today. He assures us that Jürg Marquard, whom he knows, would never in his life behave the way the private equity financier Heinrich Pecina has. Népszava had some very difficult times in the past, and one can only hope that the paper’s future will be ensured by this purchase. With the disappearance of Népszabadság, Népszava is now the only daily on the left. Mind you, when it comes to their attitudes toward the Orbán government, I see very little difference between the social democratic Népszava and the conservative Magyar Nemzet.

fedel-nelkul

Remaining with the topic of the media. The editorial board of Népszabadság made an absolutely brilliant move. The editorial team of the paper and regular outside contributors decided to write articles for the next issue of a weekly paper called Fedél Nélkül (Without Shelter), which is produced by homeless people and sold on Budapest street corners by about 1,600 of them. The journalists and contributors will take care of the added expenses, and all income from the sale of the papers will go to the licensed distributors of Fedél Nélkül.

There is a new enemy: The Energiaklub

Energiaklub is a well-established NGO concerned with environmental issues and alternative energy sources. It is a fierce opponent of building a new nuclear power plant in Paks. On September 29, 2016, the Baranya Megyei Kormányhivatal, a regional administrative arm of the government, accepted Paks II’s version of the environmental safety of the project. However, some key issues concerning the project are still questionable, and some of the government’s safety claims have no basis in fact. This is at least what Energiaklub and Greenpeace claim. These two organization will appeal the decision. Energiaklub’s experts “are convinced that Paks II will be a polluter” and that “it is dangerous and expensive.” In their opinion, “both in economic and social terms the expansion of nuclear energy is a dead end.”

On October 13 representatives of the National Tax and Customs Administration (NAV) appeared at the offices of Energiaklub. Without much ado or explanation they packed up all documents related to one of Energiaklub’s projects called “Answer to climate change, local climate adaptation.” The leadership of the organization is convinced that “this is the second act of the Norwegian affair” because this particular project is funded by Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein. Orsolya Fülöp, policy director of Energiaklub, believes that NAV’s unexpected visit is not so much against Energiaklub as against Norway.

I, as an outsider, see it differently. I see a connection between Energiaklub’s decision to appeal the verdict of the Baranya Megyei Kormányhivatal on the environmental safety of Paks II and NAV’s sudden interest in one of the organization’s projects. Moreover, the appeal was not the Energiaklub’s only “sin.” They have been calling attention to the corruption that surrounds the Paks II project. According to one of the organization’s energy experts, at least 10% of the projected €12 billion will end up in private pockets. My guess is that the Orbán government had enough of this pesky organization’s criticism of the prime minister’s pet project. Or perhaps they are planning to kill two birds with one stone.

Hungarians and freedom of the press

The Publicus Research Institute came out with a poll* conducted between October 11 and 13 which asked 1,000 people about their attitude toward freedom of the media and the suspension of the publication of Népszabadság. The results are surprising. Almost 90% of the Hungarians surveyed consider the existence of an independent press very important and 85% had heard about the suspension of Népszabadság. Two-thirds of the people think that Fidesz has a substantial influence on the media. Moreover, they said that since the collapse of the Kádár regime, government power over the press has never been stronger.

Another surprise is that 43% of the adult population read Népszabadság more or less regularly. Even 37% of Fidesz voters did so. Naturally, MSZP voters were the most faithful readers of the paper (57%), but Jobbik voters were not far behind (47%). Another interesting finding is that more readers were between the ages of 18 and 44 than over 45.

The great majority of the people are convinced that Népszabadság had to be silenced because it criticized the government and Fidesz politicians, or because Fidesz limits the freedom of the press in general, or because it was an opposition paper. Only 22% believe that the reason for the shuttering was financial. So, there is hope.

*The poll was taken for Vasárnapi Hírek. The detailed results can be found on the website of the Publicus Research Institute.

October 15, 2016

Heinrich Pecina, Orbán’s accomplice in the repression of Hungary’s free press

Until recently little was known about Heinrich Pecina, an investment banker and majority owner of Vienna Capital Partners (VCP). His name appeared often enough in the Hungarian media, but he remained a somewhat mysterious character. Now, after the Népszabadság scandal, plenty of information has emerged about the man, none of which is reassuring. His private equity firm specializes in former Soviet bloc countries--Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Russia–as well as China.

Pecina worked for the famed Creditanstalt before establishing VCP in 1998. Ten years later the firm was making more than two billion euros a year by buying, restructuring, and selling large companies in Eastern Europe. One of Pecina’s business ventures in Hungary was the takeover of BorsodChem (2001), which was not without controversy. VCP was suspected of secretly acting on behalf of Gazprom. At least this is what a Soviet dissident think tank, The Jamestown Foundation, claimed.

Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy ordered an investigation, which found no wrongdoing. But it is true that Pecina acquired BorsodChem from Mihail Rahimkulov, a Russian-born Hungarian businessman of Tatar origin, who at one point was a Gazprom executive and still is one of the large shareholders of that Russian company. By 2010 VCP and another private equity company, after some fancy financial footwork, sold 38% of BorsodChem (and an option to buy the remaining shares within two years) to the Chinese Wanhua Group, a chemical company that is the world’s largest producer of isocyanate. For Pecina, Népszabadság is small potatoes.

The alleged illegality of some of Pacina’s complicated business ventures eventually caught up with him. While the drama of Népszabadság was playing out in Budapest, Heinrich Pecina was sitting in a Klagenfurt courtroom as a defendant in connection with a share sale of Hypo-Alpe-Adria Bank to Bayern LB. He and the president of the Hypo-Alpe-Adria Bank are jointly accused of embezzlement and illegal business practices. Pecina already admitted in July to writing three phony receipts for 4.3 million euros. VPC also produced “expert studies” of questionable worth in return for millions from the president of the Hypo-Alpe-Adria Bank.

pecina

In 2014 Pecina moved into the Hungarian media market, buying the Swiss Ringier’s Mediaworks, which owned Népszabadság, Világgazdaság, and Nemzeti Sport, as well as regional newspapers and a printing business. About two weeks ago VCP also purchased 12 regional papers with 1,150 employees. An earlier attempt to merge these two holdings was vetoed by the Hungarian Competition Authority, but once Pecina was behind the deal the Hungarian government gave its blessing to the purchase. The Austrian Kurier is convinced that “the Orbán government gave the green light in exchange for silencing the annoying, anti-government Népszabadság” and that Heinrich Pecina had no compunctions about being part of this dirty deal.

As the days go by we are learning more details of Pecina’s involvement with Mediaworks and specifically with Népszabadság. Until recently a foundation of the socialist party owned 27.6% of Népszabadság. The former president of the foundation, László Kránitz, admitted that, although they tried to find out whose “stróman” Pecina was, they were unsuccessful. He also claimed that the losses accrued by Népszabadság were partially due to the purchase of a state-of-the-art printing press during the Ringier period. Another questionable business decision was to move the offices of Népszabadság to a high-end commercial site, the Mediaworks Tower, where the rent was extremely high. In fact, rent for a single month would have covered a full year of maintenance and utilities for Népszabadság‘s own building. Moreover, the contract was for ten years. In the event the contract was broken, as it was, the fine was three-years’ rent. The state-owned MKB Bank provided the guarantee to the tune of two million euros.

Some of Pecina’s employees at Mediaworks were not ready to lend their names to this deal between a financier of dubious reputation and the thoroughly corrupt Viktor Orbán. The Mediaworks employee who was in charge of the affairs of Népszabadság refused to execute the orders from above and quit even before the paper was shuttered. So Mediaworks assigned a new man to the job, who was supposed to negotiate with the editor-in-chief. But he “became ill” and didn’t show. The next day he discovered that his illness was grave enough to warrant quitting his job altogether. Now we have a new man, Tamás Door, who was the marketing director of the firm. I wonder how long he will last.

Today being Thursday, journalists could listen to a performance by János Lázár, accompanied by Zoltán Kovács, who has lately become a television personality with his interviews on BBC and CNN. Naturally Népszabadság was a hot topic. Lázár expressed his puzzlement that there are people who want the Orbán government to save the paper with taxpayer forints. As far as I know, no such demand was ever expressed by anyone anywhere. But he admitted that there were some very good Népszabadság journalists whose articles he enjoyed reading. He will miss them. He also had the decency to express his disapproval of how the paper was shut down. As for the accusations that the government had anything to do with the demise of the paper, Lázár’s sarcastic answer was: “Between 2010 and 2014 Fidesz managed to get a two-thirds majority despite the Népszabadság‘s  ‘beneficial’ activities.” Thus, Fidesz had no political reasons to close the doors of the paper.

Even conservative media outlets have offered help to the journalists who are in limbo. Magyar Nemzet, HírTV, and Lánchíd Rádió offered them the opportunity to publish articles and op-ed pieces and to participate in TV programs, which was a nice gesture. The cultural and press attachés of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest visited the journalists, who are now in a small temporary editorial office. On the Embassy’s Facebook page the First Amendment appears in both languages:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Among the comments I read: “Isn’t it interesting that the amendments to the American Constitution were always for the widening of freedom while all the amendments to the Hungarian Fundamental Law point in exactly the opposite direction?

October 13, 2016

Népszabadság: From an emblematic paper to memory hole

People have been clamoring for more details about the demise of Népszabadság, Hungary’s leading independent paper. The story is complicated.

András Hont, in an opinion piece that appeared in HVG yesterday, said that “there is something grotesque in the fact that the burial of the former official daily paper of MDP and MSZMP has become the symbol of an attack on press freedom. But a fact remains a fact.” MDP or Magyar Dolgozók Pártja was the official name of Hungary’s communist party, which during the uprising of October 1956 changed its name to MSZMP or Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt. During the Rákosi regime the paper was called Szabad Nép (Free People), and this official organ was so intensely hated that its huge headquarters was practically demolished during the revolution. The new party paper was named Népszabadság (People’s Freedom). For a couple of years the party pretended that Népszabadság had nothing to do with Szabad Nép, but on February 1, 1958 the paper accepted the heritage of its predecessor and proudly displayed its 16 years of existence.

For me, who for years received Népszabadság thanks to my parents who thought I should know what’s going on in Hungary, the very name of the paper sent shivers down my spine. Therefore, after the third republic was declared and I discovered that Népszabadság hadn’t changed its name, I was upset. After a while, however, I was persuaded that Népszabadság was a brand name and a pretty good brand name at that. It had a large subscription base. People were accustomed to it. Although in the first few years a lot of papers came and went, the old well-established papers like Népszabadság, Népszava, Magyar Nemzet, and Magyar Hírlap remained. None of them changed their names, although all of them had to conform to the dictates of MSZMP before 1990.

On October 7, 1989 Népszabadság ceased being the official paper of MSZMP. Shortly afterwards it was sold to Bertelsmann AG and later, in 2003, to the Ringier Group. Throughout, a foundation of MSZP had a 27.65% stake in the paper; the association of the employees had a 1.42% stake. In 2014 Ringier sold Népszabadság to Vienna Capital Partners, which already owned several other newspapers and magazines in Hungary under the name Mediaworks Hungary Zrt, which was described as “the country’s right-wing media establishment.” A year later, in June, the financially strapped MSZP sold its shares to Mediaworks. With that move Népszabadság’s fate was sealed.

Shutting down Népszabadság’s operation doesn’t make the slightest sense in economic terms, especially in light of all the development efforts that had been initiated lately. Management was planning to strengthen the paper’s internet presence. In recent months, it hired many well-known journalists. Moreover, last year the paper actually made a 134 million forint (€440,568) profit, although it is true that in the two previous years it suffered substantial losses. But Mediaworks as a whole certainly wasn’t hurting. Only a month ago it purchased Pannon Lapok Társaság (PLT), which owned Fejér Megyei Hírlap, Napló, Vas Népe, Zalai Hírlap, Dunaújvárosi Hírlap, and several county online news sites.

So, what’s going on? 444.hu offered the most plausible explanation of this high-level maneuvering, most likely by Viktor Orbán himself, to get hold of a large chunk of the Hungarian print and internet media by buying Mediaworks. According to the information 444.hu received, Viktor Orbán had been eyeing the company as a target for some time, but he didn’t want Népszabadság to be part of the deal. Fidesz bigwigs thought that if Népszabadság ended up in the hands of an overtly pro-Fidesz oligarch it would cause too great a scandal. After all, Népszabadság is the emblematic independent paper of Hungary. Therefore, an agreement was reached that the sellers should simply stop the publication altogether before the actual sale of Mediaworks to the chosen Fidesz front man.

To complicate an already complicated story I have to say something about Vienna Capital Partners’ recent purchase of PLT. Isn’t it odd that a private equity company that is in the middle of negotiations to sell a company it owns decides to buy several newspapers to add to the company’s portfolio? Such a move makes sense only if the buyer made this enlargement of the portfolio a condition of the sale. It is common knowledge that Fidesz wants to have influence over regional papers, which are more widely read than the large national dailies. Since the German owner of PLT, Funke Mediengruppe, didn’t want to deal directly with overtly Fidesz companies, Mediaworks did the government a favor for what was undoubtedly good money.

Who is the buyer? There is a good possibility that it is Lőrinc Mészáros through a company established in April that raised €20 million from investors.

I don’t know why the Fidesz leadership thought that the sale of Népszabadság to one of the Fidesz oligarchs would cause a greater scandal than the paper’s liquidation. The international scandal was unavoidable in either case, but the choice of stopping publication and especially denying access to the paper’s internet archives was even more disastrous from the government’s point of view. It has further damaged the reputation of the Hungarian government just before Viktor Orbán, after the failed referendum, tries to convince Jean-Claude Juncker of the correctness of his position vis-à-vis the European Union.

Finally, a few words about the obvious sign of political motives in this case: closing Népszabadság‘s online archives. The government doesn’t want anyone to be able to read even past articles written by the staff of Népszabadság. Viktor Orbán wants to obliterate everything connected with that paper. He wants to change history. He wants to change the past, at least by omission. This calls to mind George Orwell’s memory hole in Nineteen Eighty-Four:

In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages; to the left, a larger one of newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.

memory-hole

A memory hole is described as “the alteration or outright disappearance of inconvenient or embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts, or other records, such as from a web site or other archive.” Or as another definition of ‘memory hole’ points out, it is “an attempt to give the impression that something never happened.” Viktor Orbán, if he was the one who came up with the idea to shut down Népszabadság and create a “memory hole,” made a very big mistake.

October 9, 2016

 

 

Love at Christmas time in Hungary

Gusztáv Megyesi, whom Péter Esterházy described as the best Hungarian journalist of our time, wrote his usual weekly opinion piece in Népszabadság, which happened to appear on Christmas Eve. Normally, Megyesi’s pieces are very funny, but this time the topic was somber. He described a couple in their early thirties who had just purchased a 5 kg box of laundry detergent and a 2-liter container of fabric softener as presents for the woman’s mother. She asked the store to wrap them, adorned with golden ribbon. The store employee said to her: “Are you serious?” Yes, she was serious: everybody gets practical gifts because whatever they get, they need badly. They have three children, which they didn’t plan on, but fate surprised them with twins. The husband is a bricklayer and she is on family assistance with the little ones. There is very little money. Although on some family programs there was a lot of talk about the evils of the consumer society and that what really counts is love and thoughtfulness, unfortunately grandma wouldn’t be terribly pleased with a walnut painted silver for the Christmas tree. This laundry detergent she herself couldn’t afford is enough for a whole year. For her, it is either food or detergent. The other members of the family also got much needed articles, like socks and shirts from the MDF market where they sell cheap Chinese imports.

This article infuriated right-wingers. One early commenter called it “vomit on Christmas Day.” According to another, “it is outrageous that someone is unable to put aside what he does all year.” A third person considered the article nothing more than a “mockery of Jesus” because Megyesi talked about the “propagation of Hungarians” in connection with László Kövér’s infamous reference to women’s duty to produce grandchildren for his generation. In general, all right-wingers agreed that Megyesi was mocking not only Jesus and reproduction but also the struggling middle class. Another shining light of the right found the word mockery insufficient to describe Megyesi’s attitude. Instead, he talked about the “hatred of Jesus.” The most interesting comment came from “szalkai,” who would give Megyesi only a silver medal in the hate-speech category because the gold surely must go to Origo, which published an interview with Krisztián Ungváry, the historian, under the headline: “There was a Hungarian soldier who killed voluntarily.” He was referring to Ungváry’s latest book, Hungarian Occupying Forces in the Soviet Union, 1941-1944.

Today Megyesi, back to his usual funny self, decided to comment on the commenters. His latest piece is titled “Holiday drudgery” (Ünnepi robot). In historical times “robot” was work that had to be performed by the serfs for the landlords, but in a modern setting it means very hard, repetitive, boring work. Megyesi can’t understand what these commenters were doing on Christmas Eve when for hours on end they were commenting on his and on each other’s comments instead of devoting themselves to their families. One comment after the other appeared from early evening until midnight. “The government must know about this. When other Hungarians, among them even the unbelieving liberals, suddenly come to their senses and devote every minute to the family, these unfortunate souls spend the Holy Night reading Népszabadság articles…. While the real Christians are already at midnight mass, they still brood over the Hungarian-hating liberals who insult the family and dishonor Jesus and the devout Hungarian people. It’s almost as if many little Antal Rogáns were pounding on the keys.” Such diligence should be rewarded, and Megyesi hopes that the government will give them an extra Holy-Night bonus.

Those were the days

Those were the days

At the end of the piece Megyesi recalls an article of his that appeared at the beginning of the Advent season when he noted that in the nativity scene the government set up in front of the parliament building the Child was missing because after all he wasn’t born until the 25th. But then, he asked, what are the Magi, the angels, and the lambs doing there? After all, they couldn’t have known that a month later Jesus would be born. At that time “the commenters didn’t get involved with such complicated thoughts about the hatred of Christians, they simply called me a Jew.”

And finally another interesting story. This is about an interview conducted by Sándor Révész, which also appeared in Népszabadság on December 26. It was an interview with Mihály Dés, who until recently was better known in the Spanish-speaking world than in Hungary. Before he left Hungary in 1986 he worked as a freelance translator of authors like Jorge Luis Borge, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortázar, Garcia Márquez, and Vargas Llosa. In 1986 he settled in Barcelona where he became well known as a writer of short stories and editor of the most influential Spanish-language periodical, Lateral. He returned to Hungary, and his first novel ever–Baroque á la Pest (Pesti barokk), which appeared in 2013–became a bestseller. In any case, at the end of the interview there is a short passage which, as we will see, greatly bothered a far-right contributor to Magyar Hírlap. It goes like this: “Viktor Orbán is only a final product. This is what came out of the body of the nation after a painful digestive process. This dictator was not foisted upon us from the outside; he is the result of self-development. Hungarian society, especially the elite, is responsible for his appearance.”

The reaction was swift. Four days later Pál Dippolt, a writer who slowly moved further and further to the right until he now regularly contributes to the far-right newspaper Magyar Hírlap, wrote an essay titled “They hate.” I have no idea whether Dippolt is a good writer or not, but he certainly has a chip on his shoulder when he accuses his liberal colleagues of not considering him a writer because he doesn’t “belong to their filthy canon, can’t brag about [his] past full of knavery and [doesn’t] spew hatred all around.” Of course, Dippolt’s real problem is Dés’s less than complimentary description of Viktor Orbán as the final product of a painful digestive process. “These are vile, filthy, lying sentences. They insult and vilify everybody who doesn’t follow the unbelievably conceited muck-raking elite of Budapest. If it were a real dictatorship here, the bodies of Révész and Dés would be dangling on the lampposts of Andrássy, pardon, the Road of the People’s Republic. Their only decoration, as poison-dropping traitors, would be the Colombian necktie.” In case some of you, like me originally, have no idea what a Colombian necktie is, you should get acquainted with the term. After a man’s throat is cut, his tongue is pulled through the opening.

In the first story what struck me was the right-wing commenters’ refusal to face the facts of life. At Christmas to talk about poverty, hardship, and hunger shouldn’t be done. One should simply talk about love of one’s fellow man without being reminded of the darker sides of love. Just devote yourself to your closest family and forget about everything else. And if one does write something honest, as Megyesi did, he does something that is almost against the wishes of the Almighty. On the other hand, someone like Dippolt who “doesn’t spew hatred all around” in his Christian purity envisages bodies dangling on lampposts with their throats cut. He accuses his adversaries of hatred and, by the end of his article, points his finger at himself. Quite a feat.