Tag Archives: Népszava

The state of the Hungarian press on World Press Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 4, 2017

Népszava, the social democratic daily, is in socialist hands again

Among the many pieces of bad news both inside and outside of Hungary, I am happy to report a good piece of news. It looks as if Népszava, Hungary’s oldest continuously published newspaper, has been saved. The paper was struggling financially because it received practically no advertisement from either government or private sources. The Orbán government systematically punishes independent media outlets, and private companies heavily dependent on the government’s goodwill are afraid to appear as sponsors.

Népszava was originally the official paper of the Magyarországi Szociáldemokrata Párt (MSZDP). After the communist takeover in 1948, it was relegated to being the paper of the Hungarian trade unions. Since 2005 Népszava has described itself as a “social democratic daily.”

Next year Népszava will celebrate its 144th birthday, marking a long but often difficult life. Perhaps the most tragic event in its history was the murder of the paper’s editor-in-chief Béla Somogyi and his young assistant Béla Bacsó by officers of Miklós Horthy’s National Army in the fall of 1919. Between the two world wars the paper was often silenced because of its critical attitude toward the government. But there were also many triumphs. For example, when Endre Ady wrote a poem to the paper titled “Küldöm a frigy-ládát” (I am sending the Ark of the Covenant). Over the years Népszava had working relations with some of Hungary’s greatest writers and poets, like Endre Ady, Attila József, Gyula Juhász, and Mihály Babits. In 2003, when Népszava was 130 years old, Péter Németh, the current-editor-in-chief, put together a brief history of the paper which is available on the internet. It is hard to imagine Hungary without Népszava.

But let’s return to the recent woes of the paper. About four months ago we heard that Népszava had at last found a buyer. The story is complicated, as always seems to be the case with Hungarian business transactions. According to Magyar Nemzet, the publication rights of the paper were to be sold to Marquard Media International, a company headquartered in Switzerland. Marquard is already present in the Hungarian media market as the owner of Joy, Playboy, and Éva Magazin. Péter Németh, the editor-in-chief, was elated. “I know Jürg Marquard from my days at Magyar Hírlap,” Németh said, “and I find it inconceivable that he would purchase Népszava in order to shutter it,” referring, of course, to the demise of Népszabadság.

János Dési, the former deputy editor-in-chief of Népszava, wasn’t that optimistic. He remembered only too well that in the early 1990s Marquand managed to ruin the liberal Magyar Hírlap. According to Dési, for a few months after the purchase all was well, but then Marquard began pressuring the staff to move toward the right. Marquard didn’t seem to know anything about Hungarian politics because, during 1993 and early 1994, it was obvious that the right-of-center government would be very badly beaten at the forthcoming election. Yet Marquard insisted and fired Péter Németh, who was then the editor-in-chief of Magyar Hírlap. Soon after that Marquand sold Magyar Hírlap to János Fenyő, who, according to Dési, was the only good and caring owner of the paper until his murder by an unknown assailant in 1998.

Soon enough the story of the sale changed. It wasn’t Marquard Media that was buying Népszava but XXI Century Invest AG with headquarters in Liechtenstein. In the background, however, one could still find Jürg Marquard who, as it turned out, was one of the owners of the Liechtenstein company. XXI Century was buying not only Népszava but also Vasárnapi Hírek and Szabad Föld, a weekly that is still very popular among farmers. In the eighties it had at least half a million subscribers and, to my astonishment, its paid readership today is close to 130,000. It may reach as many as 400,000 people. Currently, all three papers are owned by Geomedia Kiadói Zrt.

Months went by. With the exception of the brief news item about the purchase by XXI Century nothing more was heard about the deal until today, when a statement appeared on Vasárnapi Hírek’s website. It announced that “in order to preserve the spirit of the remaining independent newspapers” the earlier contract with XXI Century Invest had been broken due to non-payment. Instead, the three papers were sold to Horizont Handels und Industrie AG with headquarters in Vienna. Horizont is owned by László Puch and Dénes Simon.

Puch’s name is well known because of the important positions he held in MSZP ever since 1992. He was the party’s strongman in Baranya County, he was a member of parliament between 1994 and 2014, and he became notorious as the treasurer of MSZP. Since political parties are inadequately funded in Hungary, a lot of most likely illegal funds flow into party coffers. In MSZP these funds were handled by Puch. About Dénes Simon I know only that he is a businessman who earlier worked as a “political expert” for MSZP. He is a very good friend and close business partner of Puch.

According to Antónia Rádai of Átlátszó, Geomedia discovered that XXI Century Invest’s lawyer is also the lawyer of András Tombor, who “lent” the money to Árpád Habony to start his Modern Media Group, which publishes 888.hu and Riposzt. That discovery must have frightened the few socialists with money. They decided to rescue the three publications, which as a package might actually be profitable because of Szabad Föld. Puch announced that the supervision of the company will remain in the hands of the current management of Geomedia. Otherwise, he is hoping that Népszava, by now the only left-wing daily in Hungary, will be able to expand its staff in the future, giving job opportunities to some of those unemployed journalists from the defunct Népszabadság.

This must be a nice Christmas present for the staffs of Népszava and Vasárnapi Hírek. Let’s hope that Népszava’s troubles are over for a while. At least one doesn’t have to worry about some Orbán stróman buying the paper for the sole purpose of destroying it.

December 20, 2016

János Lázár gives an interview to a left-wing paper

Today I will try something that may not meet with the approval of the Hungarian journalistic community. I will critically analyze Ágnes Fazekas’s interview in Népszava with János Lázár on November 5. The occasion for the interview was Népszava’s boycott of Lázár’s weekly two-hour-long press conferences.

The reason for the boycott is not entirely clear. On October 12 Népszava joined nine other media outlets in protesting the shuttering of Népszabadság. At that time some commentators pointed out that these séances, as one commentator called the Thursday afternoon performances, have no real news value. Moreover, in the last two years Lázár and his loyal spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, have learned the art of outfoxing the often timid journalists. In brief, one doesn’t miss much by not attending.

Well, Népszava didn’t show up at some of these press conferences and Lázár expressed his dismay at the absence of the paper’s reporter. On the spot he promised to phone the editorial office of the paper in order, I guess, to convince them to return. By the end there was no need for the telephone call because Lázár bumped into Népszava’s reporter in the parliament building. She told him that the reason for her absence was Lázár’s lack of frankness when answering the journalists’ questions. At the same time she invited him for an interview, which he somewhat unexpectedly accepted.

János Lázár / Source: Népszava

János Lázár / Source: Népszava

Ágnes Fazekas reminded Lázár that the decision to boycott the “government info” was made by the editorial board because Lázár’s answers to their reporter’s questions were not “sincere.” The word “truthful” would have been more appropriate, but I guess she felt she had to tread lightly. Lázár was “hurt.” The prime minister had tasked him with answering all of the questions to the best of his knowledge. He said he has been trying to answer all questions correctly. He didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but if he did, he apologizes. The reporter dropped the topic instantly, adding that “it’s nice that you want us back.” This response set the tone for the conversation that followed. Once the reporter let Lázár off the hook and didn’t probe into the untrue statements that are the hallmarks of these press conferences Lázár had every reason to relax.

After Lázár’s high praise of the journalistic profession and an empty statement about the necessity of a good working relationship between politicians and the media, Fazekas complained only about Lázár’s “cynical answers to their questions.” For example, when the reporter of Népszava asked him about the dispersal of advertising money among the media outlets, Lázár referred him to the agencies responsible for the decisions when it is clear that the final word comes from the government. Her use of the word “cynical” is misplaced here. What she should have said was that Lázár didn’t tell the truth. Cynicism means “an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity,” which is a far cry from what happened. Lázár not only denied the obvious but in the interview itself claimed that advertising money from government sources is strictly allocated according to the size of the readership. That is not cynicism; that is a blatant lie. Servile media outlets get advertising money galore despite having very small circulations while papers critical of the government get practically nothing.

The next topic was the case of Ghaith Pharaon, the infamous Saudi businessman, and his activities in Hungary. But again, instead of going to the heart of the matter Fazekas complained only about the timing of the release of the information. Again the real problem here is not that Lázár “as the minister responsible for intelligence matters should have talked about the case earlier” but that the information he gave was inaccurate. And, to compound the problem, he added another piece of misinformation in this interview. “As far as I know, he as a private person hasn’t engaged in any economic activity in Hungary.” I assume Lázár is trying to distinguish between Pharaon the individual and Pharaon’s businesses. But in this context the distinction is sophistical. Lázár also assured Fazekas that there was no national security risk as far as Pharaon’s stay in Hungary was concerned, another doubtful assertion given the man’s past dealings with terrorist organizations.

Instead of following up, Fazekas asked a government-friendly question, whether George Soros is a greater national security risk than Ghaith Pharaon. That turn in the conversation allowed Lázár to drop the uncomfortable subject of the Saudi businessman’s affairs in Hungary and turn to immigration and Hungary’s opposition to it.

Fazekas then returned to the question of the media. Fazekas wanted to know “when will the government settle its relations with the left-wing media?” This question seems too broad to me, but Lázár seemed to have known what the reporter meant and announced that “this is a very difficult question.” What Népszava’s journalist had in mind was Fidesz’s boycott of independent organs critical of the government. On this score not even Lázár could offer soothing words to Fazekas. Politics in Hungary is a death struggle, he said, but he himself tries to bring some humor and generosity to political discourse. He is hoping that after 2018 this situation will change. Fazekas didn’t remind Lázár that Hungarians had heard such promises before, except then the date was 2014. Why should anyone believe that after 2018 anything will change? Instead of posing this obvious question, she magnanimously laid out Népszava’s welcome mat for Fidesz politicians. Lázár graciously accepted the invitation and promised to pass it on, I assume to the prime minister.

I’ve pretty much summed up this interview, which was described as important because Fidesz politicians, with very few exceptions, don’t give interviews to independent papers. The list of newspapers on the blacklist is getting longer and longer.

Certainly, by western standards this interview is unsatisfactory, not at all hard-hitting, but I assume that self-censorship was at work. The reporter was so pleased that she had finally managed to have an interview with János Lázár that she didn’t want to alienate him. Unfortunately, this is how things work in an “illiberal state” where media freedom is severely constrained.

November 18, 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

Viktor Orbán shut down Hungary’s leading opposition paper

By now the whole world knows that Hungary’s leading daily newspaper, Népszabadság, is no more. Although the Budapest correspondents of Reuters and the Associated Press pointed out that the newspaper has lost $18.4 million since 2007, don’t allow yourselves to be fooled. Mediaworks, which owns Népszabadság, makes plenty of money on its other publications, including several profitable regional papers and the popular Nemzeti Sport.

Fidesz may say that it considers “the suspension [of Népszabadság] a rational economic decision,” but ceasing publication altogether is not considered to be an economically sound choice for solving the financial woes of a business venture. Reorganization, restructuring, reducing the size of the workforce–these are some of the most often used instruments to salvage a company. Suspending publication, by contrast, can be a costly affair. There are most likely contracts in force to print the paper for the next few months, and what about the 30,000 some subscribers who will not receive their daily paper on Monday? No, closing the doors of Népszabadság has nothing to do with economics. It is a sordid political maneuver executed by the far-right, dictatorial leader of a country that can no longer be called a democracy.

The hypocritical prime minister wants us believe that “it would be a violation of the freedom of the press if [Fidesz] would intervene in the affairs of the owner of the media,” but it is almost certain that this sudden move was orchestrated by Viktor Orbán himself. Just as we learned only recently that he had been the one who handed down the order to investigate Ökotárs, the civic group responsible for the dispersion of the Norway Funds, two years ago. He lied then as he does now. At the time of the raid on Ökotárs, he was asked whether he played any role in that shameful affair. He denied it, adding that if he had done so, it would have been a crime. Now we have the proof. We know that the prime minister of Hungary, by his own admission, committed a crime in 2014. And I suspect that he did so again while working to eliminate a paper that must have nettled him, especially lately. I wonder what his next step will be in his quest to destroy all independent media outlets. He has been at it for some time, but earlier he didn’t use such heavy-handed and so openly dictatorial methods. By now, it seems, he no longer cares about even the semblance of legality and media freedom.

Darkness, Thomas Toft / flickr

Darkness, Thomas Toft / flickr

In the last few months rumors were flying that the government was trying to buy, through some middleman, Mediaworks, currently owned by Vienna Capital Partners, a private equity firm. In June 2016 Népszava, the oldest Hungarian socialist newspaper, learned that Heinrich Pecina, the majority owner, asked for a meeting with Viktor Orbán. Interestingly, the Hungarian prime minister had no compunctions about negotiating with the owner of Népszabadság concerning the possible sale of the paper. Népszava at that point believed that the “buyer” would be the mysterious “adviser” of Viktor Orbán, Árpád Habony, who is most likely Orbán’s “stróman,” as a front man is called in Hungarian. Others suspected Lőrinc Mészáros, who is usually described as the ultimate “stróman,” the alter ego of the prime minister whose newly acquired fabulous wealth is only partly his. The employees of Népszabadság were living under the constant threat that they would end up in the street and be replaced by a new pro-government owner, just as happened to Magyar Hírlap in 2004 when Ringier, an international media group with headquarters in Switzerland, sold the paper to Gábor Széles, a billionaire with far-right political views.

The journalists working for the paper might have had their forebodings, but I’m sure they never dreamed of such an abrupt and barbarous end to their paper. The question is what made Orbán set aside all niceties and finesse and show his true ruthless self. It seems that the straw that broke the camel’s back was a recent series of investigative articles that appeared in the paper about Hungarian National Bank Chairman György Matolcsy and Antal Rogán, the propaganda minister.

The paper reported that Matolcsy’s lover, while working for the bank, received an inordinately high salary. And once she left the bank, Matolcsy placed her in lucrative positions at some of the bank’s foundations, which serve as conduits to transform the “profits” of Hungary’s central bank from public to private funds.

As it turned out, that was not the end of the Matolcsy story. Since Matolcsy is in the middle of divorcing his wife, he needed an apartment. Soon enough he found just the right one. A lovely, very expensive apartment in the Castle District of Buda. The only problem is that the apartment belongs to the president of the Hungarian branch of Unicredit, Mihály Patai, who is currently the chairman of the Banking Association. Considering that György Matolcsy is heading the very institution that has a supervisory function over the Hungarian banking system, this whole arrangement is highly unethical and suggests a conflict of interest. Népszabadság had begun to investigate possible favors extended by the central bank to Unicredit.

That was bad enough, but then came another story, this time about Antal Rogán, whose extravagant lifestyle and questionable financial dealings have been the talk of the town for a long time. Népszabadság learned that Rogán, his wife, and one of their sons traveled in princely fashion to a wedding. They used a helicopter. Well, I guess nothing is wrong about traveling by helicopter to a wedding if you have enough money, but the story was not so simple. First, Rogán denied the whole thing–until he was confronted with a photo showing him heading toward the helicopter. At this point he switched his story and talked about a kind friend who generously gave him a ride back from the wedding. A day later it turned out that he had used the helicopter both to go to and to return from the wedding. Lies, lies, lies.

Well, these two or three embarrassing stories about people who are perhaps the closest associates of Viktor Orbán were too much for the mafia boss. He gave the order: shut them down! After all, he had no idea what else those two or three journalists who had worked on the stories know. And what paper that wants to live another day will hire them to continue their work? Shutting down Népszabadság doesn’t merely have a chilling effect; it puts Hungarian investigative journalism into a deep freeze.

Viktor Orbán is a vengeful, vindictive, malevolent man who doesn’t forget and who is ready to pursue his victims until they are utterly destroyed. There is no mercy once he decides that somebody is an enemy. At the top of his enemy list are Gábor Iványi, the kind minister of the Hungarian Methodists; Ibolya Dávid, whom he blames for his lost election in 2006; and Ferenc Gyurcsány, who had the temerity to win a television debate against him. And then there are the other lesser-known victims who at one time or the other stood in his way: they often languish in jail for months or years on trumped-up charges. One could go on and on.

Finally, let me quote a bitter Facebook note by Mária Vásárhely, a media expert: “Thank you, European Union. It matters not how painful it is, but it must be said that without you Hungary wouldn’t have ended up where it is now. If you didn’t finance the building and functioning of Orbán’s dictatorship, the whole edifice would have crumbled already. It doesn’t matter how painful it is to point out, but the destruction of Népszabadság, one of the last bastions of press freedom, was purchased with the immense amount of money you have poured into the country and which is now being used by the criminal oligarchs of a criminal state.”

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of truth in this bitter note.

October 8, 2016

Is Viktor Orbán spying on his closest associates?

One doesn’t need a lot of imagination to picture the behind-the-scenes personal rivalries among government and party officials even in the best of circumstances. But lately, when the whole carefully built edifice is crumbling, these rivalries are accompanied by fear. A commentator recently called the panic that must have gripped the whole corrupt lot of Fidesz politicians “dread.”

Viktor Orbán is still the prime minister of Hungary, but he has been greatly weakened by the events of the last five months. While earlier no high official would ever dare to criticize him, today János Lázár, the chief contender for the job, openly faults the prime minister for certain decisions. The same is true about one of Orbán’s oldest friends, László Kövér, who made some critical remarks about the people with whom the prime minister surrounds himself nowadays. The mess that Orbán created in the wake of the collapse of the Quaestor Group must have strengthened dissatisfaction with his leadership within the party. In turn, it seems, Orbán’s paranoia, which is part of his psychological makeup anyway, has grown to such an extent that apparently members of his “personal army,” the Terrorelhárítási Központ or TEK, are instructed to report to him on his closest associates and friends.

TEK, the Anti-Terrorism Center, was created in 2010, a few months after Viktor Orbán became prime minister. In addition to combating terrorism that is, thankfully, not really a threat in Hungary, the TEK super-policemen were supposed to be responsible for the protection of President János Áder, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and László Kövér, president of the parliament. TEK is very generously endowed, and the members of this elite force get much higher pay than ordinary policemen. The protection they afford the top officials is extensive. The detail that was supposed to protect President János Áder had 80 members. Anyone who’s interested in TEK should take a look at an older post, “A brief history of the Hungarian anti-terrorist center.”

It looks, however, as if neither László Kövér nor János Áder wants members of TEK snooping around them. Kövér handled the situation by creating a separate guard for the protection of the parliament (Országgyűlési Őrség) that would also take care of his and his family’s personal safety. Now, as of April 1, János Áder decided that he had enough of Orbán’s spies following him everywhere, especially after he realized that his old friend Viktor Orbán knew about some of his meetings that were not on his official schedule. Áder has every reason to be worried because, as Kim Lane Scheppele remarked in one of her articles that appeared in Paul Krugman’s blog in The New York Times, “TEK has amassed truly Orwellian powers, including virtually unlimited powers of secret surveillance and secret data collection.” That includes secret wiretapping. So, if Áder suspects Orbán using TEK as a vehicle to spy on him, he can’t even be sure that his telephone calls are not monitored.

According to information received by Vasárnapi Hírek, Áder has for some time been trying to get rid of TEK. A few months ago he suggested setting up a separate unit to look after his safety, but that idea was apparently vetoed by Viktor Orbán. Áder didn’t give up, however, and eventually he managed to get rid of TEK by settling for members of the ordinary police force who were trained for the job. This couldn’t have been easy because the law that established TEK had to be changed in order to accommodate the new situation. The change also affected the status of the men who had been assigned to the president. The question was what to do with the extra men who, if dismissed from TEK, would have to return to the ordinary police force with considerably less pay. The problem was solved. From here on they will be responsible for the security of Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor.

President János Áder, an avid fisherman, under TEK's watchful eyes

President János Áder, an avid fisherman, under TEK’s watchful eye

Naturally, the head of TEK denies that it was at the request of Áder that the change was made. He insists that the decision was based solely on professional considerations. But the president must have serious issues with the work of TEK. The deputy director of TEK was supposed to be promoted to brigadier-general on March 15, but Áder vetoed the government’s decision.

Áder is loyal to the government, but here and there he shows dissatisfaction with some of the legislation sent to him for his signature. In such cases, he sends the legislation back to parliament for reconsideration. And most of the time the Fidesz parliamentary majority blithely ignores his objections. As Népszava says, “They consider him a puppet. A temporary solution. His humiliation must be intensified when stories circulate from time to time that Viktor Orbán will soon move to the place he now occupies.”

According to rumor, by now Viktor Orbán is so paranoid that about a third of TEK’s job is to spy on the prime minister’s associates whom he considers to be “dangerous.” TEK has, it seems, become Viktor Orbán’s personal spy network used against his alleged enemies. This development, according to Népszava‘s information, created dissatisfaction within TEK. They are so overworked that they often purposely “lose” the subjects they are supposed to track because they find the job demeaning.

No one is willing to speak on record about TEK’s real job, but if the rumors are true, this is “a greater scandal than [Lajos] Simicska’s outburst on ‘black Friday’ because the rupture within Fidesz is much deeper and more widespread than we have suspected.” Viktor Orbán, it should be noted, would be acting within the law in setting up a personal spy network. TEK has such wide powers that it is perfectly legal for the prime minister to use TEK to observe his closest associates, members of parliament, even his neighbors anytime he thinks they are plotting against him.

Although rumors about the real reason for Áder’s change of his secret service unit have been circulating for at least two weeks, the president has not contradicted them, which lends credence to the story. I don’t know whether to be outraged, hopeful, or both.

Vladimir Putin’s impending visit to Budapest

Népszava, a social democratic paper, is generally well-informed about the “secrets” of the government. This time it surprised its readers with a front-page article announcing a planned visit by Vladimir Putin to Budapest sometime in March. Budapest, judiciously spurned by western political leaders of late, is becoming a hub of diplomatic activity. Angela Merkel is scheduled for a five-hour visit on February 2 and now the news about Putin.

The newspaper pointed out that this will not be Putin’s first visit to Budapest. He was the guest of Ferenc Gyurcsány in February 2006 when the Hungarian prime minister supported the idea of the Southern Stream to the great annoyance and disapproval of both the United States and Viktor Orbán. Orbán at that time considered such a policy to be the equivalent of treason. The paper also called attention to Viktor Orbán’s about-face when he paid a visit to Moscow in November 2010 and again in February 2013.

Actually Népszava missed an earlier indication that a change in Russo-Hungarian relations was in the works. In November 2009, prior to his becoming prime minister, during a visit to St. Petersburg as one of the vice presidents of the European People’s Party Orbán attended the eleventh congress of the ruling United Russia Party. During this visit he indicated to Putin that he wanted “to put Russian-Hungarian relations on an entirely new footing.” He had made up his mind to conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy once in power.

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 2014 Source: Europess / Getty Images / Sasha Mordovets

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 2014
Source: Europess / Getty Images / Sasha Mordovets

Perhaps the first person to comment on the news of the visit was László Kovács, former foreign minister, who happened to be a visitor on the early morning program “ATV Start.” He assumes that the initiative for the visit came from Moscow. Zoltán Sz. Bíró, a Russian expert, shares Kovács’s hypothesis. Putin must have been the one to suggest the visit in the hope of convincing Orbán to veto the extension of EU sanctions against Russia, which expire in March. In Biró’s opinion, a veto by Orbán not supported by any other EU country would poison the relationship between Hungary and the West for a very long time. Therefore he doubts that Orbán would dare to go that far.

Attila Ara-Kovács, head of the “foreign cabinet” of the Demokratikus Koalíció, told Klubrádió that he knew about the impending visit for about a week but, according to his information, Putin’s visit will take place not in March, as Népszava reported, but on February 9. In his reading, it was Orbán who invited Putin and not the other way around, perhaps to show the world that he is not alone in his battle with the United States and the European Union. If Orbán sensed that Angela Merkel intended to deliver “bad news” during her stay in Budapest, perhaps a looming visit from Putin might temper her disapproval. Ara-Kovács considers this latest move of Orbán a provocation that will only add fuel to the fire in the strained relationship between Hungary and the West.

What are the reactions of the opposition parties? As usual, MSZP is hibernating. Not a word from József Tóbiás, the party chairman, or from anyone else. Együtt somewhat naively demands that the government consult with all parliamentary parties “in preparing the meeting between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Russian president.” Együtt can wait for such a consultation. Együtt joined LMP in its opposition to the construction of the Paks2 nuclear power plant. Both parties want the government, during the prime minister’s meeting with Putin, to break its contract for a 10-billion-euro Russian loan to have Rossatom build the plant. Well, that will not happen either but it is possible, as Zoltán Sz. Biró suspects, that Russia for financial reasons will give up the idea of the project. PM’s reaction was the most sensible: the party would like to see a huge demonstration against Putin’s visit organized by all the democratic opposition parties as well as by the civic groups that were responsible for the recent mass demonstrations.

László Szily, the blogger of Cink.hu, correctly pointed out that, if it is true that Putin is coming to Budapest, Viktor Orbán just did those who have been expressing their anger against his regime in the last few months a huge favor. The most recent demonstration showed signs of fatigue, but Putin in Budapest could resurrect the old enthusiasm of the crowds and just might unite the hitherto anti-party civic groups and the democratic parties into one large and potent group. Moreover, too cozy a Russian-Hungarian friendship might cause a rift within Fidesz itself. A lot of Fidesz voters are adamantly anti-Russian.  In Szily’s words, “The vacillating opposition on the streets can be grateful to the prime minister because kowtowing to Russia, parading with the dictator is the kind of event that could successfully bring together the dissatisfied left, right, and liberal public.”

One party was elated by the news: Jobbik. This afternoon Jobbik published an official statement, the theme of which was “Hungary must represent the interests of peace and neutrality.” Márton Gyöngyösi, the party’s foreign policy expert, said that Jobbik is a supporter of Viktor Orbán’s “eastern opening” and “considers Russia an economic, political and cultural partner of Hungary.” Budapest, because of the Hungarian minority in the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine, shouldn’t side with its western allies. Gyöngyösi went even further than the rather subdued official statement when he told Hiradó, the organ of state propaganda, that “it is unacceptable that the Hungarian government, blindly representing western interests, is ready to throw the Subcarpathian Hungarians as bones to the West.”

It is hard to know what the next couple of months will bring on the international scene. We have no idea what kind of message Angela Merkel will deliver to Budapest on February 2. We don’t know what foreign reactions to Putin’s visit will be. But domestically the Russian president’s visit might just be a potent catalyst for political change.