Tag Archives: Origo

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

The Hungarian media scene is still in flux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The war is on: RTL Klub and the Orbán government

Yesterday Freedom House published its latest report on the post-communist countries, “Nations in Transit 2014: Eurasia’s Rupture with Democracy.” Freedom House lists the countries by geographic region: the Balkans, members of the European Union, and Eurasia. It measures the performances of these countries by something it calls the “Democracy Score” (DS), which represents the average of a country’s seven democratization indicators: electoral process, civil society, independent media, national democratic governance, local democratic governance, judicial framework and independence, and corruption. In addition, it calculates an NIT rating for each country on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest.

According to the report, the DS in all three regions has been steadily declining since 2010. As far as the NIT ratings (civil society) are concerned, only the Balkans countries show considerable progress between 2005 and 2014.

Among the new post-communist EU members (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia) the country with the lowest DS score is Romania (3.46), followed by Bulgaria (3.25), but right next to it comes Hungary with a score of 2.96. Quoting the Orbán government’s slogan, one of the local newspapers wrote: “Hungary is performing better,” yes, better than Bulgaria!

The report states that the case of Hungary is “the most poignant reminder that democratization in post-communist Europe is neither complete nor irreversible.” By the end of 2013 Hungary’s DS score was one full point worse on the 1-7 scale than it was in 2004 when the country entered the EU. The report warns: “Any further deterioration in governance, electoral process, media freedom, civil society, judicial independence, or corruption under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s recently reelected government will expel Hungary from the category of ‘consolidated democratic regimes’ next year. 

And I’m afraid that given the events that have taken place since the national election in April, the likelihood of such an eventuality is almost guaranteed. The destruction of democratic institutions had been rapid even before the last election, but since then it has only accelerated. Two of the categories considered by Freedom House, civil society and the media, have been especially targeted in the last  few weeks.

Earlier I touched on Origo‘s encounter with János Lázár, who apparently pressured the owner of Magyar Telekom, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, to keep the popular online paper’s journalists in line and refrain from any overt criticism of the government. The firing of the paper’s editor-in-chief caused a greater uproar than the CEO of Origo anticipated. Fairly large demonstrations and mass resignations of editors and journalists followed. But that was not all. Simultaneously with the upheaval that followed the Origo affair, the government decided to levy very heavy taxes on the media based on their advertising revenues. It looks as if the government specifically targeted the German-owned RTL Klub, a subsidiary of the RTL Group, which is Europe’s leading entertainment company. It has interests in 54 television and 29 radio stations in 10 different countries.

It seems, however, that RTL Group is not going to take Viktor Orbán’s attack lying down and that it is ready for an extended war with the Hungarian government. Earlier there had been talks that the Orbán government put pressure on the German firm to sell the station but was rebuffed. Thus Orbán and his minions moved on to the second nationwide commercial television station, TV2. There the pressure worked because the station was actually losing money. In any case, the government’s extra levies on advertising will hit RTL Klub the hardest. More than half of all taxes will come from this one station. It looks as if this tax is a punishment for the RTL Group’s refusal to sell the station.

Photo MTI / László Baliczay

Dirk Gerkens. Photo MTI / László Baliczay

The CEO of RTL Klub, Dirk Gerkens, a German-Spanish businessman who has been running the Hungarian subsidiary for the last thirteen years, is a combative type who is well prepared for the “war.” As he said not so long ago, “if there is war, there will be war strategy too.”  Since “the war” between the government and RTL has apparently been going on since the fall of 2013, the RTL management was well prepared for its latest counterattack.

A few hours after the announcement of the proposed advertisement tax RTL issued a sharply worded statement. Since then RTL reacts every time a government official says anything about the advertisement tax or RTL. The management indicated that if the financial squeeze of the station continues, they might have to take off some of the most popular programs: “Among Friends,” “X-Factor,” and “Budapest Night and Day.”

Lázár called RTL’s reaction “blackmail” and suggested to Gerkens that they should go back to Germany and blackmail the German government. Gergely Gulyás, chairman of the parliamentary committee on legislation, complained about the low quality of the two commercial stations, RTL Klub and TV2. As he put it, one should look upon this new tax on media advertising as a variation on the newly introduced tax on unhealthful foods, the “chips tax,” because these stations have a harmful effect on society. It didn’t take long for RTL to reveal that Gulyás at one point asked for and received a free ticket to the finals of X-Factor. Yesterday RTL Klub aired a fairly long segment on Lőrinc Mészáros’s billions, which was delivered in a decidedly sarcastic manner.

We don’t know what else RTL Klub has in its arsenal, but a journalist of 444.hu gave its management a few ideas. For example, in the very popular show, “Among Friends,” they can put in a few lines about politics. Someone asks “Uncle Vili” what he thinks of the decrease in utility prices and Uncle Vili responds: “They try to fool the plebs.” Other members of the team can be transformed into people who are suddenly very interested in politics and who make snide remarks about the government. In the other hit, “Budapest Night and Day,” the chimney sweeps no longer come to the apartment on Margit kőrút because they went bankrupt. A few characters die of smoke inhalation because Hungarian health care is in ruins. There is no garbage pickup because of utility price decreases, and dysentery spreads among the inhabitants of the apartment house.

But jokes aside, the Orbán government has been very dissatisfied with RTL Klub’s news even though liberal old timers in the media complain bitterly that one of the great sins of the two commercial stations is that their news covers almost no important items, with most of the airtime spent on tabloid and police news. The station naturally disputes this and points to RTL II’s newshour that caused friction between the Orbán government and RTL management in the past. Fidesz leaders complained that RTL II’s news was too critical of the government party, especially during the election campaign.

It will be interesting to watch the developments. It is possible that RTL Klub will be a great deal more forceful and effective than the European Commission has ever been when it comes to media freedom and the destruction of democratic norms.

Is Deutsche Telekom lending a helping hand to the Orbán government to suppress media freedom?

Scandals in Hungary often fizzle out, as one of our readers correctly stated, but abroad scandals don’t die so fast. They spread via the international media. This is what happened with the case of Origo, an internet news organ, whose latest editor-in-chief, Gergő Sáling, was forced to resign, most likely for political reasons. Soon enough the deputy editor-in-chief followed suit, and by now practically the whole news team is gone. A fairly large demonstration was organized immediately after the sacking of the editor-in-chief, and more demonstrations are planned for next week.

Yesterday 444.hu, a relatively new internet newspaper, came out with additional information on the case which, if true, isn’t pretty. Origo Zrt. is a subsidiary of Magyar Telekom, which is in turn a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, which is partly owned by the German government. 444.hu learned from a high-ranking member of the government that the firing of Gergő Sáling was the result of a deal between Magyar Telekom and the Orbán government.

Kerstin Günther / Source: Portfolio

Kerstin Günther / Source: Portfolio

One of the problems with the Hungarian economy is the preponderance of the state in all facets of economic life, which means that good relations with the government are very important for any company. In 2010 and 2011 relations between Magyar Telekom and the government were strained, mainly because of the extra taxes levied on communications companies. Apparently Hungarian politicians didn’t particularly like the CEO of Magyar Telekom, the American Christopher Mattheisen. Then in April 2013 the post of CEO was split in two, carving out a separate post of chairperson of the board. This new job was created for Kerstin Günther, who was very knowledgeable about Hungary because she began her Telekom career in Budapest in the 1990s. According to 444.hu‘s informer, she was sent to Hungary for the purpose of improving relations between the company and the Orbán government.

The company needed the goodwill of the Hungarian government because it is the government that decides the fates of frequencies that T-Mobil, a large part of Magyar Telekom’s business, uses. In 2013 it was time to renew these frequencies. Their renewal was vital for the company. At the end of the year, the government decided to renew the frequencies of all three cell phone companies operating in Hungary until 2022. For these frequencies the government asked a total of 100 billion forints. Magyar Telekom’s share was approximately 35 billion forints. It is 444.hu‘s claim, based on information received from its source, that Origo’s fate was sealed by the end of 2013. The deal was that Magyar Telekom would get an extension of its frequencies and that in return the management would make sure that Origo plays ball. Apparently, János Lázár “was often unhappy” about some of the articles that appeared on the site about various Fidesz and government wrongdoings, including his own.

According to the informer, Günther and Lázár met even before Günther arrived in Hungary. Lázár apparently showed her a 150-page analysis of the news items that had appeared in Origo and Híradó, the government mouthpiece that provides news to all state radio and television stations. Given Híradó‘s pro-government stance, it’s no wonder that Origo looked “dramatically oppositional.” It seems, however, that Magyar Telekom found the “study” well founded and often referred to it in arguments with Origo.

In the last two years pressure mounted on the internet site, hence the frequent personnel changes at the head of the editorial board. In three years there have been four different editors-in-chief. In government circles it was common knowledge that Lázár believed that “one must do something about RTL Klub and Origo.”

The relationship between Magyar Telekom and the Orbán government is excellent at the moment. In fact, it looks as if Deutsche Telekom will be entrusted with “the government’s comprehensive development of rural broadband access” that will cover the whole country. Or at least this is what János Lázár said in his parliamentary hearing that approved his suitability for the post of minister at the head of the prime minister’s office.

444.hu immediately translated the article into English, and naturally the story was picked up by several important German papers, especially since DPA (Deutsche Presse-Agentur) reported on it. A long and detailed article, not based on the DPA summary, entitled “Under Pressure” appeared in Süddeutsche Zeitung by Cathrin Kahlweit. She operates out of Vienna but knows the Hungarian scene quite well. In the article she reminds her readers that four years ago the controversial media law “drew international protests,”  and says that it seems that the Orbán government is again using “money and new legal provisions to impede critical reporting.” According to her, Deutsche Telekom received a one-billion euro contract from the Hungarian government for the “expansion of the broadband network,” the price of which was the taming of Origo. Deutsche Welle also reported on the attempted censorship by the Orbán government. And naturally, Reporters Without Borders protested as well.

Up to now two opposition politicians, Gergely Karácsony (E14-PM) and András Schiffer (LMP), have written letters to Timotheus Höttges, CEO of Deutsche Telekom, in which both strongly disapproved of the alleged “deal” between Deutsche Telekom and the Hungarian government. Karácsony called the deal unethical and expressed his hope that Deutsche Telekom would not be a partner to such a dirty affair. Surely, he said, Höttges considers freedom of the press a basic right. Schiffer’s letter was equally hard hitting and expressed amazement that a respectable firm operating in a democratic country would lend its name to such shady business.

Deutsche Telekom is washing its hands of the affair. The spokesman for the firm emphasized that they are all for freedom of the press but reiterated that they have nothing to do with personnel changes within Origo, which are the “result of internal restructuring.” I fear that will not be enough.

The attack on the media is backfiring

The events of the last few days in Hungary have already aroused the interest of the foreign media as well as international organizations concerned with the media and civil society in general. János Lázár might insist that he put no pressure on the CEO of Origo Zrt. to remove Gergő Sáling, the editor-in-chief, but journalists unanimously told AFP that Sáling “was forced out” for political reasons after the site published a story about the extravagant travel expenses of János Lázár, Viktor Orbán’s chief-of-staff. Transparency International also considers the Origo affair “intimidation aimed at stifling the voice of civil society and democratic oversight.” And this is just the beginning. One can be sure that in the next few days important German- and English-language papers will have articles about the Hungarian government’s heavy-handed interference with the distribution of Norwegian Fund grants and the pressure it put on the management of Origo.

Meanwhile the scandal is growing, as scandals usually do. After the firing of the editor-in-chief, András Pethő, deputy editor-in-chief, resigned. He was the author of the article that incurred the wrath of János Lázár. Soon afterward Péter György, the founder of Origo, also resigned from the governing board. He is the head of the Film, Media and Cultural Studies Graduate Program at ELTE.  Deutsche Telekom naturally refuses to bear any responsibility for what happened at the subsidiary of its subsidiary, Magyar Telekom, while Origo Zrt. steadfastly denies any connection between the editor-in-chief’s firing and the article about Lázár’s trip. So does Lázár, who tries to portray himself as a man of honor who would never put political pressure on the media. In fact, according to 444.hu, political pressure on Origo has been constant over the last three-four years. Ever since Viktor Orbán became prime minister of Hungary.

There are always people who are convinced that the Hungarian public will swallow anything and everything this government does. They claim that Hungarians have difficulty with the concept of solidarity. In brief, nothing will ever change. I don’t agree with this assessment of the situation. I’m convinced that there will be a tipping point. We don’t know what will prompt a widespread response to an abusive and dictatorial authority. The tipping point can happen at any time and over any issue, but I would say that launching a broadside attack on the media is not a bright move on the part of the government.

Yesterday one may have been disappointed that only 1,000-1,200 people decided to protest the government’s actions against the media. But by today the opposition to the government looks much more impressive. More than sixty media outlets joined forces against the introduction of  taxes on advertisements. And, what is most important, not just left-of-center TV and radio stations, newspapers, and web sites got together but right-wing media as well: not just RTL Klub but also TV2 and HírTV. Among the radio stations not only Gazdasági Rádió but also Katolikus és Lánchíd Rádió. Among newspapers not only Népszabadság and Népszava but also Magyar Nemzet, Nemzeti Sport, and Metropol. Among online newspapers not only Hír24 but also Mandiner.hu.  And many, many others. Tomorrow the television stations will be dark for a while and newspapers and online newspapers will be blank. I think János Lázár and his boss made a big mistake. They managed to turn even friendly, often servile media against them.

solidarity
And the Orbán government is facing other problems at the moment. I will mention a few. Lately the European Court of Human Rights handed down several decisions that found the Hungarian government in violation of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Although the Orbán administration swears it will not abide by the court’s rulings, one has the feeling that they might be forced to change their minds. Then there is the Norwegian case. It looks as if the Norwegians are not about to be pushed around by Viktor Orbán and his chief-of-staff, János Lázár. Today the Hungarian ambassador to Oslo was called in by the Norwegian foreign ministry. After the conversation Géza Jeszenszky could only say that he hoped the misunderstanding would be cleared up soon.

And let’s not forget the infamous monument which, though still not erected, continues to provoke criticism. This monument, which was supposed to serve as a symbol of Hungary’s loss of sovereignty on March 19, 1944, has been strongly opposed by historians, the Jewish community, and the center-left political forces. Even American Jewish congressmen and senators got involved and wrote to a letter to Viktor Orbán asking him to sit down and discuss the issues surrounding the idea of the monument. Viktor Orbán just answered the American legislators and told them that the monument will stand regardless of what the whole world says, including the Hungarian public. According to Medián, more than 55% of the Hungarian population thinks that the monument falsifies the country’s history. Yet he goes ahead.

Finally, there is the question of Viktor Orbán’s strong objection to Jean-Claude Juncker for the post of president of the European Commission. More and more it looks as if the anti-Juncker forces will not prevail, especially since Angela Merkel is under strong pressure to stick with Juncker, the choice of the European People’s Party. In order for the British-Swedish-Dutch-Hungarian anti-Juncker forces to succeed they would have to gain the support of 55% of the member states and 65% of the population. Somehow I don’t think they will be able to convince that many heads of state to vote for another candidate.

Hungary is fighting battles on so many fronts that it might seem strategically suicidal to open up two more fronts: the Norwegian Fund and the media. There is, however, one possible explanation for the government’s aggressive behavior. The European Union right now is between two administrations and occupied with an internal struggle between the European Parliament and the European Council. Perhaps Orbán decided that under these circumstances Brussels would be too busy to care much about Hungarian domestic problems. Given the latest developments, however, it seems that Brussels is still functioning and is quite capable of acting against the Hungarian government if it does not abide by the rules. And the “domestic disturbances” are turning out to be a much bigger deal than Orbán and Lázár thought.

Renewed attack on the Hungarian media: freedom of the press is at stake

As I was settling down to write this post, a large demonstration in Budapest was just coming to an end. It was organized by journalists who protested the sudden firing of the editor-in-chief of Origo, one of the best and most widely read internet newspapers. Gergő Sáling, the editor in question, has been working for Origo for twelve years, but it was only in November 2013 that he was named editor-in-chief of the paper. Why did the owner of Origo, Magyar Telekom, decide to sack Sáling? Origo has the reputation of being an independent site that views Hungarian politics in a critical manner. But rumor has it that pressure was put on Origo to change its government-critical posture, and as a result editors-in-chief have come and gone lately. It seems that Sáling was not pro-government enough. In fact, he made the mistake of allowing András Pethő, one of the journalists at Origo, to investigate the latest Lázár affair.

The sign says "Is it still possible to bark?" Source: Klubrádió

The sign says “Is it still possible to bark?” Source: Klubrádió

The Origo affair is only the tip of the iceberg. Since winning two elections in a row, Fidesz and the Orbán government have decided to attack the remaining remnants of Hungarian democracy with full force. Besides the NGOs, their other target is the media. This time, however, they may have gone too far. Something unexpected happened. Even right-wing journalists joined liberals to oppose the latest plans to silence critical voices.

A new bill was submitted for consideration to levy heavy taxes on media outlets’ advertising revenues. The new bill proposes taxes on all such revenues but on a sliding scale. Those outlets with the largest advertising revenues would have to pay a tax of 40%. The bill seems to have been aimed at RTL Klub, the largest foreign-owned commercial television station in Hungary. The other important commercial station is TV2, but it seems it would be spared the 40% levy. You may remember that TV2 was recently purchased by mysterious buyers suspected of being closely connected to Fidesz. So, the first reaction was that the Orbán government wants to eliminate TV2’s only serious competitor by financially ruining RTL Klub. The management of the television station claims that if they are forced to pay such a hefty sum on their advertising revenues, they might as well close their doors. Soon enough they will be bankrupt. In fact, RTL estimated that its share of the ad tax would be about 4.5 billion forints, nine times its 2013 profits.

The story might not be so simple, however, because it looks as if TV2’s management is also up in arms and ready to join RTL Klub’s protest. I also heard rumors that even HírTV might join them. That may be only a rumor, but today’s Magyar Nemzet came out with a scathing editorial on the advertising tax. Péter Csermely, deputy editor-in-chief of the paper, viewed the bill as a bald political move: “the two-thirds indeed wants to step on the throat of freedom of the press.” Strong words from Csermely who normally on the P8 program makes Fidesz politicians look good with his softball questions. In his opinion, taxing advertising revenues makes no sense whatsoever because the central budget will receive only nine billion forints from this new tax while every ten forints spent on advertising adds fifty forints to the GDP. So, he came to the conclusion that the proposed tax is meant to put a lid on free speech and the press.

But that is not all. László L. Simon, the Fidesz member of parliament who proposed, or more precisely lent his name to, the bill, threatened that further taxes, this time on internet social media, will be introduced. And speaking of the internet, a few days ago the Constitutional Court came to the conclusion that comments attached to articles are the responsibility of the publishers. This ruling may mean that online newspapers will no longer allow readers’ comments.

But let’s return to the Lázár affair that ended with the firing of the editor-in-chief of Origo. Some time ago, one of the journalists at Origo went to court because the prime minister’s office refused to give out details about secret trips János Lázár took. The courts backed transparency and the law and ruled that the details of the trips, rumored to be very lavish, must be revealed. The prime minister’s office reluctantly obliged. It turned out that the cost of these trips exceeded the wildest imaginations of the journalists. In November 2912 Lázár spent three days in London. The bill was 920,000 forints. In March 2013 he spent two days in Switzerland that cost 469,000 forints just for lodgings. In July he traveled to Italy, again for only two days, which cost the taxpayers 582,000 forints. Upon further probing, Origo found out that the bill totaling 1.97 million forints for these three trips actually covered the expenses of two people.

Lázár was incensed. He wrote a snotty “reply to the article of origo.hu” and posted it on the webpage of the prime minister’s office. The letter included such sentences as: “I am glad that the independent Hungarian courts find it important to get acquainted with my traveling habits.” Or “Appreciating the unbiased, objective, and correct reporting and valuing the journalist’s work in the defense of the Hungarian budget, I decided to renounce the travel allowance that I am entitled to.” He specifically mentioned András Pethő’s name, adding that he would like to make his day with this gesture. One’s immediate reaction is: if Lázár was entitled to the travel allowance, why is he returning the money?

We still don’t know much about the nature of these trips, but it was reported in the media that the persons who accompanied Lázár were “interpreters.” That is curious because, according  his official biography, he speaks both German and English.

Today we found out a few more tidbits, at least about the trip to London. According to Zsolt Gréczy, the spokesman for the Demokratikus Koalíció who gave a press conference on the subject, Lázár stayed at the Crowne Hotel, the most expensive accommodations in London. Apparently, that is the favorite hotel of members of the Hungarian government. Lázár’s job, it seems, was to convince the British to allow a meeting of Viktor Orbán with David Cameron. In fact, Viktor Orbán hoped that Cameron would come to Budapest to demonstrate his support of the Hungarian prime minister. DK learned, however, that Lázár completely botched his negotiations in the Foreign Office and in the end Szijjártó had to be sent to London to straighten things out.

And a final note. The reporter for the official Hungarian telegraphic agency, MTI, was present at the press conference. In fact, he even addressed a question to Zsolt Gréczy. However, MTI chose not to report on the event. That means that the details DK unearthed will get to very few newspapers and online outlets because they all receive MTI news free of charge. I read about it in Népszavabecause one of its reporters was there. This would not be the first time that the MTI management decides not to publish reports that do not reflect well on the Orbán government. So much for transparency and truth.

The free Hungarian media is under renewed attack, but it seems that this time even pro-Fidesz journalists are ready to stand by their colleagues on the other side of the great divide in Hungarian politics. They seem to realize, as Benjamin Franklin famously said, that “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”