Tag Archives: TV2

Silencing the media: Hír TV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 16, 2017

Andy Vajna’s TV station: the government’s attack dog

This afternoon Viktor Orbán was in the uncomfortable position of having to answer questions from members of the opposition parties on the floor of the parliament. The first question, “Let’s show the cards! What is the source of the enrichment of the prime minister’s entourage?” was posed by Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik. He complained that he twice suggested setting up a parliamentary committee to investigate the enrichment of certain Fidesz politicians, including the prime minister. He claimed that Fidesz is “full of criminals.” First and foremost, Hungarians must find out who Lőrinc Mészáros really is. Another Jobbik MP, Előd Novák, complained about the enrichment of Andrew G. Vajna, the former Hollywood producer who has built a media empire on public money.

Viktor Orbán’s answer is always the same when he has to field such questions: members of the opposition parties have no right to accuse him of anything. Instead of this kind of provocation they should give an account of their own party’s finances. In the case of Jobbik, Vona should explain, for instance, who “the mysterious man” is who has contributed 520 million forints to Jobbik. As far as his own affairs are concerned, his “life is an open book.” At that point I almost choked on my morning coffee.

Ever since Viktor Orbán foolishly paraded Nárcisz the kuvasz on his Facebook page, interest in Viktor Orbán’s financial affairs has intensified. Particular attention was paid to the Habsburg estate in Alcsút where apparently Viktor Orbán actually lives, especially after it became known that both Lőrinc Mészáros and István Tiborcz, Orbán’s son-in-law, purchased large tracts of land in the vicinity of the Habsburg estate. The extent of the holdings of the Orbán-Tiborcz-Mészáros-Flier families is enormous, as the red area on the map inset below shows. The map was originally published in Népszabadság. This vast piece of real estate will most likely be worth a great deal more when the so-called Talentis program becomes a reality. This particular part of the country is designated to become Hungary’s Silicon Valley.

There are many people, not just members of the media, who are trying to uncover the secrets of Viktor Orbán. Ákos Hadházy of LMP has been diligently working on corruption cases that can be connected to European Union subsidies and the disappearance of billions originally intended for the betterment of the downtrodden Roma population. But Nárcisz the kuvasz aroused his interest in the most likely “fictitious contract” between Lőrinc Mészáros and the real estate company owned by Győző Orbán, father of the prime minister. Aerial photos show no sign of the agricultural equipment Mészáros allegedly stores at the estate for 15.5 million forints a month.

Meszaros foldjei

The other person with an insatiable appetite to learn the truth about corruption cases–in this case in District V, especially during Antal Rogán’s tenure as mayor–is Péter Juhász, co-chair of the opposition party Együtt. Within a few years about 800 valuable pieces of property were sold to loyal Fidesz supporters for a fraction of their real worth. Juhász has been working on this case for years without getting anywhere. The latest is that the CD that allegedly contained the financial information pertaining to these sales “got damaged” in the hands of the police and is now unreadable.

Juhász also became curious about the real owner of the former Habsburg estate in Alcsút and vowed to take steps toward an official investigation of Viktor Orbán’s finances. But he didn’t get very far with his project before he himself became the subject of a concerted attack, led by members of the news department of TV2, the commercial television channel recently acquired by Andy Vajna. Everybody knew that with the new ownership TV2 news would become a pro-government mouthpiece, but what followed shocked responsible members of the media.

Vivien Szalai, the former editor-in-chief of Story magazine and author of such masterpieces as “False pleasures: Confessions of a luxury prostitute” and “The most famous Hungarian madam: A real story” became news director at TV2. She gained notoriety as a result of a book she wrote about János Zuschlag, a young MSZP politician who embezzled about 40 million forints and who consequently received a stiff jail term. The book was full of wild accusations about his former colleagues in the party.

Kunfalvi

Nóra Kunfalvi

Several members of the team resigned right after Szalai’s appointment and others were immediately hired to replace them, including Nóra Kunfalvi (pictured here). Kunfalvi began her career at HírTV’s “Célpont” (Target), where reporters acted more like KGB interrogators than investigative journalists. After the Orbán-Simicska falling out, she left HírTV with all the Orbán loyalists and moved on to 888.hu, part of the so-called Habony media empire created after the government lost the support of Simicska-financed media outlets. You may recall that the editor-in-chief of 888.hu, Gábor G. Fodor, approved the publication of a highly controversial article about the wife and daughter of the socialist party chairman, József Tóbiás. It was from this rag that Kunfalvi moved over to TV2. By now she is called the “Petra László” of the Hungarian media. Petra László was the Hungarian camera woman who was photographed tripping a Syrian refugee.

Nóra Kunfalvi’s interview with Péter Juhász was an incredible example of unethical journalism. Kunfalvi’s task was to prove somehow that Péter Juhász lives beyond his means, that the rent on his apartment is more than half his income. She wanted to know where the rest of his money is coming from. The questions were posed in such a way that they already contained the accusations: she wondered whether his extra money derived from profits made from selling marijuana. A few years back Juhász was one of the people who argued for the legalization of marijuana, but as far we know he was never involved in selling the stuff.

The larger part of the interview, lasting about 14 minutes, was about the corruption of Fidesz politicians, but what eventually appeared on TV was about 20 seconds of the interview flanked by accusatory commentaries. The whole thing was a disgrace. The uncut interview and TV2’s coverage can be seen here. TV2 naturally sees nothing wrong with Kunfalvi’s line of questioning. According to the station, “the reporter only did her job when asking questions of a public figure.” Péter Juhász is not impressed and is suing Kunfalvi.

Meanwhile one reporter after another is leaving TV2’s news team and moving on to less risky and exposed programs. Several of them told Népszabadság that they don’t want to become Nóra Kunfalvis. Apparently since the arrival of “the blonde cyclone,” as the staff calls Vivien Szalai, about a third of the 30-member team has left TV2.

To keep pressure on the Fidesz critic, Vivien Szalai assigned another reporter the task of further discrediting Juhász, but it seems that he was not game. This morning he also resigned.

Naturally, the government parties also joined the fray. First, KDNP activists showed up at Juhász’s apartment building, holding up signs that read: “From what?” István Hollik, a KDNP member of parliament, held a press conference about Juhász’s “shady financial affairs.” Fidesz was not far behind. Fidesz’s official site demands to know how Juhász can afford a “luxury apartment” in an expensive district of Buda.

Finally, it turns out that Nóra Kunfalvi teaches an “investigative journalism” course at Corvinus. For years the course had been taught by the well-respected veteran journalist István Wisinger, recipient of all the highest prizes a journalist can get in Hungary. About a year ago he was told that unfortunately there is no money to continue the course. It turned out that Wisinger was lied to. He was sacked in order to make room for Nóra Kunfalvi, who even took over Wisinger’s description of the course and his syllabus, including his compulsory and suggested readings.

March 21, 2016

High-stake battle for the ownership of Hungary’s TV2

I have waited more than a week before tackling the extremely complicated, contested sale of TV2, Hungary’s second largest commercial station. Initially there were just too many questions about this bizarre affair, but in the last few days more documents have become available and a more or less comprehensible story has emerged.

People not familiar with the Hungarian political scene could justifiably ask why the sale of a commercial television station, which airs a lot of soap operas, is such a significant, controversial event. The answer, of course, is that the Orbán government considers the mass media to be of the utmost political importance. Ever since 2002, when Viktor Orbán narrowly lost the election, he has been diligently building, through his oligarchs, a network of pro-government media outlets. From the point of view of the government, TV is critical because this is how most people get their news.

The three biggest stations, the only ones that can be received in the whole country without a cable connection, are MTV, RTL Klub, and TV2. After 2010 the state-financed MTV became a government propaganda station, pure and simple. The two commercial stations were initially “persuaded” to provide as little political news as possible and to concentrate instead on tabloid items. But when the Orbán government came out with a steep advertising tax in the summer of 2014, RTL Klub decided not to play ball. Its fairly lengthy evening newscast now devotes more time to political news, including stories critical of the government. Moreover, RTL Klub’s viewership soared. And it has successfully taken up a fight with the government over the advertising tax.

Already by 2013 RTL Klub was starting to look like a lost cause, which left only TV2 in play for the government. In 2013 TV2’s German owner, ProSiebenSat.1, decided to sell its Hungarian company, which had accrued heavy losses in the previous few years. To everybody’s amazement the station, at least on paper, was sold in December 2013 to CEO Zsolt János Simon and Yvonne Perla Dederick, the financial director. The two executives announced at the time that ProSiebenSat.1 had given them a loan that they were supposed to pay back in five years. The news of the purchase immediately raised questions. Surely, a loan of about 25 billion forints–that was the estimated price of the station–had to be guaranteed by somebody with deep pockets. Although at the time there was no proof, some people suspected that Lajos Simicska, who was still friends with Viktor Orbán, was behind the deal.

The suspicion was pretty accurate. Károly Fonyó, a close business associate of Simicska and owner of Megapolis Média Zrt., was the one who signed the contract with Zsolt Simon and Yvonne Dederick. One of its clauses stated that Fonyó’s Megapolis Média Zrt. had an option to purchase TV2 at any time Fonyó desired.

At this point Simon and Dederick established two companies of their own: D6D Kft. and CCA Vízió Kft. These two companies then created a third (CCA-D6D Kft), which was supposed to run all companies related to TV2. In March 2014 they decided on a new business model: all these companies were merged into one called TV2 Média Csoport Kft. By the time this new company was registered it was July 2014.

Let’s pause for a second and recall what happened in and around July 2014. This was the beginning of Lajos Simicska’s dispute with his old friend Viktor Orbán over the advertising tax. Critical articles appeared in Magyar Nemzet, Simicska’s paper, and Cink.hu described Magyar Nemzet as the new RTL Klub. Most likely it was at that time that Orbán decided to go after Simicska. He no longer trusted his old friend, and he wanted to make sure that Simicska would not, sometime in the future, be able to do with TV2 what he was doing with Magyar Nemzet.

To achieve his aim, he needed the help of Zsolt Simon and Yvonne Dederick, the nominal owners of the station. In addition, he needed someone willing to buy the television station. His choice was his new friend and confidant, Andy Vajna, the former Hollywood producer. During the summer of 2014 Vajna, who already owned a Budapest casino, was in the process of negotiating with the government concerning the ownership of the largest and most profitable casino in the country, which until then had been owned by the Hungarian state. He didn’t seem to have any difficulty convincing the government to part with its casino. The Orbán government was ready to pass on this business venture to Vajna under the most favorable conditions: unlike other businesses, Vajna’s casino is not wired to the Hungarian Tax Office. The price for this fantastic business opportunity may well have been Vajna’s agreement to purchase TV2.

"Will the real owner of TV2 please stand up?" / Budapest Beacon

“Will the real owner of TV2 please stand up?” / Budapest Beacon

On October 15, 2015 Vajna fulfilled his end of the bargain and purchased TV2 Media Group from Simon and Dederick. Simon and Dederick presumably figured that they had structured the new company in such a way that it had nothing to do with the company that Károly Fonyó had an option to purchase.

The only problem was that Fonyó’s company had already exercised its option on October 13, two days earlier. Fonyó therefore announced that Vajna’s contract was null and void since his company had not authorized Simon and Dederick to sell TV2. He also announced that the two executives had been fired and that he was anticipating lengthy litigation.

Meanwhile the politicians of the opposition don’t seem to realize that the fight over TV2 might have political consequences for them. They look upon the struggle between Orbán and Fonyó/Simicska over the station as irrelevant. Who cares, they said (at least initially), which oligarch becomes the owner of TV2, Simicska or Vajna? But as things stand now, if Simicska wins the fight, TV2’s news will most likely become more like RTL Klub’s. Magyar Nemzet and HírTV have already become much better. They are moderate right-of-center and critical of the government.

By the way, Magyar Idők, the new slavishly pro-government paper, was financed in pretty much the same way that Orbán designed Vajna’s purchase of TV2. First the government gave János Sánta’s Continental Tobacco Co., together with BAT’s Hungarian subsidiary, the exclusive wholesale rights to all tobacco products in the country. Shortly after Sánta received the government’s gift of a very profitable concession, he was “persuaded” to buy a 49% stake in the new pro-government paper.

Orbán’s stranglehold on Hungarian TV seems to be weakening. Although by definition he still has MTV, he has lost RTL Klub and seems to be in the processing of losing TV2. Fonyó’s case looks pretty strong, although it will probably not be decided in his favor in the Hungarian courts.

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.”

Mária Vásárhelyi on the “media octopus” in Hungary

Yesterday I talked about the state of the Hungarian media. In today’s Galamus, Zsófia Mihancsik, who is a very good journalist, suggested to her colleagues that it would be a good idea if they learned to read. But, as some of you suggested, the slanted reporting on certain “sensitive” topics might be the result not so much of careless reading or writing but of a willful distortion of the facts. This is definitely true about media under the direct or indirect control of the governing party.

So, I think it’s time to look around a little in the world of the Hungarian media. Here I’m relying heavily on Mária Vásárhelyi’s essay “The Workings of the Media Octopus–Brain and Money Laundering” that appeared in the Bálint Magyar-edited volume, The Hungarian Octopus.

According to Vásárhelyi, Viktor Orbán’s psyche was crushed in 1994 when he  managed to lead his party with a 40% chance of winning the election into almost total ruin with 7.7% of the votes. Before that fiasco Orbán was the darling of the press, but subsequently he became the pariah of the then still mostly liberal Hungarian media. He decided right then and there that the goal is not to be liked by the existing media; rather, a smart politician should strive for a loyal media he can easily influence. In Vásárhelyi’s estimate Fidesz had the lion’s share of responsibility for the 1996 media law that turned out to be neither liberal nor democratic.

Once Fidesz won the election in 1998 Viktor Orbán made a concerted effort to build a media empire with the use of private and public money. Billions of public money were spent on establishing Heti Válasz and on the “rescue” of the heavily indebted Magyar Nemzet. And right-wing oligarchs like Gábor Széles, Tamás Vitézy (Orbán’s uncle by marriage), Zoltán Spéder, István Töröcskei, and Lajos Simicska put large sums of their own money into media outlets that were anything but profitable. They were hopeful that their investments would serve them well one day when Viktor Orbán again returned to power.

Between 2002 and 2010 the preponderance of media outlets shifted to the right. Moreover, by 2008 the liberal media’s financial situation was dire. Companies strapped for funds cut their advertising budgets, and the liberal media outlets had no rich oligarchs who could ensure their continued existence during the hard times. Since 2010 the lopsidedness between right and left in the field of media has only become worse. According to Mária Vásárhelyi, “only those messages which the government party wants to deliver reach 80% of the country’s population.”

octopus

Studying the changes in the political orientation of radio stations is perhaps the most fruitful and most telling because it is here that the Media Council, made up entirely of Fidesz appointees, can directly influence the media. It is in charge of allocating radio frequencies. As the result, in the last five years the radio market became unrecognizable. Every time existing radio stations had to reapply for frequencies, the frequencies were given to someone else. The new stations were owned by companies or non-profits preferred by the government party, and in consequence government advertisements immediately poured in. Between 2010 and 2012 some 50 local and regional radio frequencies changed hands. Of these Mária Rádió (Catholic Church) got seven frequencies all over the country and Lánchíd Rádió (also close to the Catholic Church) got five. Európa Rádió, which is close to the Calvinist Church, by now can broadcast on three frequencies. Magyar Katolikus Rádió has two local and two regional frequencies. All these stations are considered to be non-profit and therefore they don’t pay for the use of the frequencies.

Zsolt Nyerges has built a veritable media empire: he is behind “the three most valuable radio frequencies in the country.” During the same time the liberal stations have been disappearing one by one. Radio Café, very popular among Budapest liberals, lost its frequency in 2011. So did another popular liberal station called Radio1. Of course, Klubrádió is the best known victim of Viktor Orbán’s ruthless suppression of media freedom. Klubrádió began broadcasting in 2001 and could be heard in a radius of 70-80 km around Budapest. By 2007 the station had acquired eleven frequencies and could be heard in and around 11 cities. Soon enough Klubrádió was the second most popular radio station in Budapest. Today, Klubrádió after years of litigation moved over to a free but weaker frequency that it already had won before the change of government in 2010. Out of its 11 provincial stations there is only one left, in Debrecen, and we can be pretty sure that as soon as its contract expires Klubrádió will no longer be able to broadcast there either.

As for the public radio and television stations, let’s just call them what they are: state radio and television stations as they were during socialist times. But then at least the communist leaders of Hungary didn’t pretend that these media outlets were in any way independent: the institution was called Hungarian State Television and Radio. They were at least honest. The only difference was that in those days state television and radio aired excellent programs, especially high quality theatrical productions and mini-series, all produced in-house. Now I understand the programming is terrible and only about 10% of the population even bothers to watch MTV, and most likely even fewer watch Duna TV. Their news is government propaganda: on MTV more than 70% of the news is about government politicians and the situation is even worse at Magyar Rádió.

These state radios and television stations have a budget of over 70 billion forints, a good portion of which ends up in the hands of Lajos Simicska. How? MTV and Duna TV no longer produce shows in-house but hire outside production companies. Thus, public money is being systematically siphoned through MTV and Duna TV to Fidesz oligarchs. The programs are usually of very low quality and complete flops.

Most Hungarians watch one of the two commercial stations: RTL Klub and TV2. Both are foreign owned but as Orbán said not long ago, “this will not be so for long.” And indeed, a couple of weeks ago TV2 was sold, allegedly to the director of the company. Surely, he is only a front man. An MSZP politician has been trying to find out who the real owner is. Everybody suspects the men behind the deal are Lajos Simicska and Zsolt Nyerges.

And finally, the print media is also dying, which is not surprising given the worldwide trend. But right-wing papers are doing a great deal better than liberal and socialist ones for the simple reason that public money is being funneled into them through advertisements by the government and by state-owned companies. Even free newspapers are being brought into the right-wing fold. There was a very popular free paper called Metro owned by a Swedish company. But Orbán obviously wasn’t satisfied with its content. So, the government severely limited the locations where Metro could be stacked up, free for the taking. Thus squeezed, the Swedish owner decided to sell. And who bought it? A certain Károly Fonyó, who is a business partner of Lajos Simicska. The paper is now called Metropol and, in case you’re wondering, is doing quite well financially.

Napi Gazdaság was sold to Századvég, the think tank that was established by László Kövér and Viktor Orbán when they were still students. As I mentioned earlier, Népszabadság was sold recently to somebody who might be a front man for Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development who had financial interests in the world of the media before he embarked on a political career. The paper was owned by Ringier, a Swiss company that wanted to merge with the German Axel Springer, which owns a large number of provincial papers in Hungary. Although in many European countries the merger was approved with no strings attached, the Hungarian government set up an obstacle to the merger. The merger could be approved only if Ringier first sells its stake in Népszabadság.

Fidesz hasn’t been so active online. Most of the online newspapers are relatively independent. What keeps the party away from the Internet? Vásárhelyi suspects that it is too free a medium and that it doesn’t comport with Fidesz’s ideas of control. Surely, they don’t want to risk being attacked by hundreds and hundreds of commenters. Index, howeveris owned by Zoltán Spéder, a billionaire with Fidesz sympathies. After 2006 it was Index that led the attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány and the government. Vásárhelyi predicts that Index will turn openly right sometime before the election.

The scene is depressing. There is no way to turn things around without the departure of this government. And even then it will require very strong resolve on the part of the new government to stop the flow of public money to Fidesz media oligarchs. The task seems enormous to me.