The new Hungarian media tsar: Mónika Karas

For Viktor Orbán control of the media is a political priority.  His government institutionalized this priority by creating the Media Authority, initially chaired by Annamária Szalai. She was the perfect person for the job, and I’m sure that Orbán mourned her death last April. He had to find a replacement who was both loyal to him and who, as mandated by law, demonstrated professional competence in media matters.

Months of searching and fiddling with the requirements followed. At one point there were rumors that Tamás Deutsch might be tapped since he had represented Fidesz in a parliamentary committee dealing with the media. Well, that was too bizarre an idea and I doubt that Orbán seriously considered his old friend for the job, a friend whom he had already exiled to Brussels years before. Mind you, exile in Brussels can always be cut short if there is need. Just think of János Áder who was called back after the fall of President Pál Schmitt. Still, a fouled-mouthed, irresponsible, and not too bright 50-year-old who has never grown up would have been a liability. Someone else had to be found.

Today the nominee to head the “independent” agency was announced: Mónika Karas, a lawyer who since 2004 has represented two Fidesz media outlets: Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV.

Perhaps the best comment I saw was a one-liner after the news hit the Internet: “This must be a joke.” Unfortunately, it is not. This woman will surely be appointed by János Áder for a nine-year term. As blogger “vastagbőr” (thick skin) pointed out, even if Viktor Orbán hangs on until 2022 Mónika Karas will still outlast him as head of the Media Authority for a few months. That’s called a long tenure!

Karas’s record as a lawyer is pretty dismal. Mind you, it is not easy to be the defense lawyer for Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV since both outlets are full of irresponsible propagandists with scant regard for the truth. Thus Mónika Karas lost one case after the other. “Vastagbőr” found twelve of her cases in the archives of the Hungarian News Agency (MTI). But this list is incomplete. I myself found a few more that MTI didn’t report on.

The summaries of these cases are boring reading. Almost all of them inform the reader that Magyar Nemzet lost the case in the lower court but that “Mónika Karas told MTI that they will surely appeal because the verdict is erroneous.” Later on came the report that Magyar Nemzet lost the appeal. She had to tell her sad story many times over between 2004 and 2013. One day I will return to some of her more important cases, including the one where she represented Szárhegy-dűlő-Sárazsadány-Tokajhegyalja Kft. in which the Orbáns had an interest in 2005.  She also worked for Árpád Habony, the éminence grise behind Viktor Orbán’s propaganda machine, and represented Antal Rogán’s district in downtown Pest against an Internet investigative website, Átlátszó (atltszo.hu). She is connected to Viktor Orbán, Fidesz, and its media empire in multiple ways. So much for the independence of the Hungarian Media Authority.

Mónika Karas / Magyar Nemzet

Mónika Karas / Magyar Nemzet

Karas represented Magyar Nemzet in 2012 when Ferenc Gyurcsány sued the paper over its claim that he plagiarized his senior paper. Once again she lost because of Magyar Nemzet‘s sloppy handling of the facts. Gyurcsány spoke from personal experience today when he said that Karas was as unsuccessful as a lawyer as she is unfit for her new job. He described Mónika Karas as “the cleaning lady of Fidesz’s lying factory.” He somewhat optimistically added that Karas will not be the head of the Media Authority for long because she will be removed from the agency right after the elections.

According to her official biography, Karas passed intermediate language exams in German and Russian and speaks English on an “introductory level,” which in my opinion means that she doesn’t know the language. As a sharp-tongued journalist said: “This way it will be difficult to write notes on Facebook, ask the Americans to forbid the appearance of kuruc.info, buy Sanoma [Media Group], or whatever her duties will be.” By way of explanation, Fidesz at the moment is in the middle of a frontal attack on Sanoma, which is the owner of the largest school textbook company in Hungary. The word is that the Orbán government wants to nationalize the whole textbook industry to create one big publishing company that publishes a single standard text for each subject.  Just like in the Kádár regime.

But there are much more interesting items that can be found in this official biography. What caught my eye was that Mónika Karas was legal counsel to Magyar Fórum Kft., the publisher of István Csurka’s Magyar Fórum, the anti-Semitic MIÉP party’s official organ, between 1993 and 2002. The biography also contains an item mentioning the innocuous sounding “Lapkiadó Vállalat” (Newspaper Publishing Co.). I must say that I was not suspicious until a friend who is much more familiar with the Kádár regime’s secrets than I am informed me that “the Lapkiadó Vállalat was an extraordinary outfit, not even a state company, but directly subordinated to the Party (MSZMP) leadership, also owned by the Party. To work there, one had to have a security clearance on a higher level than even at the secret police: they published all local papers and all official organs of the county Party committees.”

Another item in the official biography is her stint as general counsel for the company that published Esti Hírlap between 1992 and 1994. Well, the innocent sounding Esti Hírlap also has a history. According to my informant Esti Hírlap was the afternoon party tabloid (naturally also published by Lapkiadó Vállalat), widely considered to have been the semi-official organ of the secret service and in general of the Ministry of the Interior. Apparently Esti Hírlap, even after the regime change, was largely staffed by old-timers inherited from the Kádár regime.

So, it seems that Mónika Karas is one of those who transitioned easily from the communist media to the far-right media. By the way, those who want a sense of István Csurka’s anti-semitic Magyar Fórum at the time that Karas was working for Csurka’s company should read Zsófia Mihancsik’s article in Antiszemita közbeszéd Magyarországon 2001-ben (see pp 77-90), which contains a wide selection of quotations from Magyar Fórum.

Not surprisingly, all the opposition leaders are up in arms. Gergely Karácsony talked about the Karas appointment in the name of Együtt 2014-PM. He promised to ask János Áder not to put his signature on Karas’s appointment. But János Áder, who is just as much a puppet as Karas, is highly unlikely to accommodate. Karácsony called attention to recent signs pointing to the expansion of the Fidesz media empire. For instance, Századvég, a Fidesz think tank largely financed by the government, just purchased the economic daily Napi Gazdaság. Appointing the legal representative of the Simicska-Nyerges media enterprise will only solidify Fidesz’s hold over the media.

Ildikó Lendvai (MSZP) emphasized the international implications of the appointment. You may recall that the first serious clash between the European Commission and the Orbán government occurred over the media law. The conflict eventually ended with some minor adjustments to the media law but its essence remained pretty well untouched. By appointing Karas, Viktor Orbán’s message to Brussels is: “we are not going to change our media policies.”

Indeed, Fidesz’s grip on the media is as tight as ever and its media empire continues to expand. And, making sure that things will remain this way, perhaps until 2022, will be Mónika Karas.

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15 comments

  1. Well, the good news is that other than being a good party-party person (MSZMP in the old time, Fidesz nowadays), she is totally incompetent. I always hate it when Fidesz manages to get the support and service of competent people…that’s a lot more dangerous (smart people with a lack of morals can do a lot more damage). So in this case, we can hope that she will mess something up at some point that will hurt Fidesz.

  2. I think that for those unfamiliar with how things work in Orbanistan, the following explanation could be useful: as opposed to the US, where lawyers accept cases regardless of their personal believes (for example American neo-Nazis were represented in a freedom of speech case by lawyers affiliated with the ACLU, and I am convinced those lawyers did not like the ideology of the people they represented), in Orbanistan this is not the case. I think this is due to the fact that ideologues and dictators in that area just do not trust those who do not totally identify with their ideology. Possibly the requirements for lawyers are also different from the US. Maybe others have a better explanation.

  3. To land a legal job at Lapkiadó Vállalat (and not at some industrial cooperative in Mezőtúr), you needed much more than just simple clearance from the Ministry of Interior.

    Also, remember that people at security services are selected for loyalty for obvious reasons. Her personality has not changed a bit since 1985 and like with Némethné (the enigmatic lady minister for national development, with giant holes in her resume) loyalty is still to this day towards her superiors in the chain of command, wherever they operate right now. Probably at the Prime Minister’s Office, for example.

    She will interpret her job as yet another assignment or role in which she will simply execute the directives of her superiors. That is her normal way of working, existing. If the call comes, she will organize the paperwork and make the decision and she will never even understand why this is problematic, after all, she only does what her real job is.

  4. Dear Professor Balogh,

    your friend was wrong about Lapkiadó Vállalat.

    The publisher of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party’s organs,(such as Népszabadság) was called Hírlapkiadó Vállalat. It was also responsible for large-circulation and therefore politically important weeklies like Nők Lapja és Ludas Matyi. It had its headquarters in the late Népszabadság House on Blaha Lujza tér.

    Lapkiadó Vállalat, later called Pallas, on the other hand, was the publisher of ‘non-party’ dailies, that is Magyar Nemzet (Patriotic People’s Front) and Magyar Hírlap (Council of Ministers) as well as a host of cultural and lifestyle weeklies and magazines from Élet és Irodalom to Lakáskultúra. It was based in the New York Palace on Lenin (now Teréz) krt. Meanwhile, the presence of state security was evident, as the perennial manager, Norbert Siklósi, used to be an ÁVH officer, and Lapkiadó”s lucrative media and advertising outlet, Magyar Média, founded around the time young Karas was imported, was clearly a state security venture.

  5. Dear Mr. Széky, This morning I received three corrections altogether about the unfortunate mixing up of Lapkiadó Vállalat and Hírlapkiadó Vállalat. All three, including yours, came from people familiar with the media scene in those days. Yes, my informant got mixed up. I must say I’m not surprised. Those responsible for naming these companies were rather unimaginative.I will make a correction in today’s post. Thank you for writing.

  6. Eva,sorry that this is completely OT but I had to share this: We just received our water bill,and with much excitement we opened it (hoping to find a reduced fee,since the reduction in utility fees) AND (trumpets blaring!) we have saved a grand total of…..21 forints! Yes,instead of 16,094 fts we now only have to pay 16,073 fts! What a saving! After a few more bills like that I might be able to treat myself to a Turo Rudi!!

  7. Well, Nicky, didn’t you get that nice letter from Orbán today that explains everything?

    My wife laughed at the “túlzottdeficiteljárást” and said to me that probably 90 % of our neighbours wouldn’t understand what it meant …

    Can anyone explain the QR-code that’s right next to Orbán’s signature ?

    PS:

    I haven’t checked our utility bills yet, but I will …

  8. wolfi :
    Well, Nicky, didn’t you get that nice letter from Orbán today that explains everything?
    My wife laughed at the “túlzottdeficiteljárást” and said to me that probably 90 % of our neighbours wouldn’t understand what it meant …
    Can anyone explain the QR-code that’s right next to Orbán’s signature ?
    PS:
    I haven’t checked our utility bills yet, but I will …

    If you have a QR scanner app on your smart phone, you can scan the QR code, and it will show the name and address of the person where the email was sent to.

  9. No nice letter from Viktor Orban, Wolfi, ,just this bill which I stared at for a full minute,not knowing whether to laugh or cry! Oh well,better than nothing!

  10. @” Wolfi : Can anyone explain the QR-code that’s right next to Orbán’s signature ? ”

    No idea what is it for. Upon scanning with our mobile, name and address of flat owner appear.

    What I did was cut out the code as well as address and burn it.

    Utility bill :- Hot water for the previous and this month appeared to be NIL !!
    Which only make us nervous for the coming massive bills!

  11. I had expected that for the QRC – so be careful what you do with that letter, Fidesz might search the garbage and find out that you’ve written some bad things about “the big O” on that piece of paper …

    I put it in the carton with all the newspapers which will be collected by the local school for some much needed extra money …

    PS:

    Probably the same QRC was on those questionnaires that got sent out (was it last year ?) – have the results been made public after all that time ?

  12. Nicky :
    After a few more bills like that I might be able to treat myself to a Turo Rudi!!

    I never tasted this delicacy but it seems to be an important part of the lives of all people from Budapest I know.

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