In the past four years most of the battles between Viktor Orbán and the European Union have ended with a victory for the Hungarian prime minister. Or, if the Budapest government was forced to make changes in some of its controversial laws, they usually smuggled in other equally controversial provisions while allegedly fixing the problems with the first version. Eventually, the “bureaucrats” of Brussels, worn down, were satisfied with superficial, inconsequential changes that did not matter as far as Viktor Orbán’s long-range plans were concerned. But now he is confronted with other kinds of foes: Norway, which does not belong to the European Union, and the Luxembourg-based RTL Group, Europe’s leading entertainment company which is majority-owned by the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann. Neither of them seems to be a pushover.
I was surprised to see that almost three weeks had passed since I first wrote about the war between the Hungarian government and RTL Klub, the Hungarian subsidiary of RTL Group. At that time I reported that the Hungarian government had proposed a bill that was designed to tax the advertising revenues of all media outlets on a sliding scale depending on profitability. RTL Klub is the most profitable television station in the country and hence would get hit the hardest. In fact, the proposed tax of 40% on its revenues could cripple it. Since more than half of all revenues from the advertising taxes would come from RTL, it became evident fairly early in the game that the whole bill was designed to target this particular television station.
The answer from RTL Klub was swift: the news editors decided to spend more time on political news than before, and they made sure that every day there was some story that reflected badly on the government. The government answered in kind. Mihály Varga, minister of national economy (basically the minister of finance), instructed the Nemzeti Adó- és Vámhivatal (NAV/National Office of Taxation and Customs) to examine the tax history of RTL Klub because, as he put it, “there is a suspicion that some of the transactions of Magyar RTL Klub in the past years are fictive; they don’t reflect actual business activity but are designed solely for tax write-offs.” It was at this point that an MSZP member of parliament charged that Hungary was no longer a country of law (jogállam). The government was using the tax authorities to “punish” companies not to its liking.
The management of RTL didn’t cower. They told reporters that NAV has been after the company constantly. By now they have a department that deals only with tax matters. They have nothing to hide, and they invited NAV to come and investigate. It turned out that the “suspicious transaction” was a 2011 loss of 23 billion forints. The loss came about in the following way. RTL Klub purchased two cable companies which a year later were sold to its parent company. Apparently this transaction is a perfectly legitimate business practice. Because of this loss, RTL wouldn’t have to pay advertising tax this year. And that cannot be allowed. Thus, the government had to come up with some other way to get to RTL.
So came the old Orbán trick. If the law for one reason or another doesn’t have the desired result, let’s change the law. And indeed, as one newspaper put it, before the ink had even dried on the bill came an amendment according to which a company would be exempt from the tax this year only if its profits were either zero or negative in 2013. Clearly, this amended bill targets only RTL Klub. As László L. Simon, the man who presented both the original bill and its amendment, said, Hungarian newspapermen were the ones who called attention to this loophole. Since the government wants to make sure that everybody pays an equal share of the tax, they decided to change the bill.
Yesterday L. Simon for a solid 17 minutes tried to explain the intricacies of his amendment to the audience of ATV while a helpless young reporter sat and listened without interrupting him. He was less lucky when he made the mistake of giving an interview to RTL Klub. As a result of this interview it became evident that L. Simon doesn’t know what is in his “own” amendment. So much for law making in Hungary.
The RTL Group refuses to throw in the towel. Only yesterday a long interview appeared with Andreas Rudas, the director responsible for South-Eastern Europe, who as you might suspect from his name has a Hungarian background. He made it eminently clear that what is going on right now “is not a question of money” as far as the RTL Group is concerned. The firm is ready to stand by media freedom and to go to the highest courts to win against the Hungarian government.
During the course of the conversation we learned that Lis Mohn, the widow of Reinhard Mohn who was the owner of the media conglomerate Bertelsmann, serves on the supervisory board of the firm. And what is also important is that she is a good friend and supporter of Angela Merkel. Rudas revealed that he knows that the topic of what is going on with RTL Klub in Hungary is being discussed in Berlin as well as in other European capitals. RTL Klub is prepared to sue and they don’t care how much it will cost or how long it will drag on. It seems that Orbán has found his match in the business world.
Equally resolute is the Norwegian government. On June 25 a letter was sent to the Prime Minister’s Office which was brief and to the point concerning the suspension of the Norwegian Grants. No lifting of the suspension can take place until the demands of the Norwegians are met, which include the immediate cancellation of “the on-going audit by the Government Control Office.” The letter added that the “audit of the Hungarian NGO program is the responsibility of the Financial Mechanism Office in Brussels.” Well, that is clear enough. No answer has come yet from János Lázár’s office. As Népszabadság commented on the situation: “Lázár and Co. ran into a cement wall.”
In both cases we will see who will break his head first on that cement wall.