House cleaning at Magyar Nemzet

Although for months all kinds of hypotheses have been floated about the Simicska-Orbán feud, I have judiciously avoided joining the rumor mill. Conjectures about the apparent rift between Lajos Simicska and his old friend, Viktor Orbán, were vague and occasionally far-fetched. I believe that it is better to be cautious, especially in a case like this one where details are extremely hard to come by. Simicska, the foremost oligarch in Hungary, is a very secretive man. The media has not been able to get close to him, and those pictures of him that were, until recently, available on the Internet all dated from the late 1990s when he headed the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service. It was just a few weeks ago that someone managed to get a new photo of him. He has put on some weight and naturally he is about fifteen years older. Here and there a journalist manages to get some information about Simicska and his relationship to Orbán, but a few days later it is usually denied by someone else. So, under these circumstances, the most prudent course is to wait until we have more reliable information about what is going on.

We do have a few confirmed pieces of the puzzle, however. The newly introduced advertisement tax hurt not only RTL Klub but also the Simicska media empire. About a month ago I noticed that suddenly articles critical of the government began appearing in Magyar Nemzet, something that earlier was unimaginable. I devoted a post to that topic at the beginning of August. Since then there have been several more instances when government officials were scrutinized and their behavior condemned by the newspaper’s editors.

Lajos Simicska today

Lajos Simicska today

In the middle of the August Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság learned from a source close to both Simicska and Orbán that the two men had reached a temporary truce. Simicska agreed to sell Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, Lánchíd Rádió, and Class FM to two close associates of Orbán–Árpád Habony, the brain behind Orbán’s political maneuverings, and Andy Vajna, the producer of the blockbusters Rambo and The Terminator. On the same day, however, another “reliable source” close to Magyar Nemzet denied the rumors to a journalist of Népszava. According to the latter source, the feud between Simicska and Orbán was greatly exaggerated but was still on. There are, he said, no plans for a complete or partial sale of Simicska’s media empire. This source admitted that because of the advertising tax, the ever decreasing readership of all print media, and smaller advertising revenues Magyar Nemzet will have to “rationalize” its business practices. The decision was already made at the beginning of August that the price of the paper will have to increase. It had remained constant for the last twelve years, so the hike was clearly overdue.

It seems that Népszava‘s information was the more accurate because today came the news that about thirty journalists have been fired at Magyar Nemzet. As it stands now, the paper employs about a hundred people. Seventy of them work on the print edition and thirty on the online publication. The “rationalization” involves merging these two groups and downsizing the staff.

Was this move necessary for financial reasons? Népszabadság came to the conclusion that although the advertising tax will cut sharply into the profits of Magyar Nemzet, the paper is getting just as much government advertising support as before. Pesti scrácok, a right-wing blog, claimed that Magyar Nemzet receives four or five times as much advertising as other newspapers and that its financial health is robust.

But then why this large-scale firing? And why ax famous journalists who have been zealous supporters of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz for decades? I will stick my neck out and suggest a couple of possibilities.

Let’s start with the advertising revenue. It is a well-known fact that no Hungarian newspaper can survive without indirect government support in the form of advertising and subscriptions. Each ministry and each Fidesz municipal administration has subscriptions for several dozen copies of Magyar Nemzet. The state-owned companies also greatly favor the right-wing publications, Magyar Nemzet and Válasz. But what if the relationship between the paper and the government sours in the future? Let’s assume that critical voices appear increasingly often in the paper, similar to what has happened at RTL Klub. In this case, it is very possible that the generous advertising orders will slow or come to an end. Is it possible that Magyar Nemzet is preparing for this eventuality? Is it possible that Simicska has not given up the fight but has instead decided to use the weapons available to the press?

There is another clue that might indicate a change in the political orientation of the paper. It is enough to look at the list of those who were dismissed: Miklós Ugró, a regular writer of editorials; Emil Ludwig, earlier editor-in-chief of the paper; Matild Torkos, an investigative journalist; Anna Kulcsár and Gabriella Lőcsei, both senior editors; and István Lovas, the paper’s correspondent in Brussels. These have been core people at Magyar Nemzet over the last ten or fifteen years. As Pesti Srácok points out,  “these victims of the Simicska-Orbán feud are the people who steadfastly stood by Magyar Nemzet in its leanest years, at the time of the efforts to destroy the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány governments.” Indeed, Magyar Nemzet actively participated in that demolition job, and these people were perhaps the most zealous propagandists of Fidesz and its leader within the offices of Magyar Nemzet. What does their removal signify, if anything? Is it possible that their total devotion to Viktor Orbán has made them unfit for more balanced reporting in the future by Magyar Nemzet? Perhaps, but only time will tell. Until then this is only a hypothesis.

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17 comments

  1. Isn’t it odd how there’s widespread quiet throughout the Ukraine?
    Does that sound like a spontaneous uprising in various regions of the country?

  2. István Lovas who has been fired has a very interesting CV. Those of you who can read Hungarian will find a few facts about him on
    http://www.hetek.hu/belfold/200105/csend_a_jobboldalon

    In English
    Champions of this group argue, among other things, that the suffering of the Jews was due to the fact that they had sided with the Allies and actually participated in revolts in many ghettos and concentration camps. For example, see “Összehasonlitó véralgebra és a holocaust” (Comparative Blood Algebra and the Holocaust) by István Lovas in Népszabadság (People’s Freedom), Budapest, March 5, 1999, p. 10.
    http://www.ushmm.org/m/pdfs/20140318-Holocaust-in-Hungary-Braham-Assault-on-Historical-Memory.pdf

    Lovas wrote the following letter to foreign correspondents in Hungary:

    Listen Shitheads, that is, all foreign correspondents in Budapest with a few and truly honorable exceptions, such as Nick Thorpe of the BBC:

    I have never ever been as rude in my life as I am being now in any article, or in any “official” letter addressed to anyone, unlike so many of your friends and trusted sources in the left-liberal media.

    But you, fucken shitheads, deserve it. At least once.

    You have just failed to report on the gigantic scandals of the Socialists, rocking the country, in trying to frame Fidesz in the Baja elections, or former PM F. Gyurcsany’s public admission that MSZP, when he was at its helm, received funds secretly from outside Europe, while, just to earn your keep, you are writing reams about everything else than – as usual – the events that really move Hungary and the electorate.

    Some examples, assholes:

    Hongrie-manifestations-politique,PREV
    La gauche hongroise unie, au moins le temps d’une manifestation
    (PRESENTATION,ACTUALISATION)
    Par Géza MOLNAR
    =(PHOTO ARCHIVES)=
    ATTENTION – ajoute déclarations du parti de Bajnai ŕ l’AFP ///

    or

    http://www.welt.de/politik/ausland/article121038974/Warum-ein-Judenhasser-zum-Judentum-konvertiert.html or

    I hope the next week, just to compensate for your
    silence on issues that really matter and would matter to your readers who get the same fare from you all the time, you will write a dozen of articles on anti-Semitism in Hungary, and the collusion there between the government and Jobbik.

    Why don’t you just fuck off, or, as, supposedly, we live in a democracy, eat shit to change your diet ordered by your editors?

    Kind regards,

    Istvan LOVAS
    Brussels correspondent
    Magyar Nemzet
    +32 (0) 47 xxx
    http://atlatszo.blog.hu/2013/10/29/egyetek_szart_seggfejek_lovas_istvan_a_kulfoldi_tudositoknak

  3. Off topic:
    Another massive corruption case:

    Thousands of ineligible people from Russia, Ukraine (Serbia, etc) have received expedited Hungarian, i.e. European citizenship for thousands of euros a piece.

    http://index.hu/gazdasag/2014/09/16/magyar_nyelven_szavaltak_szep_magyar_szoveget/

    Were their “votes” added to the Fidesz column in April? If I remember correctly, it was Vice Premier Semjen, who announced in April that they want to raise the number of new citizens from 0.6 million to 1 million.

  4. Eva: The newly introduced advertisement tax hurt not only RTL Klub but also the Simicska media empire.

    Apparently, this fight is not over. A second law is going to be passed , via an amendment in the Media law, whereby program makers cannot charge cable companies a distribution fee for using and/or transmitting their programs.

    http://www.portfolio.hu/en/economy/hungary_tv2_says_ban_on_distribution_fee_would_hit_hard_urges_consultation_with_govt.28366.html

  5. OT:

    Seems Eva sent a TEST posting yesterday – I thought we were supposed to answer , but that didn’t work.

    Hope that was not some kind of malevolent action?

  6. European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg,
    Judgment on 16 September 2014:

    Hungary violated the human rights of MPs from LMP and PM parties by fining them for expressing their opinion in the Parliament. Hungary has to repay the fines to Ms Szél, Ms Osztolykán and Ms Lengyel plus EUR 3,000 plus 1,500 for legal expenses to each applicant.

    http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/sites/eng/Pages/search.aspx#%22languageisocode%22:%5B%22ENG%22%5D,%22documentcollectionid2%22:%5B%22JUDGMENTS%22%5D,%22itemid%22:%5B%22001-146385%22%5D

  7. @Petofi

    Yes and no. Medvedev had no power base of his own, he was a puppet of Putin.

    Simicska has his own very loyal power base which he has been assembling since the first Orban government. It’s a very carefully selected group of people with reliable backgrounds. Often lawyers and in lower levels often with security credentials.

    Orban and Simicska have been friends, but I tend to believe that this conflict is for real, albeit one that could be solved quickly.

    However, at present there is no need for quick, foolhardy moves. At this moment Orban has nothing to do with Simicska, he levied the taxes, weakened Simicska’s positions and Simicska is doing his usual business and I agree with Eva, is preparing for the future.

    Once Simicska hands over his carefully built media empire, however, he is finished, he has no real leverage over Orban or over politics at all. That’s clear to Simicska. That’s why I think any news about him parting with his media is suspicious. Ildiko Csuhaj at Népszabadság has been the source of several Fidesz related leaks which later turned out to be untrue — she seems to be a paid Fidesz media contact.

    Simicska is a lawyer, and this means he naturally thinks several steps ahead, anticipates potential risks. So that’s what he is doing. But given the complex situation (like the potential of using the ‘nuclear option’, using the prosecution, with all its concomitant risks) Orban and Simicska have to be prepared for a truce at any moment.

    Another question is Csanyi. Csanyi has a similarly carefully built power base, with fewer lawyers, more heavy on the security side. The problem is that with all the banking losses OTP has to absorb, it is very easy for Matolcsy (ie, Orban) to force OTP to allow a state-lead capital increase, after which the government would be the strongest shareholder. And Csanyi is not a real player without OTP. While his wealth is great and his investments are significant and he has lots of current supporters all over Hungary, those just wouldn’t make him influential enough in a post-OTP world.

  8. Re test. Sorry about it but I was having problems with posting Hungarian Spectrum’s links on “Hungarian Spectrum on Facebook.” It turned out to be my fault, but in order to find out what’s wrong I had to do a test. Thanks to this test now I know what I did wrong.

  9. I always assumed Simicska was at Bibó Kollégium and thus was a lawyer. But apparently this is a murky point in his CV.

  10. @Petofi

    Rahimkulov’s public activities in Hungary date back to about 2000. He was involved in the Sibur (whose violent CEO Yakov Goldovsky was later imprisoned) – Borsodchem/TVK hostile takeover and invested – including the proceeds of the Borsodchem shares sold to VCP – in OTP shares. If I am not mistaken, he’s been holding his OTP shares ever since and if so he probably made a significant loss on them when compared to alternative investments such as S&P500. VCP which subsequently took over Borsodchem is of course a known front for CIS oligarchs, and Vienna is a center for investment-related services for such sensitive customers. But I don’t really know his game. He seems to me a wise Russian (although he is Tatar by ethnicity) wheeler-dealer with lots of connections. The Russians probably value him for his Hungarian experiences, the Hungarians for his Russian contacts. OTP is quite strong in Russia so I guess he made himself useful in that respect too. Csanyi once stated that he meets Rahimkulov, already then a major individual shareholder regularly. I haven’t heard about him lately, but since Orban and his people it seems to me are rather active in the energy business he may be of assistance there too.

  11. OT

    A Népszabadság phototographer, Miklós Teknős, took an odd photograph of two construction workers holding a man upside down in a hole at the Várkert Bazaar re-opening. When a blogger asked the metropolitan municipal office if the workers had broken any safety regulations, they gave the ridiculous explanation that Teknős staged the photo!

    http://hvg.hu/itthon/20140909_A_fotost_vadolja_a_kormanyhivatal_a_Varke

    As it happens, I’ve known Miklós personally for many years – he does not stage news photos. Any why would he have to? Anyone who has seen a Hungarian construction site would not be surprised to see this scene if they happened to walk by.

    I guess it’s just easier for the government to lie and scapegoat Teknős than admit that rules were not being followed correctly.

  12. RULES:

    The Orban Innovations never end: Rules are made to be convenienced at a later date.

    Presently, that genius responsible for the constitution is working to revamp the 10 commandments to be intelligible to Hungarians.

    Commandment 1:
    –Thou shalt consult the ‘Father Of New Hungary’, Viktor Orban, at all times.

    Commandment 2:
    –See commandment 1

    Commandment 3:
    –See commandment 1

    etc. etc.

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