HírTV

Elemental rearrangement on the Hungarian right?

Over the past few years we often heard that the regime Viktor Orbán built in the last five years can be dismantled only from the inside. Internal dissatisfaction with the leadership will one day reach such proportions that it will force the retirement of Viktor Orbán and his closest associates. Until recently, however, we didn’t see any such movement within Fidesz, despite its steady loss of sympathizers and supporters. We do know that there are insiders, including Fidesz members of parliament, who would like to get answers to their questions and who complain to reporters that they have been waiting a long time for an opportunity to discuss the problems the party is facing, without any success. Still and all, I don’t see any serious cracks in the solid political wall of Fidesz.

The right-wing media is another matter. Although some talking heads predict that the Simicska affair will blow over in no time, I disagree. I believe that the Simicska-Orbán falling out will have serious repercussions in the media world, signs of which have already appeared. My bold prediction, admittedly mixed with a large dose of wishful thinking, is that the fomentation in the media will facilitate the collapse of the Orbán-led political edifice.

On what do I base this prediction? First of all, there are signs that Lajos Simicska means business. He will use his considerable talent and financial resources to build a media empire that can take on state television and radio, a task that is, let’s face it, not terribly difficult. He began by appointing Péter Tarr to be one of the directors of HírTV. Tarr worked for Radio Free Europe until 1994 when he moved over to MTV. In 1997 he became the first managing editor of RTL Klub. In that capacity he was influential in exposing some of the corruption cases of the 1990s. According to Esti Újság, Tarr is gathering a fantastic staff at HírTV that should be able to produce the best news television in Hungary. The plan is to produce a program that “would restore the pillars of democracy and the power of the media.” Well, one could say that this is far too optimistic a scenario and that Simicska is not the most obvious man to lead the fight for democracy and against corruption. Admittedly, but he seems determined to ruin his old friend Viktor Orbán. People who know both men, like Gábor Fodor, a former friend from college days, are certain that this fight will last until only one of them is left standing.

So, what are the signs that encourage me to predict real changes on the mediascape? First of all, the report from the far-right wing media that half of the reporters of Magyar Nemzet and HírTV had quit turned out to be premature. For instance, Szabolcs Szerető, one of the people who quit last Friday, has already changed his mind and returned to the fold. He was the editor of the Monday edition of the paper.

Second, one can already detect substantial changes both in news reporting and in the opinion pieces in Magyar Nemzet. Let’s take a piece of news that has occupied the Hungarian media in the last two days. The chairman of Fidesz’s youth branch (ifjúsági tagozat) was caught with €30,000 of counterfeit currency. Fidesz immediately tried to distance itself, claiming that the young man had been removed from the party way back in 2012. The proof they presented was specious. In the past Magyar Nemzet would have supported the Fidesz position regardless of how ridiculous it was. But not this time. Let’s start with the headline: “He didn’t pay his membership fee and therefore was expelled?” The article continues with an honest description of the case and leaves no doubt that the Fidesz version is most likely untrue. In fact, when the article refers to the culprit as the “former chairman” of the organization, the writer or the editor put a question mark after the word “former.”

The same is true of Zsuzsanna Körmendy, who used to write the most vicious editorials about the opposition and was always supportive of the government and Fidesz. Zsolt Bayer predicted that “everybody from Csaba Lukács to Zsuzsanna Körmendy will quit because they will not be ready to write articles” demanded by Simicska. Yet today Körmendy wrote a piece titled “Self-examination never hurts.” Here Körmendy confronts her readers with the steady decline in Fidesz support and calls on the party “to examine its decisions thoroughly.” From here on the government should make wiser and more thoughtful decisions because “there is nothing more pitiful and destructive than taking back in full or in part earlier decisions. One ought not to experiment with citizens who have been losing their patience.” This kind of language is new in Magyar Nemzet. So it’s no wonder that Policy Agenda, a think tank, is certain that “after five years of governing Fidesz has lost its media,” which will be deadly for the future of the party.

But that’s not all. The most faithful Gábor Borókai, editor-in-chief of Heti Valóság, who served Viktor Orbán’s government as its spokesman between 1998 and 2002, stood by Lajos Simicska and against his former boss in an editorial that appeared today. For Borókai it is obvious that with the Simicska-Orbán duel “an unpredictable tectonic shift began that will turn into an elemental rearrangement on the right.” According to him, that kind of change has been long in coming. In plain language, the performance of the third Orbán government is dismal. In the past year Viktor Orbán has been preoccupied with his balancing act between Merkel and Putin while at home everything is falling apart. People have had enough of a government that wants to rearrange every facet of their lives. They want to be left alone.

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Of course, Borókai is still a man of the right, but not the kind that Orbán surrounds himself with these days. He is yearning for the “western, strong, sovereign and ‘polgári’ Hungary which Viktor Orbán wanted to build in 1998.” In 2010 Orbán set out to fulfill this wish, and he did rebuild a devastated economy, but “since then everything around us has changed for the worse. While searching for new solutions one shouldn’t forget the original goal. Otherwise, the chandelier will fall on us.” Borókai’s piece is full of contradictions, but it must be difficult to admit that his assessment of Viktor Orbán and his ideology has most likely been wrong all along. Even in 1998 when he decided to represent the first Orbán government. At one point he claims that “it is not too late” for Fidesz to find itself, but elsewhere he talks about an elemental reorganization of the right. Eventually these right-wing journalists will sort out their ideas, but at least they have begun writing as individuals instead of media servants of the government.

Meanwhile Reporters Without Borders published its World Press Freedom Index, 2014. In the last four years Hungary’s ranking dropped from 23d to 64th out of 180 countries. While the situation in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia is considered to be good, in Hungary there are “noticeable problems.” Even the Romanian press is freer than the Hungarian. Hungary is in the cluster with Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, and Albania. Nothing to be proud of. But perhaps there will be a revolt of the right-wing journalists and with it will come a freer press and perhaps even political change.

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The Hungarian mafia war

As I reread yesterday’s post, I realized that I failed to capture both the tone and the importance of what happened yesterday in Hungary. Many commentators consider the “media war” between Viktor Orbán and Lajos Simicska to be the most serious political crisis of the last twenty-five years, a crisis that may cost Viktor Orbán his political career. I agree. February 6, 2015 was a critically important day.

Simicska’s outburst offered us an opportunity to peek behind the curtain of Viktor Orbán’s regime. What we see there is devastating. Hungary is being governed by a crime syndicate, something outsiders had told us, but until yesterday we had no inside confirmation. Now we know. If you try to leave, if you fall from grace, you can easily imagine that your life might be in danger. The members of this mafia family are immoral and dangerous thieves, ready to do anything. In fact, they are more dangerous than an ordinary mafia family because in their hands is the entire state apparatus–the power of legislation, the judiciary system, the police, the army. As Ildikó Lendvai said on Facebook, “Media war? Oh no, mafia war… War of gangsters broke out.”

Viktor Orbán in nice company Source: Die Welt / Photo Getty

Viktor Orbán among his friends and comrades
Source: Die Welt / Photo Getty

Yesterday I couldn’t quote Simicska’s exchanges with reporters at any length because of all his obscenities, some of which I simply didn’t know how to translate. The Budapest Beacon, however, took up the challenge and translated the interview between Simicska and József Nagy of Hír24 in its entirety. You might want to take a look.

Simicska seems determined to go all the way with his fight. He doesn’t hide the fact that he knows all the dirt behind the rise of the Young Democrats, the crew from the István Bibó College. If he decided to tell all, Viktor Orbán would immediately fall from grace. But can Simicska reveal everything he knows about the old crew–Viktor Orbán, László Kövér, János Áder, József Szájer, just to mention the top leadership that gathered in the second half of the 1980s? Simicska might be terribly upset at the moment, but once he has calmed down he should realize that he cannot reveal the criminal activities in which these men have been involved over the years without implicating himself. He must also have figured out long before he decided on an open attack that his decision will have severe financial consequences. He can say goodbye to his lucrative business ventures, which have been conducted exclusively with the government. Of course, it is possible that Simicska decided that he is rich enough and therefore no longer needs the prime minister’s help. Perhaps he stashed away his billions somewhere outside of Hungary. In any event, Viktor Orbán seems to have the upper hand here because behind him is the power of the state. But we shouldn’t underestimate Simicska, who is an exceedingly capable fellow and a skilled manipulator. Even his former friend Viktor Orbán had to admit that “Lajos is the cleverest among us.”

For the time being the top leaders of Fidesz decided to act as if nothing happened. They made sure that the state television’s evening news buried the “news of the day.” First they talked about the excellent performance of Hungarian industry. This was followed by a story on the government’s efforts to create more jobs. Next they announced that the government decided to have a “national consultation” to determine whether Hungarians want illegal immigrants or not. Only then came the news that the editors of Magyar Nemzet, HírTV, and Lánchíd Rádió had resigned and that Simicska gave several interviews, but what he said was not reported, allegedly because of the obscenities. Not a word about his disapproval of Orbán’s pro-Russian policies or his accusation that Hungary today is building another dictatorship.

In my opinion, those people, including the Fidesz leadership, who think that this whole thing will blow over are wrong. Their argument is that very few people will even hear about the incident. I disagree. Both Origo and HVG have close to a million readers a day, and the news about the Simicska-Orbán affair has been all over the internet. Those who don’t use the internet will hear the story from colleagues at work, from neighbors, or on the streets. Even a right-wing blog, Jobbegyenes (Straight right), argued that Orbán made a mistake in turning against the right-wing media developed and financed by Simicska. Both the Antall government and the first Orbán government tried to rely exclusively on state television and radio but both had to realize that this was not enough. Once Fidesz loses power, it will also lose MTV and MR and then what? It was Simicska who between 2002 and 2010 created the pro-Fidesz media empire that made the 2010 Fidesz victory possible.

I gather from an interview with Sándor Csintalan, who currently works for Lánchíd Rádió, that a certain percentage of Lajos Simicska’s business profits has been turned over to Fidesz for at least the last fifteen years. It was Simicska’s money that kept Fidesz financially comfortable. A great deal of that money, of course, came from the European Union. The EU not only kept the country afloat economically; it also unwittingly poured money into Fidesz coffers. But now, it seems, Viktor Orbán believes he no longer needs Simicska’s financial help, especially if that assistance comes at a price, meaning political influence.

At the moment Simicska is spending a week abroad while his new editors are working hard to reshape the political messages of his television station and Magyar Nemzet. I watched HírTV ‘s newscast last night, and it seemed balanced and factual. In Magyar Nemzet an editorial appeared written by Attila Kristóf entitled “Whose responsibility?” in which he is critical of the Orbán government’s most recent unfortunate decisions. According to him, “some Fidesz politicians have a lifestyle that alienates some Fidesz loyalists.” There is already disappointment, a sentiment that might change into antipathy. Of course, at the moment there is no alternative to Fidesz. The author pessimistically remarks at the end that “we don’t know what kind of future is awaiting us.”

Neither does Lajos Simicska or, for that matter, Viktor Orbán.

A different kind of media war: Lajos Simicska versus Viktor Orbán

What a day! A shakeup–no, an earthquake–at Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Nemzet Online, HírTV, and Lánchíd Rádió, all part of Lajos Simicska’s media empire.

For those who have been following Hungarian politics over the last few years Lajos Simicska needs no introduction. He was the favorite oligarch of the Hungarian prime minister. His companies won about 40% of all government contracts financed by the European Union. What fewer Hungarians remember about him is that in the early 1990s it was Lajos Simicska who saved Fidesz from financial collapse. As Zsolt Bayer, a friend of both Simicska and Orbán, admitted, “without [Simicska] there would be no Fidesz today.”

This is not the place to go into all the gory details of this financial rescue operation. Suffice it to say that the young democrats received a piece of property from the Hungarian state for a party headquarters, which they subsequently sold. They invested the proceeds in all sorts of business ventures that failed, one after the other, leaving behind millions in company debt and unpaid value added taxes. It was Simicska and a lawyer friend of his, Csaba Schlecht, who came up with the master plan. They “sold” the failed companies to bogus individuals who couldn’t be traced. Among them were homeless people who for a few forints agreed to go to a notary and sign anything that was put in front of them. Two of these people became especially infamous. Simicska and Schlecht got hold of the passports of a Turkish guest worker in Germany, Ibrahim Kaya or, as he is known in Hungary, Kaya Ibrahim, and a Croat named Josip Tot. The scandal broke during the first Orbán government, and naturally the police made no serious effort to find the culprits. One could say that Fidesz was born in sin.

For the better part of a year rumor had it that the relationship between Orbán and Simicska had soured. All sorts of hypotheses were put forth about the reason for their fallout. The most prevalent was that Orbán no longer wants to be beholden to one person and would like to widen the financial circle around Fidesz. Soon enough there were signs of Orbán’s efforts to loosen the ties with Simicska, and of Simicska’s response. By last fall a number of journalists who were absolutely devoted to Viktor Orbán were sacked at Magyar Nemzet. In early January we learned that Orbán no longer wants to help the Simicska media empire with advertisements by state companies. These media outlets have to stand on their own feet; he will throw his financial support behind the state television and radio. It was clear that something was brewing, but what really brought matters to a head was the announcement yesterday that the Hungarian government will substantially lower the advertisement tax on RTL Klub and, instead, every media outlet, even the smallest ones, will have to pay a 5% tax on their advertising revenues. That was the last straw for Simicska, who went on a rampage today.

Source: Magyar Narancs / Photo: Dániel Németh

Source: Magyar Narancs Photo: Dániel Németh

First, Simicska got in touch with Népszava last night and told the social democratic paper that “the media war will most likely become total” from here on. He told them that he considers the government’s proposed tax on advertisements “the latest attack against democracy.” In an interview with Origo he claimed that it is not money that is his first consideration, but “what will happen if one day Viktor Orbán scratches his head and decides that he will double the tax?” In brief, he is complaining about the same thing the German businessmen did to Angela Merkel.

When Simicska really lost his cool was early afternoon after he learned from his own paper, Magyar Nemzet, that Gábor Liszkay, editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet and CEO of HírTV; Ottó Gajdics, editor-in-chief of Lánchíd Rádió; Gábor Élő, editor of Magyar Nemzet On Line; Péter Szikszai, deputy CEO of HírTV; Péter Csermely, deputy editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet; and Szabolcs Szerető, deputy editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, had resigned. Their conscience, they said, does not allow them to work for a paper not in the service of Viktor Orbán.

Well, at that point Simicska went berserk. The man who in the last twenty years hardly ever appeared in public and who never gave an interview suddenly gave interviews to everybody who phoned him. He answered the phone himself and, in response to questions, spewed an array of four-letter words. First he talked to József Nagy of Hír24 and allowed him to publish their recorded conversation. He accused Viktor Orbán, whom he repeatedly called “a prick,” of being behind the resignation of his top management. He also talked about a war between two men, one of whom will fall and that fall can be “physical,” which may mean death, but he is ready even for that. “They can kill me! They can shoot me or there will be a hit-and-run accident.” From an interview with Origo we learned that Simicska and Orbán haven’t talked to each other since last April.

Perhaps the most revealing interview with Simicska was conducted by Magyar Narancs. Here he insisted that he “maximally disapproves of the government media policy” which in another interview he explained involves dividing media outlets into three categories: those who are absolutely loyal to Viktor Orbán and the government; those who here and there are critical; and the enemies. Of these three Orbán can tolerate only the absolute loyal ones and will systematically eliminate all the others.

Apparently Simicska doesn’t like Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian foreign policy either. And let me quote him verbatim on the topic. “No, I don’t like it at all. I grew up at the time when the Soviet Union was still here and I don’t have pleasant memories of the activities of the Russians in Hungary. I can’t really see any difference between the behavior of the former Soviets and the political behavior of today’s Russians.”

At this point the interviewing journalist interrupted and reminded Simicska that, according to rumors, his disagreement with Orbán has more to do with business than anything else. For example, he was left out of very profitable business transactions connected to Russian natural gas. But Simicska insisted that “there are more important things in life than money.” He and Orbán initially got together “to dismantle a dictatorship and the post-communist regime. It turned out that this is not an easy task. One must work at it. But I did not join Orbán to build another dictatorship to replace the old one. I’m no partner in such an enterprise.”

After the journalist reminded him that he and Orbán have been close friends for thirty-give years and therefore it must be hard to part in this way, Simicska said, “I must admit that it is a great disappointment. I thought he was a statesman, but I had to come to the conclusion that he is not.”

Simicska didn’t have much time to waste. As he said, Magyar Nemzet must be published tomorrow and he has to appoint a completely new top management. Moreover, Gábor Liszkay, editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet and CEO of HírTV, was a shareholder in these companies. Simicska had to buy him out. Within a couple of hours the deal was completed. Simicska apparently paid Liszkay 100 million forints or “thereabouts.” Gábor D. Horváth, the only top journalist who didn’t quit, became the editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, and Simicska himself took on the role of CEO of HírTV. And who became the editor-in-chief of Lánchíd Rádió? You won’t believe it. The same old Csaba Schlecht who managed to “sell” the bankrupt Fidesz companies to Ibrahim Kaya and Josip Tot.

I’m looking forward to seeing the articles published in the “new” Magyar Nemzet tomorrow and the days after. Will the pro-Russian and anti-American articles still appear, or will there be a noticeable change in the coverage of Hungary’s relations with Russia, the European Union, and the United States? If yes, then Simicska’s claim to having serious disagreements with Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy can be taken seriously. Otherwise, it is just a lot of hot air.

Viktor Orbán no longer needs the oligarchs’ right-wing media

It was on January 9 that I wrote a post about the reorganization of the state media. I used the word “state” instead of “public” because by now Hungarian public television and radio are no more than government propaganda tools. I also wrote about Viktor Orbán’s vindictiveness, which is manifesting itself in plans for a state TV channel devoted exclusively to news. With this move Orbán is creating an alternative, backed by the state budget, to Lajos Simicska’s HírTV, which until recently faithfully served his and Fidesz’s policies. The two men had differences, however, and in Simicska’s media empire, of which HírTV is only one outlet, a few mildly critical programs and articles have appeared of late. For Orbán such disloyalty cannot go unpunished. Hence the new state news channel.

By an uncanny coincidence, on the very day I posted my article a “secret” meeting took place in the parliament building. Not until a week later, on January 15, did the public learn that Viktor Orbán had called together the editors-in-chief of right-wing, pro-government papers “to discuss and evaluate the work of the last year with them.” That is, to talk about how well the “media lackeys,” as one blogger called them, did their jobs last year. It wasn’t that we were unaware of the close cooperation between the government and the right-wing media, but it was still something of a shock to discover that this meeting was actually an annual affair. Apparently, every January the “lackeys” and the prime minister get together to discuss the successes or failures of the these media outlets’ work in the past year.

So, there was nothing unusual about the gathering itself, but what apparently transpired during the two-hour meeting was something else. Although not all those present told the same story, it seems that Orbán informed the editors-in-chief that from here on he will rely exclusively on state television and radio for government propaganda and therefore the generous subsidies to right-wing media outlets in private hands will be curtailed or may even cease. The subsidies to these government papers and television stations came in the form of advertisements from state companies. Just in the first seven months of last year Magyar Nemzet had ad revenues of 191 million forints from the Hungarian National Bank, 91 million from MVM, and 146 million from the state lottery Szerencsejáték Rt. If state advertisements stop, the right-wing media will be in the same boat as the socialist-liberal papers and the single left-leaning radio station (Klubrádió). This would impose a heavy financial burden on the owners, for example on Lajos Simicska.

ujsag

Orbán apparently made it clear that he was not satisfied with their work last year. There was still too much criticism of the government, which makes the electorate uncertain about the wisdom of the government’s decisions. According to the very detailed description of the meeting by Népszabadságthe prime minister was of the opinion that these newspapers and HírTV can manage on their own by now. Talking specifically about Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, both belonging to the media empire of Lajos Simicska, Orbán noted that being financially independent will free them from the quandary of identity. They can be both right-wing and government-critical in good conscience.

According to some of those present, the message did not come as a complete surprise. Gábor Borókai of Heti Válasz and spokesman of the first Orbán government (1998-2002) told Népszabadság that any casual reader of the right-wing media can see that since last fall “there have been very few ads from state companies and absolutely nothing on the current campaign of the prime minister’s office.” What surprised the editors, however, was how openly Orbán talked about the government’s goals with respect to the media. He did not hide his intention to use the “public media” for government propaganda. I guess he doesn’t care that soon enough Hungary’s allies, the European Union and the United States, will hear his candid words about the connection between the government and the public media reaffirmed by some of the participants who were present at the meeting. Of course, it is possible that even this revelation will not move the European Union to act, although one of the most controversial pieces of legislation of the Orbán government was the law on the media, eventually toned down on EU insistence.

Is Orbán’s move wise? Does it make sense to alienate the right-wing media and to bet the farm on an untried news channel of state TV, which has only 10% of total viewership? I see no compelling rationale for it, even from Orbán’s point of view. Mind you, he has done so many crazy things lately that perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that he decided to take on the until now loyal press. For a government there can never be enough good press, and turning on journalists can be lethal. Viktor Orbán knows this better than most. At the end of his first term at the beginning of 2002 he bemoaned the fact that during his four years in office he had not paid enough attention to building up a friendly media. So, what then? Is he that sure of himself? That is also hard to believe given the incredible loss of popular support for his party and for himself.

There can be only one explanation for this seemingly crazy move: he really thinks that the journalists in question are totally devoted to the right-wing ideology of Fidesz and that even without extra subsidies they will not turn against him and his government. Although I don’t think that all journalists working for the right-wing media outlets are so devoted, there is a hardcore of true believers. It is unlikely that they would start writing critical articles about the government. RTL Klub was different. It was neither a right-wing nor a left-wing television station. Its editors just decided to leave out a lot of news that showed the government in a bad light. They did not want to irritate Viktor Orbán. From this neutral position it was easy to shift the newscasts to include items that previously would have been omitted.

Even if the people working for, let’s say, Magyar Nemzet abandoned their right-wing ideology, the editor and owner of a paper must also think of the readership that is accustomed to and demands a certain political stance. These papers cannot suddenly change their content although, according to ATV, Lajos Simicska, who owns HírTV, Magyar Nemzet, and Lánchíd Rádió, wants a shift in political orientation to appeal to the conservative center. The question is whether there is such a thing in Hungary. I don’t believe there is at the moment, unless as a result of Viktor Orbán’s move to the far right a more traditional center will emerge in the coming months.

All in all, Orbán might be correct in not worrying too much about the pro-government orientation of these newspapers in the future. If that turns out to be the case, the new state news channel will be just an added bonus for those folks who don’t have cable and who from force of habit watch nothing but state television. After all, this is what they did in the good old days when there was but a single TV channel. It satisfied them then and it satisfies them now.

The reorganization of Hungarian state television: An attack on RTL Klub and HírTV

Today let’s begin with one of András Bruck’s observations about Viktor Orbán which, according to him, explains a lot about the system he has been busily building in the last five years. And that is vengeance.  If someone stands in his way, he retaliates. Orbán is someone who orders the closing of the research institute headed by his former undersecretary of agriculture, József Ángyán, because he criticized the government’s land lease program. He is someone who blocks the appointment of a history professor because he happens to be the son of a man who is critical of the regime. He is the kind of person who cuts off sponsorship of the Paks football team because the city’s voters did not elect the “right” man for mayor last October.

The latest example of Orbán’s vindictive nature is the reorganization of MTV, which is supposed to function as an independent public television station but which by now is nothing more than a government propaganda machine. Admittedly, MTV badly needed a face lift. Quite a few years ago Sándor Friderikusz submitted an application to head Hungarian public television. In it he outlined the need for separate news, sports, and cultural channels instead of trying to squeeze everything into one channel, from religious services to sports events to soap operas. Friderikusz, of course, didn’t stand a chance of getting the job because of his liberal political views. Moreover, the public was told that to reorganize MTV along the lines Friderikusz proposed would be far too expensive. Well, these days MTV costs Hungarian taxpayers more than 80 billion forints for programs nobody wants to watch. And yet there is now money for multiple channels.

Somewhat belatedly, the Orbán regime came to the conclusion that after all it was a good idea to have several channels with different media content. In addition to MTV there is Duna TV, which was established to target the Hungarian diaspora in the Carpathian Basin. I don’t know how popular Duna TV is outside of Hungary’s borders, but I understand that it’s not watched much by the locals. Now it will be the “mother ship” of the reorganized MTV. It will be “the chief television station of the nation” while M1, the former mainstay of the network, will be a second BBC cum CNN. This is at least what government officials promise. They even hired a Brit, Simon Jago, who worked for BBC and al-Jazeera, to head the news channel. I wonder how long he will last once he realizes that he is supposed to run a propaganda machine. But I guess as long as he doesn’t understand the language all will be well.

In addition, there will be a sports channel (M4) and Petőfi TV, which is described as a channel for youngsters and young adults. Way back in October when the plans were first announced, 444.hu made fun of this swinging new channel “offered to the lovers of public media.” It is a well-known fact that no young adult ever watches stodgy state television. But perhaps Petőfi will do the trick.

We know that Viktor Orbán can never leave anything alone. He must turn everything upside down. Therefore it is understandable that he wants to reshape the state television network. But in this case there is more to it. The reorganization of state televison has the added benefit of making the lives of two “enemies” very difficult. I’m thinking here of RTL Klub and Lajos Simicska’s HírTV. Petőfi TV will be taking on RTL Klub while M1’s news channel will compete with HírTV.

RTL Klub is the most popular commercial television station in Hungary. The channel airs programs aimed at a younger (18–49) audience, which some high-brow people consider to be mindless entertainment. RTL Klub wanted to remain on friendly terms with the government and therefore the station’s news program did not dwell on the darker side of the Orbán regime. They rarely announced news that was uncomfortable for the government. But RTL Klub’s subservient attitude did not satisfy Viktor Orbán, who decided to drive the company out of the country by levying an inordinately large tax on its advertising revenues. RTL Klub did not take the assault lying down, and the news editors began filling their evening programs with juicy stories about the corruption cases involving government officials and friends of Viktor Orbán. The war was on. The move backfired. RTL Klub’s audience soared, and many observers are convinced that RTL Klub’s decision to “enlighten” its younger audience contributed substantially to the general dissatisfaction with the government that has been growing rapidly of late.

And there is the another problem for Viktor Orbán–his old childhood friend, Lajos Simicska, whom Orbán once described as a financial genius. Simicska became a very wealthy man, an oligarch with great political influence. There was a division of labor between Simicska and Orbán that seemed to be beneficial to both. In the last six months, however, there has been more and more talk about their falling out. Perhaps Orbán thinks that Simicska’s political influence is no longer in his own interest and would like to see him out of the picture.

Whatever the case, in addition to his company, Közgép, which has received 44% of all government contracts financed by the European Union, Simicska has a media empire that includes Magyar Nemzet and HírTV. Both have a very bad reputation as far as reliability is concerned. Magyar Nemzet must have been sued at least 300 times for publishing false information. HírTV is also notorious for falsified stories and the unprofessional behavior of their reporters. In fact, at some of the demonstrations people chanted all sorts of derogatory slogans about HírTV, and in one case one of their reporters was roughed up a bit. HírTV’s staff worked hard and with enthusiasm for the cause, but now they are no longer the favorites of the regime. Most likely they are the victims of the Orbán-Simicska feud. HírTV’s fate was sealed when it refused to air Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal speech” in Romania last summer.

Source: Válasz

Source: Válasz

Who would ever have believed that the vice president of HírTV would give an interview to the social democratic Népszava? But that is exactly what happened. Péter Szikszai, vice president of HírTV, told the reporter that it has been clear to them from the initial announcement of the plan that the creation of an MTV news channel was a move against HírTV. The creation of this new channel will cost an additional 4-5 billion forints, but experts doubt that it will be a success given the reputation of MTV. Neither HírTV nor ATV, which also specializes in news, worries about the launch of M1.

Szikszai was not kind to MTV when he predicted that the new state television news station will be full of “production reports” (termelési riportok), which were the standard fare of television news in the Kádár regime. Surely, HírTV will have no difficulty competing with such programming. They have more than ten years of experience and are ready to pick up the gauntlet. Such attacks only make them stronger. They will forge ahead without changing their profile. “Despite the advertising tax and the launch of a rival station, we will do what the job of a right-wing television station is. Even if at the moment a right-wing government does not like us.”

This last sentence sounds ideologically correct from the vice president of a right-wing TV station, but I somehow doubt that the content of HírTV will be exactly the same as it has been in the last ten years. I wonder whether they will follow RTL Klub’s example and send out their aggressive reporters who until now have gone after only opposition politicians to do the same with the members of the government that “does not like them at the moment.” Because if this is the case, Viktor Orbán’s vengeful plan may backfire.

Absentee ballots from Romania may give rise to electoral fraud

We are witnessing a mad dash to register the largest possible pool of voters in Hungary’s neighbors, especially Romania. Currently 4,000-5,000 applications for citizenship reach the office handling the cases. The hope is to get at least 300,000 dual citizens living outside of Hungary to register, a task that can be done as late as 15 days before the actual election. Three-quarters of these votes will most likely come from Romania. In fact, the Tusnádfürdő/Baile Tusnad extravaganza was also used to solicit more registered voters for Fidesz. The allegedly independent National Elections Committee’s chief, Ilona Pálffy, was on hand to make a pitch for voting in the Hungarian elections. In order to make the proposition attractive she minimized the bureaucratic hassles. In fact, she simplified the procedure to such an extent that the new investigative online website, 444.hu, immediately figured out that something was not quite cricket with the process by which a dual citizen votes.

Ilona Pálffy, formerly one of Viktor Orbán’s chief advisers, told the HírTV reporter who was present in Tusnádfürdő: “There will be many ways a dual citizen will be able to vote. He can mail his ballot in the country of his domicile to the National Election Committee; he can send it to the embassy or go to one of the consulates where there will be a box in which a person can even place all the ballots coming from the same village. He will not even need an ID. The registered voter can also bring his ballot to Hungary and mail it there. And finally, he can place his ballot in a box set up for this purpose in every voting district on the day of the elections.” Easy, isn’t it?

One’s very first question is how the authorities know that the person who arrives with a few hundred ballots is actually entrusted with the task by the voters.

Ilona Pálffy found herself in an uncomfortable position, especially after Együtt-PM cried foul and asked the obvious question. How can someone without any identification cast a ballot in the name of another person or persons? She tried to explain her earlier statement. Electoral fraud is out of the question. Hungary is simply following the practice of other countries. The voter will first place his ballot in an unmarked sealed envelope and will then put it in a second envelope with the name and the address of the voter. In one of the ways described above, these envelopes will reach the National Election Committee. There the outer envelopes will be opened and the unmarked envelopes “will be piled in a heap.” The ballots will be counted by the members of the National Election Committee.

electoral fraud

I checked the absentee ballot provisions of a few American states; several use this two-envelope solution. The inner envelope is called “secrecy envelope” and the second the “affidavit envelope” because on it there is a written declaration made under oath before a notary public or other authorized person. So far I haven’t heard anything about a declaration made under oath that would ascertain the identity of the voter. In fact, there is not word of it in the law concerning electoral procedures.

But there are other potential problems as well. Ilona Pálffy mentioned that representatives of other parties “can be present” when the outer envelopes are removed but said nothing about there being representatives of other parties at the actual counting of the ballots in the offices of the National Electoral Committee, a body whose members are all Fidesz appointees.

Then this morning I heard an interview with Zoltán Tóth, the foremost authority on elections in Hungary and abroad. He called attention to an odd distinction between “cím, lakcím” and “értesítési cím,” both meaning address. The latter is a roundabout way of saying that it is an address where a person can be notified.  (See  The Act on  Electoral Proceedings (2013. évi XXXVI. törvény a választás eljárásról). After all, aren’t the two the same? One immediately becomes suspicious: what is this all about?

Well, here at least is Tóth’s explanation. Currently “paid agents” of Fidesz (the government?) go from house to house, from village to village in Romania urging people to request a registration form. Once a request is forwarded by one of these agents, the National Electoral Commission compares the applicant’s data with the list of new citizens and decides on eligibility. After the eligibility decision is made, the registration form must be sent immediately to “the ‘értesítési cím’ of the given central register unless the citizen otherwise instructs.” In brief, it will be sent to the  central collecting center’s representative who solicited the registration.

These details are dealt with extensively in the law but nothing is said about who has to fill out the ballot and how the details of the person’s identity are ascertained. Presumably, the voter could simply tell someone else his party preference. Moreover, if there are Fidesz lists prepared in Romania as in Hungary, and apparently such lists already exist, someone could actually fill out ballots on the basis of that list. Tóth called attention to the 2010 postal voting fraud in the U.K., in Oldham, North Manchester, Richdale, and Bolton. A resident complained that he filled out the forms for his family but they were taken from his house by a party worker. Another voter complained that one of the parties got his details from the “postal voting list.”

I’m not at all surprised that the opposition parties are suspicious. Viktor Orbán doesn’t want to lose another election. His 2002 experience had a devastating effect on his psyche. The dual citizenship scheme was designed first and foremost to bolster Fidesz’s chances at the ballot box. István Mikola, minister of health in the first Orbán government, spilled the beans in 2006 when at a large Fidesz gathering he announced that “if we make voting from the neighboring countries possible at national elections we can cement our power for the next twenty years.”

I think Mikola was far too optimistic. Right now Fidesz hopes to have 300,000 registration applications. Of course, not all will actually vote, but I’m sure that the “paid agents” will make sure that most will. But even if 300,000 new voters all cast their votes for Fidesz apparently the impact on the outcome will be moderate, a difference of only about 3-4 seats. Of course, in a very close election these seats could make all the difference.

The experiences of the last three years show that Viktor Orbán and his minions are ready to use all legal and sometimes even semi-illegal instruments to make sure that they come out on top. They will do almost anything to win this election. And naturally money is no object. With this kind of preparatory work among the Romanian-Hungarian electorate the size of the Fidesz vote will be overwhelming in Romania.

Linguistic misunderstandings in a Hungarian context

On a Sunday in the middle of the summer not much is going on, and therefore I’m free to move away from everyday politics and venture into something I find equally exciting. Some history and some linguistics. Well, it is not very high level linguistics I’m talking about but rather the difficulties of understanding the true meanings of words, especially in a foreign language.

By way of background I should mention that Rui Tavares is the latest target of the Orbán government and its satellite media. He is right up there near Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai. I happen to think that he’s in pretty good company since I view both Gyurcsány and Bajnai as among the best Hungarian politics has to offer today. Ignorance and bias are the charges most frequently leveled against Tavares. A reporter for HírTV thought that he could unequivocally prove in a single stroke that Tavares is both ignorant and biased.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Breughel

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Breughel

Magyar Nemzet triumphantly announced that, interestingly enough, “the discriminatory” Dutch constitution doesn’t seem to bother Rui Tavares even as he tries to find fault with the Hungarian Basic Laws. It turned out that this information about the allegedly faulty Dutch constitution came from a HírTV  reporter. Armed with this “damaging” passage, the reporter went off to Brussels to confront Rui Tavares, who didn’t have a ready “yes or no” answer about the passage in question. The reporter was convinced that he now had proof positive that Tavares, in his zeal to condemn the Hungarian constitution, had turned a blind eye to the discriminatory Dutch constitution. Both Magyar Nemzet and HírTV were elated.

There was one very serious problem with this discovery. Our reporter’s English left something to be desired. The sentence in question in the Dutch constitution reads in English translation: “The right of every Dutch national to a free choice of work shall be recognized.” The Hungarian reporter thought that the word “national” here referred to “those of Dutch nationality” and after all, he argued, there are citizens of the Netherlands who are not of Dutch extraction. But “national” as a noun in English means “citizen” or “subject.”

By the way, the title of  this particular episode of  his TV show “Célpont” was “Tavaris és Tavares,” a stupid pun on “tovarish” or “comrade” in Russian. I don’t think that HírTV ever corrected the false statements about the Dutch constitution. Those who want to take the trouble to watch this episode will have a fair idea of the quality and tone of HírTV.

Well, this was an error committed by a Hungarian interpreting the meaning of a non-Hungarian word. But it can happen the other way around as well. Here is a good example from 1989.

This time we have to go back to the career of Zoltán Bíró, the anti-Semitic literary historian who was just named to head a new research institute that is supposed to rewrite the history of regime change in Hungary. A few days ago I mentioned him and dwelt briefly on his political career. At this point I quoted Zoltán Ripp who wrote an excellent book on the change of regime covering the years between 1987 and 1990. In it he mentions that Bïró had a significant role to play in reviving the old cleavage and enmity between the “népi-nemzeti” and “urbanista” traditions. As I’ve often said, rendering “népi-nemzeti” into English is well-nigh impossible. In any case, the New York Times article which I couldn’t find translated these two troublesome words as “populist-nationalist.” And with it came a huge misunderstanding.

János Avar, the well-known journalist and an expert on U.S. politics and history, e-mailed me right after the appearance of my post on Bíró. He called my attention to an article he wrote on this very subject in 2007. He did find The New York Times article, but because Bíró and others at the time gave the date as September 28 I never suspected that the article in question actually appeared only on October 25. Avar had more patience and was more thorough than yours truly.

The American reporter for the NYT in Budapest at the time gave a fair description of the by-now famous gathering in Lakitelek in September 1987 and mentioned that those who gathered there were “népiesek” and “nemzetiek,” which he rendered as “populists and nationalists.” The Hungarians on the spot had to be the ones who tried to explain to the American the correct meaning of these words.  According to Avar, “népies” is a mirror translation of the German “völkisch” which recently has taken on a fairly sinister meaning. My favorite German on-line dictionary says that “völkisch” means nationalist, nationalistic, ethnic, racist, voelkisch. However, it is certainly not “populist,” which we use to mean appealing to the interests or prejudices of ordinary people.

The völkisch/narodnik/népies Hungarians were up in arms and immediately suspected that the article was the result of some kind of Jewish conspiracy of the urbanists who were trying to blacken their names in the West. They suspected that the article was not really written by the reporter for The New York Times but was “dictated” by one of the Jewish members of the Democratic Opposition. They were convinced that the words “populist” and “nationalist” were code words for anti-Semites.

As János Avar rightly points out in his 2007 article,  neither “Jewish” nor “anti-Semitism” was, as in Hungary, a taboo word in the United States. If the reporter had been told that there was an anti-Semitic tinge to the gathering, he would not have hesitated to say so.

Don’t think that this was just a fleeting episode that is not worth bothering about today. Bíró as well as other right-wing and anti-Semitic nationalists continue to bring up the allegedly unpatriotic and antagonistic behavior of the Democratic Opposition toward themselves, the true patriots. In their eyes the urbanists were not true Hungarians. They wanted to imitate the West instead of returning to true Hungarian roots. Since there were a fair number of urbanists who were of Jewish extraction, the völkisch crowd found its domestic enemies. It was perhaps Bíró’s and some of his cohorts’ bad conscience that assigned unintended meanings to the words “populist” and “nationalist.”