hungarian media

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.

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A severe blow to the Orbán government: The Tavares report is accepted by the LIBE Commission

After less than a day of very hard work getting everything installed and tweaked on my new computer I’m up and running with only minor temporary inconveniences. So, it is time to return to my daily routine of  monitoring the Hungarian media. Today I’ll concentrate on the Tavares report that was prepared for a vote in the European Parliamentary Committee of  Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE).

You may recall that I left off with the approximately 500 amendments to the draft report, of which about 200 were submitted by Fidesz MEPs and a Slovak and a Romanian member of parliament of Hungarian nationality. The vote was scheduled for June 19.

Given the enormous number of amendments, Hungarian newspapers predicted that the session would be very long, taken up with debating each of the submitted amendments, and they seemed to be surprised that after only two or three hours it was all over. They also emphasized that the committee was highly divided on the issue and so the vote one way or the other would be very close. That prediction also turned out to be erroneous. Of the 58 people present (the committee has 60 members) 31 voted for the report, 19 against it, and 8 abstained. I wouldn’t call that exactly close. In fact, observers in Brussels were somewhat surprised at the outcome. They expected a much closer vote, considering that half of the members come from either the European People’s Party (EPP) or the group of conservatives and reformers.

Kinga Gál (Fidesz), one of the deputy chairmen of LIBE, immediately announced that it was a lie that some EPP members voted for the Tavares report, adding that a few of them abstained. But the numbers don’t add up. Someone from that group had to endorse the report. After all, there were 29 right-of-center MEPs present. But even Fidesz MEPs had to admit that, in spite of very heavy lobbying, they failed to alter the text of the original proposal in any significant way. Most of the Fidesz amendments were thrown out.

One substantive suggestion came from the chairman of LIBE, Juan Fernando López, who proposed some additional text. He suggested that a serious investigation of the new Hungarian election laws be undertaken and that the Office of Human Rights actually monitor the forthcoming election. Quite a blow for a member country of the European Union. A first.

It seems that some Hungarian MEPs felt compelled to make a scene. I guess nobody who knows anything about Krisztina Morvai (Jobbik) will be terribly surprised to learn that she managed to wreak havoc in the committee meeting. Morvai is not a member of LIBE, she was there only as a spectator. Just before Chairman López called for a final vote, she interrupted the proceedings. She  denied the legality of the procedures followed by the committee and held up a poster reading: “The European Union is a dictatorship.” López warned her that “the European Parliament is not a circus.”

The tooth lion of the Chain Bridge, Budapest / commons.wikipedia.org

The toothless lion of the Chain Bridge, Budapest commons.wikipedia.org

As it turned out, some members of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats were convinced that Morvai was a Fidesz MEP; after all, her arguments in defense of the Hungarian government’s position were identical to those articulated by Enikő Győri, undersecretary in charge of European Union Affairs, except Győri used milder language. She called the report “deeply biased” and claimed that even the report’s facts don’t stand up to scrutiny. The committee discarded corrections of factual errors that EPP members submitted to the committee. Therefore, the Hungarian government still cannot subscribe to the report’s conclusions. She contended that the report is a political document that was heavily influenced by party politics. After all, she claimed, European parliamentary elections will be held next year and therefore it was predictable that the split in the committee was entirely along party lines. As we have seen, Győri is not exactly reliable on this point. Her verdict was that “the committee clearly overstepped its authority.”

The Fidesz MEPs went even further. They announced point blank that the Tavares report’s acceptance by the LIBE commission has “neither legal, nor budgetary, nor economic consequences.” The same is true of the possible adoption of the report by the full plenary session of the European Parliament sometime in July. One could ask: if the European Parliament is such a toothless lion, what on earth is the Fidesz delegation doing in Brussels? Why do they even bother to participate in the useless activities of the European Parliament?

As for the Tavares report, it is no more than “a party dictate of the European Left.” As far as the Fidesz delegation is concerned, this document is simply unacceptable. In any case, it is the end of the excessive deficit procedure that really matters and that was approved by Ecofin today. The delegation also expressed its optimism concerning a satisfactory resolution to the Hungarian government’s debate surrounding the fourth amendment to the new Hungarian constitution which, they are certain, will end in Hungary’s favor. I find this last prediction just a bit premature considering the very strong condemnation of the latest constitutional amendments by the Venice Commission, which is comprised of internationally renowned constitutional lawyers.

There is no question that the adoption of the Tavares report is a severe blow to the Hungarian government. The answers referencing bias, party politics, and the European Parliamentary election next year sound hollow, especially if one takes the trouble to read the Tavares report or the opinions of the Venice Commission.

Viktor Orbán’s bad billing: From the World Jewish Congress to the European Parliament

Before I turn to the topic of today’s post I would like to call everybody’s attention to several documents that are now available in English concerning the latest amendments to the Hungarian Constitution. The first is the draft report of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (Rapporteur: Rui Tavares) on Hungary. This is the report that was the basis of today’s debate in the European Parliament’s LIBE Committe. The transcript of the debate is not yet available but let’s hope that it will be soon. You have to keep in mind that the European People’s Party (EPP), to which Fidesz belongs, has the majority. If the EPP delegation solidly supports Orbán, nothing will happen.

The discussion of the draft report already began in the Hungarian media. Magyar Nemzet described it as a “left-liberal ultimatum” and George Schöpflin, Fidesz EP MP, found the document “humiliating.” Népszabadság simply recounted the demands outlined in the document and came to the conclusion that, if accepted, the Hungarian government will be forced to withdraw practically all of the amendments.

Another document, also in English, can be found on the website of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry. It is an analysis written by three legal scholars who were asked by János Martonyi  to give their opinions on the fourth amendment to the constitution. The three scholars were Francis Delpérée, Pierre Delvolvé, and Eivind Smith. These are conservative legal scholars, and the Hungarian government hoped that they would fully support the Hungarian point of view. As you can see, this was not the case. They also found plenty to criticize.

tvlistings.zap2it.com

tvlistings.zap2it.com

And now let’s look at some reactions to Viktor Orbán’s speech at the World Jewish Conference. The speech is now available in English. Commentators critical of Viktor Orbán and his government found the speech no more than empty rhetoric while Magyar Nemzet not only praised his speech but also reported that yesterday Ronald Lauder apologized to Viktor Orbán because he was unaware of the Orbán interview that appeared in Yedioth Ahronoth, a Tel Aviv daily. In it, Orbán admitted that Jobbik poses a real danger. “We in Hungary must be especially careful to act as categorically as possible against this phenomenon. If we want to protect democracy, we must take a firm stand against Jobbik. Jobbik has developed a political ideology that quite obviously violates the human rights of Jews at both an individual and community level.” Well, I don’t think that Lauder had to apologize. It was easy for Orbán to say something specific about Jobbik in a Hebrew-language paper published in Israel. He was reluctant, however, to say a word about Jobbik in Hungarian in Budapest.

The foreign press was pretty hard on Orbán. According to Die Welt, Orbán’s words were only “half-hearted” and he refused to talk about any “tangible measures” he is contemplating to curb anti-Semitism in Hungary. The applause at the end of the speech “remained polite.” According to James Kirchick in Spiegel InternationalOrbán whitewashed anti-Semitism. “Orbán’s speech was notable more for what it left out than what it said.”

The reporter for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote that Orbán tried to minimize the problem in Hungary by pointing to the rest of Europe. The Austrian Der Standard carried an editorial by Eric Frey that was a strongly worded indictment of Orbán’s speech. Even the title was telling: “Anti-Semitism in Hungary: Orbán’s subtle complicity.” Frey argued that Orbán “plays on the same chauvinistic and xenophobic keyboard as the anti-Semites and gives them backing.” Frey extended his criticism by maintaining that “anti-Semitism is only one component–and certainly not the biggest–of the undemocratic, bigoted and anti-European masonry Orbán has built to secure his power for years to come.”

Naturally, everybody is waiting to see what will follow Orbán’s condemnation of anti-Semitism in general terms. Will they remove the name of the anti-Semitic Bishop Ottokár Prohászka from the streets and pack away his statues? Will they stop the ever-growing Horthy cult and direct local communities to get rid of the statues of Admiral Miklós Horthy? Personally, I very much doubt it.

There was, however, one interesting development yesterday. During the last three years it rarely happened that an MSZP suggestion to table a parliamentary discussion was ever accepted by the Fidesz majority. But, behold, yesterday it happened. MSZP suggested that the Hungarian government should make it possible for every Hungarian student to visit Auschwitz at least once. Earlier that proposal was voted down by the Fidesz caucus. Yesterday, however, Zoltán Pokorni, the chairman of the committee on education, announced that the government party would reconsider the proposal as long as such a trip would not be compulsory for the schools. It would only be a possibility.

Well, this isn’t much, but it is something. Although one can very well imagine that certain principals will simply refuse to participate in such a program. Even if it’s free.

Tomorrow will be a fateful day as far as Hungarian-European Union relations are concerned. One crisis after the next, but apparently the Hungarian prime minister thrives in such an atmosphere. So for a while he will be in his element. After this hurdle will come the question of the excessive deficit procedure. The Hungarian government is preparing for the worst.