Klubrádió

No free and plural media in Hungary? The government’s answer to Neelie Kroes

The reaction to Viktor Orbán’s speech a week ago has been uniformly negative. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal agreed with the liberal New York Times that Orbán’s vision of the future of Hungary is incompatible with western values, specifically the values of the European Union of which Hungary is a member.

This speech and its aftermath necessarily turned attention away from other developments, among which one of the most important is an article by Neelie Kroes, European commissioner responsible for the Digital Agenda for Europe. In the last four years there were two female members of the European Commission who especially irritated Viktor Orbán. One was Neelie Kroes and the other Viviane Reding, Commissioner of Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. The latter is one of the two Luxembourgians who dared to raise their voices against Viktor Orbán’s policies and therefore incurred the ire of Hungary’s “pocket dictator.”

The article appeared simultaneously on the website of the European Commission in English and in Hungarian in NépszabadságThe original title of the piece is “Media Freedom remains under threat in Hungary,” while the Hungarian title is shorter and therefore somewhat stronger: “Media freedom is in danger.”  Let me republish this short article here:

A free and plural media is the foundation of a free society, and a safeguard of democratic tradition. The new “advertising tax” in Hungary shows it is still very much under threat.

This new tax was introduced in Parliament in just a few days, without significant debate or consultation. Ostensibly an “advertising tax” to raise revenue, in fact it disproportionately affects on single media company, RTL. Indeed, according to their own calculations, they are the only single company that would face the highest rate of the tax; imposing significant losses and putting in jeopardy their ability to operate.

The conclusion is obvious. RTL is one of the few channels in Hungary not simply promoting a pro-Fidesz line; it is hard to see that the goal is anything other than to drive them out of Hungary. The Hungarian Government does not want a neutral, foreign-owned broadcaster in Hungary; it is using an unfair tax to wipe out democratic safeguards, and see off a perceived challenge to its power.

The freedom of establishment is a fundamental principle of the single market.

But it is about more than just one tax or just one company: it is part of a pattern that is deeply worrying; a pattern contrary to the EU’s values. Taxation cannot be an instrument for discrimination, and tax policy should not be a political weapon.

A new media law introduced in 2010 put huge powers over the Hungarian media into a body subject to political interference: breaching the Hungarian constitution and EU law and jeopardizing fundamental rights. Later on, opposition radio station Klubrádió lost its licence; they eventually got it back, after a complex and costly fight, but the episode revealed (in the words of the European Parliament) “biased and opaque tendering practices.” In 2013, new laws placed restrictions on political advertising. Meanwhile, just last month, the editor of oneline newspaper ORIGO was dismissed after it uncovered a political scandal; many ink his dismissal to political pressure.

Some of these criticisms and concerns have been addressed, under pressure from the EU and the international community. Others remain a very real worry.

A recent report from the OSCE shows that the impact this is having. It found that, in the run-up to recent elections, the majority of monitored TV channels showed “significant bias” towards ruling party Fidesz; with RTL being one exception. And it highlights an “increasing number of outlets directly owned by business people associated with Fidesz.” The picture it paints is of a media sector that is (at best) uncertain and self-censoring; and at worst partisan if not government-controlled.

In that environment it is deeply damaging that the government would turn a blind eye: they should be engaging positively to manage threats to media pluralism. The fact is, government control, monopoly and censorship belong to a different, darker, period in Hungary’s history: and no one should seek a return to it.

Fair and unbiased coverage is a principal function of a free and plural media. Undermining that, and attempting to silence dynamic debate, is an attack on Hungarian democracy. For the sake of that democracy, and of the Hungarian people who have fought so hard to enjoy its benefits, we cannot stand by as idle spectators.

Hungary is not the only EU country where such concerns and debates exist; these are also issues raised, with different emphases and in different contexts, in Bulgaria, Italy, the UK and others. Europe needs to get its own house in order to ensure a free and plural media. There are many proposals out there for how to achieve that–including those set out in the Report of the High Level Group chaired by Vaire Viķe -Freiberga. It’s time we started taking those ideas seriously, for the sake of our freedom and democratic values.

An answer came immediately from Gergely Gulyás, who was recently elevated to a new parliamentary position. He became deputy-president of parliament responsible for the legislative work of the House. In brief, all pieces of legislation that come before parliament will have Gulyás’s approval. Quite a position for a thirty-three year old. The tone of the letter is typical of this political leadership: arrogant and sermonizing.

Commissioner Neelie Kroes

Commissioner Neelie Kroes

“We agree with Neelie Kroes that ‘a free and plural media is the foundation of a free society’ and we are happy to report that the Hungarian media is free and plural. And as far as Hungarian society is concerned it is also free.”

According to Gulyás, everything is in order with the advertisement tax. It has been in the works for years. RTL Klub is not being discriminated against, because the tax depends on advertising revenues. RTL just happens to receive the largest share of ad revenues. Every segment of society must bear its fair share of the tax burden. RTL is no exception. Political revenge on the part of the government is out of the question because RTL Klub until now spent little time on politics. However, since the passage of the tax law the station “has been one-sidedly slandering the government and its politicians.” It seems that for Gulyás reporting on political scandals is nothing but slander.

Gulyás also objected to Kroes’s contention that the Hungarian government wants to drive out foreign companies. In this connection she reminded the Hungarian political leadership of “the freedom of establishment [which] is a fundamental principle of the single market.” Foreign companies have a large share of the Hungarian media market and this will most likely be the case for a long time to come, he said. As for “democratic values,” Gulyás would like to know exactly what kinds of values Neelie Kroes has in mind. After all, in 2013 the secretary-general of the Council of Europe found everything in order with the 2010 media law that Kroes is now criticizing.

Gergely must have been happy to find a factual error in Kroes’s letter in connection with Klubrádió. Indeed, Kroes wasn’t precise enough. Although Klubrádió valiantly fought for its survival for more than three years, it did not lose its license in Budapest. But what Gergely neglected to mention was that it did lose eleven other frequencies throughout the country. By now Klubrádió can be heard only in Budapest.

Gulyás was equally at a loss to know what Kroes could possibly mean by “biased and opaque tendering practices” in allotting radio frequencies. Gulyás “would like to inform the Madame Commissioner” that all the rules and regulations are constitutional and transparent; all applicants are treated equally, and there is the possibility of legal appeal.

As far as restricting political advertisement, Gulyás finds nothing wrong with the current practice. Every country in the Union has some restrictions. As does Hungary. And the current practice is fair because it gives the same chance to all parties regardless of their financial strength. It is in fact a highly democratic practice.  With respect to the firing of the editor-in-chief of Origo, allegedly for political reasons, there is no proof of it and “it is irresponsible of the commissioner to bring it up without any proof.”

As for the OSCE report which Kroes claims found bias in television news coverage in favor of the government, this allegation is also incorrect. If there had been such a bias, the liberal-socialist opposition parties would have gone to the Media Authority to protest, but with the exception of far-right Jobbik no party did.

Finally, Gulyás complained about the political pressure coming from the European Union every time the Hungarian parliament passes laws affecting foreign banks and companies.

This last accusation leads me back to Viktor Orbán’s speech. It looks as if the simultaneous appearance of two very strongly worded editorials in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal surprised the right-wing political analysts. They can’t imagine that these two papers would independently call for strong sanctions against the Orbán government because they were genuinely shocked by the message delivered by Viktor Orbán on the virtues of “illiberal states.” Instead, they pulled out a favorite from the Hungarian right playbook, a conspiracy theory.

Ágoston Sámuel Mráz of Nézőpont Institute, a right-wing think tank with large orders from the government, believes that “foreign interest groups may be behind the attack [on Viktor Orbán] which will be deprived of considerable revenues because of the reduction of utility prices, taxes on the banks and advertisement.” Csaba Lentner, an economist who currently teaches at the newly established Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem (National University of Civil Service)  thinks that The New York Times editorial might in fact be against international law because a newspaper from the United States is urging action by the EU against Hungary. A bizarre contention. I might add that Lenter, who is currently a great supporter of Fidesz, was a MIÉP member of parliament between 1998 and 2002. MIÉP was an openly anti-Semitic, far-right party.

Mária Vásárhelyi on the “media octopus” in Hungary

Yesterday I talked about the state of the Hungarian media. In today’s Galamus, Zsófia Mihancsik, who is a very good journalist, suggested to her colleagues that it would be a good idea if they learned to read. But, as some of you suggested, the slanted reporting on certain “sensitive” topics might be the result not so much of careless reading or writing but of a willful distortion of the facts. This is definitely true about media under the direct or indirect control of the governing party.

So, I think it’s time to look around a little in the world of the Hungarian media. Here I’m relying heavily on Mária Vásárhelyi’s essay “The Workings of the Media Octopus–Brain and Money Laundering” that appeared in the Bálint Magyar-edited volume, The Hungarian Octopus.

According to Vásárhelyi, Viktor Orbán’s psyche was crushed in 1994 when he  managed to lead his party with a 40% chance of winning the election into almost total ruin with 7.7% of the votes. Before that fiasco Orbán was the darling of the press, but subsequently he became the pariah of the then still mostly liberal Hungarian media. He decided right then and there that the goal is not to be liked by the existing media; rather, a smart politician should strive for a loyal media he can easily influence. In Vásárhelyi’s estimate Fidesz had the lion’s share of responsibility for the 1996 media law that turned out to be neither liberal nor democratic.

Once Fidesz won the election in 1998 Viktor Orbán made a concerted effort to build a media empire with the use of private and public money. Billions of public money were spent on establishing Heti Válasz and on the “rescue” of the heavily indebted Magyar Nemzet. And right-wing oligarchs like Gábor Széles, Tamás Vitézy (Orbán’s uncle by marriage), Zoltán Spéder, István Töröcskei, and Lajos Simicska put large sums of their own money into media outlets that were anything but profitable. They were hopeful that their investments would serve them well one day when Viktor Orbán again returned to power.

Between 2002 and 2010 the preponderance of media outlets shifted to the right. Moreover, by 2008 the liberal media’s financial situation was dire. Companies strapped for funds cut their advertising budgets, and the liberal media outlets had no rich oligarchs who could ensure their continued existence during the hard times. Since 2010 the lopsidedness between right and left in the field of media has only become worse. According to Mária Vásárhelyi, “only those messages which the government party wants to deliver reach 80% of the country’s population.”

octopus

Studying the changes in the political orientation of radio stations is perhaps the most fruitful and most telling because it is here that the Media Council, made up entirely of Fidesz appointees, can directly influence the media. It is in charge of allocating radio frequencies. As the result, in the last five years the radio market became unrecognizable. Every time existing radio stations had to reapply for frequencies, the frequencies were given to someone else. The new stations were owned by companies or non-profits preferred by the government party, and in consequence government advertisements immediately poured in. Between 2010 and 2012 some 50 local and regional radio frequencies changed hands. Of these Mária Rádió (Catholic Church) got seven frequencies all over the country and Lánchíd Rádió (also close to the Catholic Church) got five. Európa Rádió, which is close to the Calvinist Church, by now can broadcast on three frequencies. Magyar Katolikus Rádió has two local and two regional frequencies. All these stations are considered to be non-profit and therefore they don’t pay for the use of the frequencies.

Zsolt Nyerges has built a veritable media empire: he is behind “the three most valuable radio frequencies in the country.” During the same time the liberal stations have been disappearing one by one. Radio Café, very popular among Budapest liberals, lost its frequency in 2011. So did another popular liberal station called Radio1. Of course, Klubrádió is the best known victim of Viktor Orbán’s ruthless suppression of media freedom. Klubrádió began broadcasting in 2001 and could be heard in a radius of 70-80 km around Budapest. By 2007 the station had acquired eleven frequencies and could be heard in and around 11 cities. Soon enough Klubrádió was the second most popular radio station in Budapest. Today, Klubrádió after years of litigation moved over to a free but weaker frequency that it already had won before the change of government in 2010. Out of its 11 provincial stations there is only one left, in Debrecen, and we can be pretty sure that as soon as its contract expires Klubrádió will no longer be able to broadcast there either.

As for the public radio and television stations, let’s just call them what they are: state radio and television stations as they were during socialist times. But then at least the communist leaders of Hungary didn’t pretend that these media outlets were in any way independent: the institution was called Hungarian State Television and Radio. They were at least honest. The only difference was that in those days state television and radio aired excellent programs, especially high quality theatrical productions and mini-series, all produced in-house. Now I understand the programming is terrible and only about 10% of the population even bothers to watch MTV, and most likely even fewer watch Duna TV. Their news is government propaganda: on MTV more than 70% of the news is about government politicians and the situation is even worse at Magyar Rádió.

These state radios and television stations have a budget of over 70 billion forints, a good portion of which ends up in the hands of Lajos Simicska. How? MTV and Duna TV no longer produce shows in-house but hire outside production companies. Thus, public money is being systematically siphoned through MTV and Duna TV to Fidesz oligarchs. The programs are usually of very low quality and complete flops.

Most Hungarians watch one of the two commercial stations: RTL Klub and TV2. Both are foreign owned but as Orbán said not long ago, “this will not be so for long.” And indeed, a couple of weeks ago TV2 was sold, allegedly to the director of the company. Surely, he is only a front man. An MSZP politician has been trying to find out who the real owner is. Everybody suspects the men behind the deal are Lajos Simicska and Zsolt Nyerges.

And finally, the print media is also dying, which is not surprising given the worldwide trend. But right-wing papers are doing a great deal better than liberal and socialist ones for the simple reason that public money is being funneled into them through advertisements by the government and by state-owned companies. Even free newspapers are being brought into the right-wing fold. There was a very popular free paper called Metro owned by a Swedish company. But Orbán obviously wasn’t satisfied with its content. So, the government severely limited the locations where Metro could be stacked up, free for the taking. Thus squeezed, the Swedish owner decided to sell. And who bought it? A certain Károly Fonyó, who is a business partner of Lajos Simicska. The paper is now called Metropol and, in case you’re wondering, is doing quite well financially.

Napi Gazdaság was sold to Századvég, the think tank that was established by László Kövér and Viktor Orbán when they were still students. As I mentioned earlier, Népszabadság was sold recently to somebody who might be a front man for Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development who had financial interests in the world of the media before he embarked on a political career. The paper was owned by Ringier, a Swiss company that wanted to merge with the German Axel Springer, which owns a large number of provincial papers in Hungary. Although in many European countries the merger was approved with no strings attached, the Hungarian government set up an obstacle to the merger. The merger could be approved only if Ringier first sells its stake in Népszabadság.

Fidesz hasn’t been so active online. Most of the online newspapers are relatively independent. What keeps the party away from the Internet? Vásárhelyi suspects that it is too free a medium and that it doesn’t comport with Fidesz’s ideas of control. Surely, they don’t want to risk being attacked by hundreds and hundreds of commenters. Index, howeveris owned by Zoltán Spéder, a billionaire with Fidesz sympathies. After 2006 it was Index that led the attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány and the government. Vásárhelyi predicts that Index will turn openly right sometime before the election.

The scene is depressing. There is no way to turn things around without the departure of this government. And even then it will require very strong resolve on the part of the new government to stop the flow of public money to Fidesz media oligarchs. The task seems enormous to me.

Two polls, two different results, and disappointing opposition politicians

In the last couple of days the results of two new public opinion polls on party preferences appeared: Ipsos on November 18 and Medián today. According to Ipsos, Fidesz-KDNP and LMP gained and the left lost, both by an inconsequential 1%. Medián’s survey, by contrast, found more substantial shifts, and in the opposite direction. Fidesz-KDNP lost 4% of its support in one month and Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party, DK, became as strong as E14-PM.

Let us examine these results a little more closely. According to Ipsos, Fidesz-KDNP’s support among the electorate as a whole is 27% while MSZP’s is 15%. As for the other parties, 7% of the eligible voters support Jobbik, 3% Együtt-PM, and only 2% LMP and DK.

As for voter commitment, according to Ipsos only 36% of the electorate is certain that they would cast a vote rain or shine. And that is very low. In this group Fidesz-KDNP leads by a mile: they would receive 51% percent of the votes against MSZP’s 26%. Jobbik voters are also deeply committed to their cause and therefore show good results in this category.

Somewhat larger changes occurred in the last month or so among the 42% of the voters who call themselves undecided. Within that group the size of “the completely passive voters” decreased by 3% while the number of those who have a preference but refuse to divulge what it is grew from 8% to 11%.

And let’s pause a bit to expand on these last figures. According to Tibor Závecz, the man in charge of the monthly Ipsos polls, the pool of “secretive voters” is large, about 900,000. Although these people might not want the pollsters to know their political views, the poll takers ask indirect questions that can be quite revealing. Based on answers to these indirect questions, Závecz claims that at  least two-thirds or even three-quarters of the secretive voters actually sympathize with the left.

Moving on to Medián, I’ll compare the still very sketchy outlines of this month’s results to Medián’s October figures. What we must keep in mind is that the October results reflect the situation before the October 23 mass meeting and the public demand there for unity among the forces on the left. The attendees wanted to broaden the arrangement Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy worked out to the exclusion of other parties and groupings. At that time Fidesz had a 36% share in the electorate as a whole and 52% among those who would definitely vote at the next elections as opposed to MSZP’s 14% and 21%. Együtt2014-PM still polled relatively well: 5% in the electorate as a whole and 7% among committed voters. DK at this point was weaker than E14-PM: 3% among all voters and 4% among committed voters.

red = the whole electorate;
black = those with a party preference;
orange = will definitely vote

And what is the situation today, after the mass demonstration?  Fidesz has a 34% share among all eligible voters and among the sure voters only 48%. That is a 2%/4% loss in one month. MSZP ticked up 2% in the electorate at large and remained unchanged among committed voters. E14-PM’s support eroded by 1%: last month’s 5% and 7% are 4% and 6% today. DK, on the other hand, as many people predicted, inched up and now matches Együtt2014-PM’s levels of support: 4% and 6%. If these numbers are more than a one-off, Gordon Bajnai who just the other day referred to those who were left out of the election agreement as small parties as opposed to his own might have to revise his estimate of the situation.

And this brings me to a couple of interviews György Bolgár conducted yesterday and today. Bolgár’s program lasts two hours and consists of a mixture of interviews and listener comments. Yesterday the whole first hour was devoted to a interview with Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy. Their performances were disappointing. My own feelings were exactly the same as those of Zsófia Mihancsik and Ferenc Krémer in today’s Galamus. Mihancsik’s article was entitled “This way there is no hope,” and Krémer called his “Sadness.” Shall I say more?

Attila Mesterházy took an unyielding position, standing by the arrangement that E14-PM and MSZP worked out. All other parties, including DK that is by now as strong as E14, should be satisfied with their sorry lot and support the two of them. I wonder what Mesterházy will do if in a couple of months it turns out that E14’s support has eroded further while DK has again gained.

I strongly suggest that those who can handle Hungarian listen not only to the interviews but also to the comments that followed. It is strange that these opposition politicians refuse to heed the voice of the electorate. They didn’t believe that the demonstration for unity was genuine and now surely they will say that all listeners of Klubrádió are DK supporters. How long can that fiction be maintained?

The MSZP argument for excluding DK is their conviction that Ferenc Gyurcsány’s presence on the ticket would take away more votes than it would bring in. However, a September survey, also by Medián, indicates that this is not the case. I wrote about this poll at length back in September. It is hard to figure out why Mesterházy clings to that, in my opinion, mistaken notion.

Today György Bolgár had a shorter interview with Klára Ungár, chairman of Szabad Emberek Magyarországért Liberális Párt or SZEMA, one of the three liberal groups. SZEMA’s support is immeasurably small.

I personally like Klára Ungár, but this interview highlighted the dysfunctions that pervaded SZDSZ (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége). The party fell apart because of internal squabbling, political differences, and personal animosities. Things haven’t changed since. It was clear from Ungár’s interview that she would refuse any cooperation with the other liberals, that is with Gábor Kuncze’s group and Gábor Fodor’s new liberal party. Ungár, who hasn’t been active in politics since 1998, feels very virtuous and insists that other SZDSZ politicians should not only admit responsibility for Viktor Orbán’s rise to power but should simply disappear from political life.

So, this is the situation at the moment. A change of strategy is desperately needed as soon as possible. But after listening to Bajnai and Mesterházy I see no possibility of such a change in the near future. Meanwhile time is running out.

Rearrangement on the Hungarian left? It looks like it

Although there are many topics we could discuss today, I would like to return to party politics. I’m interested in the analysis of intra-party developments because of my fascination with personalities and their interactions. My other reason for taking up the topic is that in my opinion we will most likely witness major changes within the democratic opposition soon.

I don’t think that I ever hid the fact that I consider the arrangement that was sealed by Attila Mesterházy of MSZP and Gordon Bajnai of Együtt14-PM unsatisfactory. And, it seems, the potential supporters of this “electoral association” feel the same way as I do. Admittedly, how we feel about a certain occurrence is always influenced by our own likes or dislikes, and therefore it is not the best barometer of the effectiveness of a political action. The real problem, however, with the agreement between E14 and MSZP is that it didn’t bring the expected results. That is a fact that is hard to deny. Surely, the signatories hoped that even a loose coalition would rally the anti-Fidesz forces. It didn’t happen. On the contrary, E14 effectively lost about half of its potential voters.

Looking back on the events of the last half year, I’m actually surprised that the politicians of these two parties ever thought that the arrangement that was achieved only with great difficulty would ever work. You may recall that E14 refused to negotiate until they had their nationwide campaign. E14 politicians were obviously hoping to sit down to negotiate with MSZP from a position of strength. You may also recall that this hoped-for outcome didn’t materialize. Between March and October E14 support  hovered between 3 and 5% in the electorate as a whole. No amount of campaigning helped. Mind you, MSZP didn’t fare any better. The party was stuck between 14 and 15% among all eligible voters. Meanwhile valuable months were wasted.

After the debacle of the October 23 opposition rally and the phony Baja video scandal I hate to think what the next opinion polls will tell us about the state of these two parties. One doesn’t have to be a political genius to see that something went terribly wrong. But it seems that neither Bajnai nor Mesterházy has been willing to admit his mistake. They keep sticking to an untenable position: no renegotiation, no compromise. Everything is peachy-pie as is.

At this point, I was just waiting for the palace revolutions. I didn’t have to wait for long. Two days ago Péter Kónya, leader of Solidarity, was the guest of Olga Kálmán where the careful listener could discern deep trouble within E14.

Solidarity is part of E14-PM, but Kónya hasn’t been given much exposure despite Solidarity’s fairly extensive nationwide base. You may recall that it was Kónya who came up with the idea of an Orbán styrofoam statue imitating the Stalin statue that met its maker on the very first day of the October Revolution. Both Bajnai and Mesterházy timidly repudiated the action, which only gave further ammunition to the hypocritical outrage on the right. At this point I tried to imagine myself in Kónya’s shoes, who steadfastly refuses admit his “mistake.” I would have been furious as I believe Kónya was. Right now, he might be facing a charge of disorderly conduct. Yet he refuses to back down and told Kálmán that he was ready to go to jail if necessary.

Changing leaves

Changing leaves

It was at the end of the conversation that the really important piece of information could be heard. Yes, said Kónya, there are internal disputes concerning strategy in E14. Although at the top of the hierarchy the party leaders refuse to negotiate with Ferenc Gyurcsány, on the local level Solidarity activists are working hand in hand with DK members.  Concurrently with this interview Népszabadság ran an article with the title “Solidarity demands greater influence: Sharp criticisms.” From the article it became clear that Kónya wants a closer working relationship with the Demokratikus Koalíció.

And what one cannot read in the newspapers or hear from the politicians themselves: apparently local E14 members have been leaving the party in droves and joining DK. Apparently there are localities where E14 centers no longer exist. Surely, something must be done.

The situation is not much better in MSZP, although we know less about the inner workings of the party. The first inkling that not all’s well at Mesterházy’s headquarters came from Ildikó Lendvai, legendary whip of MSZP and later chair of the party who decided not to run as a candidate. Her decision, as we learned today, was based on her belief that she was considered one of those old timers the new leadership wants to see disappear. Mind you, Lendvai is one of the most sympathetic and smartest politicians in MSZP, and her quick mind and wit made her one of the best leaders of the MSZP parliamentary group. László Kovács, another old timer, was also on his way out. Their places were taken by second-rates.  One such lightweight was interviewed on ATV two days ago. Olga Kálmán managed to make him look like a fool.

In any case, about a week ago Lendvai gave an interview to Heti Válasz from which we could learn that she holds different views on party strategy from those of the chairman. Very diplomatically but clearly, she indicated that given the strengthening of the Demokratikus Koalíció and the weakening of E14 some kind of renegotiation of the terms of the agreement between MSZP and E14 will have to take place. She suggested that one of the problems standing in the way of a mutual understanding between MSZP and DK is that MSZP couldn’t decide on its attitude toward the party’s record during the Gyurcsány era. The way I read the abbreviated version of the interview online, Lendvai indicated that MSZP should have proudly embraced some of the accomplishments of the period between 2004 and 2009.

And then came the bungled video case. I’m sure that there were already rebels within the party who were not too pleased that Mesterházy was unable to handle the situation at the October 23 rally. An experienced politician would have been able to respond to those who demanded “unity.” Instead, Mesterházy stubbornly stuck to his prepared text just as now he stubbornly holds to the view that the agreement works splendidly when it is obvious that it doesn’t. The handling of the video was, I think, the last straw. By now it looks as if Mesterházy isn’t the master of his own house.

Yesterday came the news that some MSZP leaders, for example Gergely Bárándy and Zsolt Molnár, tried to deny that Ildikó Lendvai and László Kovács will be “advisers” to Attila Mesterházy. Today Lendvai was interviewed by György Bolgár* where she candidly shared her own views as to what strategy MSZP should pursue for participation in a unified democratic opposition. She added that this is her own private opinion that many people within the party don’t share. Clearly, she stands on the side of those who think that MSZP cannot stick with a mistaken agreement that has led nowhere. It was a mistake at the moment of its signing and since then it has become what looks like a blunder. Somehow the wrong must be righted. Now the question is: will Attila Mesterházy listen to the “oldies”?  I have the feeling he has no choice.

——–

*For those of you who understand the language I highly recommend listening to the Lendvai interview with György Bolgár available here: http://www.klubradio.hu/klubmp3/klub20131106-155854.mp3 The interview begins at 27:32 in the first part and continues in the second part: http://www.klubradio.hu/klubmp3/klub20131106-162853.mp3

Growing troubles in opposition circles

It was only a few days ago that the democratic opposition’s mass rally ended with a protest from the crowd itself–a demand for unity and the resultant quasi demonstration against Attila Mesterházy, chairman of MSZP.

What followed was almost inevitable. The two parties that had signed an exclusive political arrangement which effectively shut out the other opposition parties and groups placed the blame for the protest on Ferenc Gyurcsány, former prime minister and head of DK, a party with sizable support. It didn’t seem to matter that the other speakers’ message was the same as Gyurcsány’s; he was the only one who was accused of flaunting an alleged agreement that speakers would in no way criticize the deal between MSZP and E14-PM. Opposition leaders deny the existence of any such agreement.

Then came the accusation that it was actually Ferenc Gyurcsány himself who organized the demonstration against Mesterházy. His people were the only ones who kept demanding “unity.” I looked at several videos of the event taken from different angles, and in my opinion just as many people holding MSZP red flags shouted slogans that for a while kept Mesterházy from speaking. Some overzealous MSZP politicians like Tibor Szanyi claimed to have seen Ferenc Gyurcsány leaving the gathering in a great hurry even before Mesterházy finished his speech. The implication naturally being that after he created the disturbance Gyurcsány quickly left the scene of the crime. Szanyi turned out to be wrong. Gyurcsány, his wife, and Ágnes Vadai were present to the very end of Mesterházy’s speech. According to Gyurcsány, he even applauded Mesterházy.

Gordon Bajnai joined the MSZP politicians in forcefully asserting that the deal that was signed will in no way ever be changed. This is the best arrangement even if all the other speakers and it seems the overwhelming majority of the voters on the left don’t think so. Of course, politicians can ignore popular demand, except they do so at their own peril. My hunch is that this unbending attitude cannot be maintained for long.

mistakesBut that was not the only problem the opposition had to face. Péter Juhász, who represents Milla, a group formed on Facebook, has caused a lot of trouble in the past, and he struck again. Juhász is not a politician. He worked as an activist even before 2010 and by and large has a devastating opinion of both politicians and parties, left or right. Therefore he often talks about the “past eight years” exactly the way Fidesz politicians do. I assume that within E14-PM his colleagues try to temper his outbursts, but it seems that he cannot help himself. Shortly after the October 23 gathering Juhász was the guest of Olga Kálmán on ATV where he announced that he would never want to stand on the same platform with Gábor Kuncze or Ferenc Gyurcsány. Moreover, he claimed that Kuncze wasn’t invited to participate. I guess Kuncze just appeared on the scene. Crashed the party, so to speak.

These unfortunate remarks were not without consequence. A number of well-known people, like Attila Ara-Kovács, László C. Kálmán, Mária Ludassy, and Ádám Csillag withdrew their support for E14. Most of them added that this Juhász incident was just the last straw. They had had their problems with E14 even before. Gordon Bajnai seems to be adrift, without a firm idea of his party’s goals. And E14’s floundering is reflected in its poll numbers. A year ago support for E14 was about 12%; now it hovers around 5%.

But that wasn’t the only blow to the democratic side. Shortly before he retired from politics Gábor Kuncze was asked by Klubrádió to be the moderator of a political show once a week. Although Kuncze’s program was popular, the owner of Klubrádió, András Arató, decided that since Kuncze agreed to make a speech at the opposition rally he should be dismissed. The result? A fair number of loyal listeners who have been generously contributing toward the maintenance of Klubrádió are angry. Some have gone so far as to stop contributing to the station, which is strapped for money due to the Orbán government’s illegal manipulation of the air waves. They argue that Klubrádió knew about Kuncze’s plans to attend and that Arató should have warned him about the possible consequences. These people figure that the speedy and unexpected dismissal was due to a “friendly” telephone call from MSZP headquarters. The station denies that they have ever yielded to political pressure and claim that no such call came.

Finally, there is the case of a sympathy demonstration organized in Budapest demanding territorial autonomy for the Hungarian-speaking Szeklers who live in a solid mass in three counties in the middle of Transylvania. Since I’m planning to write something about the autonomy question, I’m not going into the details here. It’s enough to say that the views of the Hungarian political leaders in these parts are close to Jobbik. The most important Hungarian party in Romania is a center-right party called RMDSZ, but Fidesz feels more comfortable with the Szeklers.

The sympathy demonstration was organized by CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum), the Szekler National Council (Székely Nemzeti Tanács), and Fidesz. CÖF is the “civic” forum, actually financed by the government, that organized the two peace marches against the “colonizers” and that was also responsible for gathering the supporters of Fidesz for the mass rally on October 23. Well-known anti-Semites like Zsolt Bayer, Gábor Széles (owner of Magyar Hírlap and Echo TV), and András Bencsik have prominent roles in CÖF. The Goy Bikers also made an appearance at this demonstration.

Both MSZP and E14-PM decided to support the march as well as Szekler autonomy. They argued that after all RMDSZ also gave its cautious approval to the march that concurrently took place in Romania. RMDSZ’s position, of course, is very different from that of MSZP and E14. After all, RMDSZ needs the Szeklers’ vote; MSZP and E14 don’t. Or, more accurately, supporting their demands will not prompt the Szeklers to vote for these two leftist parties at the next election. Those who vote will vote for Fidesz.

MSZP was satisfied with verbal support, but E14 politicians actually marched along with all the right-wingers and Goy Bikers! And with that move E14 lost even more supporters.

If the opposition is to stand any chance at the next election it can’t keep alienating potential voters. And it shouldn’t act like an exclusive club open only to the MSZP-E14 “founding members.” Politics is a numbers game, and numbers rise with inclusiveness. And with unity.

Listening to Hungarian government propaganda: MTV and MR

Yesterday a newcomer to this blog posted a comment in which he said that he refuses to believe news reports that are broadcast on Klubrádió. In this particular instance, that 350,000 Hungarians work abroad and that this number constitutes 7.4% of the population between the ages of 18 and 49. That incredible closed-mindedness inspired me to do some research on the subject.

First, the news naturally didn’t originate with Klubrádió. The station relied on Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI), the official Hungarian news agency, which since 2010 is no longer an independent organization but functions under government supervision. Also, while earlier news organizations had to pay for the wire service, since 2010 the Hungarian government “generously” provides the service free of charge. MTI thus has a monopoly; all news outlets rely either in large part or exclusively on MTI’s increasingly biased summaries.

I decided to take a look at how various media outlets reported the news of July 11, 2013, the day the Central Statistical Office (KSH) released two important items. The first dealt with the latest figures on living standards or more precisely on the situation of people who live at or below the subsistence level. A couple of hours later came the surprising news about the high numbers of Hungarians who work abroad.

The figures about the plight of more than half of the population who live in very modest circumstances or in outright poverty appeared in practically all publications. It was only the extent of the coverage that varied. I went to the website of MTI to find the original news release. Pro-government papers (Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Hírlap) copied the MTI summary without changing a word. That summary was brief indeed: 292 words. It is educational to take a look at the original release of KSH to see that MTI was especially loath to give any past figures that would have shown that the situation is getting worse and worse every year. The opposition papers for the most part were not satisfied with simple copying; they went to the original source and did their own summaries of KSH’s report.

When it comes to the 350,000 Hungarians working abroad, Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap decided not to include this particular MTI news report in their papers. I guess they thought that it would be bad for business for their highly nationalistic readership to be confronted with such depressing news. This morning, however, both papers ran lengthy articles about what Tibor Navracsics had to say in response to the news. Navracsics delivered a speech to a meeting of Fidelitas, Fidesz’s youth organization, in which he tried to cheer up his audience by pointing out that the trend of young men and women leaving the country “can be reversed.” The faithful Fidesz supporters who refuse to read any other papers might have been somewhat baffled about this mysterious “trend” they never heard of.

I took the trouble to read all the MTI releases for July 11 and noted those items I found most significant over and above the two reports of KSH. (1) György Surányi, former chairman of the Hungarian National Bank, and Attila Chickán, minister of economics in the first Orbán administration, announced that in fact the present Orbán government is not “doing better” than its predecessor. (The current Fidesz slogan is “Hungary is doing better.”) (2) The Orbán government allocated from the reserves 4 billion forints for higher education and 1 billion for sports. (3) Együtt 2014-PM at last managed to get registered. (4) MTI released a graph that showed that average teachers’ salaries have decreased since 2010. (5) Barroso will attend a conference in Warsaw where they will discuss the future of Europe. (6) A graph showed the deficit of the central government and the municipalities for the first six months of the year. (7) The Croatian prosecutors’ office asked its Hungarian counterpart to allow them to interrogate Zsolt Hernádi, CEO of MOL, who is suspected in a bribery case in Croatia. As we will see later, none of these items was discussed either on Magyar Rádió, the public radio station that can be heard everywhere in the country, or on MTV, the Hungarian public television station.

Source: bluntradio.org

Source: bluntradio.org

Let me start with “Hiradó” (News) of MTV. Here all news is good news. (1) Inflation is low. Only 1.9%. (2) In the future 60% of EU subsidies will go to stimulate economic growth which will be impressive. (3) Small- and medium-size companies get more government assistance than at any time before. (4) An Irish company invested a billion forints in Szolnok. (5) The government signed several new strategic agreements with foreign companies. (6) At no time were government bonds as popular both at home and abroad as now. It shows that investors trust the Hungarian government’s economic policy. (7) At last teachers in parochial schools will get the same salary as teachers in state schools. (8) Sándor Burány (MSZP) claimed that Hungarians are poorer today than they were before. Fidesz answered that it is all the former governments’ fault. (9) Benedek Jávor (Együtt-PM) complained about the chaos with the newly introduced E-toll system but Fidesz assured him that all was well. (10) As for Hungarian culture in the world, the folk festival in Washington was a great success; 1.2 million Americans had the opportunity to learn something about Hungary and its culture. (11) The prime minister of  Luxembourg resigned. (12) It is the anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica.

So, this is what apparently most Hungarians hear on MTV’s news. But Mária Vásárhelyi, a sociologist whose field is the media, claims that fewer and fewer people actually watch MTV’s news. The situation is different with Magyar Rádió. According to her, in some houses MR is on all day long; even if people don’t listen very carefully, some of the propaganda gets through.

Well, the menu is not very different on MR from what I heard on MTV. In its Krónika the same stories could be heard practically word for word, even in the same sequence as on Hiradó on MTV. At least on its 5:30 p.m. version. At 8:00 p.m. there was a slightly different set of news items highlighting the same success story. Viktor Orbán’s great plan for saving jobs worked beautifully: 720,000 jobs were saved. At this hour it seems that Hungarian news from the neighboring countries gets special treatment. There were a couple of news items from Romania and Serbia. By 10:00 p.m. there was a lot of talk about the success of Hungarian tourism: 20% more foreigners decided to spend their holidays in Hungary. These people start discovering other parts of the country, not just Lake Balaton. Hungarians seem to be better off too because more of them go on vacation. At least 10% more than last year.

And finally, I combed through the July 11 news items of Klubrádió. Here we have a more balanced account of the news. We hear the good and the bad. They mention the relatively low inflation rate and Varga’s boasting about the 720,000 saved jobs, but they also include the KSH reports and the Croatian prosecutors’ desire to talk to Hernádi.

After spending the whole morning listening to the news of MR and MTV I am not surprised that some media experts claim that by the 1980s even the Kádár regime’s news reporting was of higher quality and more balanced than what Hungarians get today in the so-called democratic Hungary.

Odds and ends from Hungary: A court case, a new poll, and a successful country

Again, there are too many interesting topics and I don’t know which one to pick. So I decided to cover as many as I have space for without making the post too long.

First, I received a short note from András Arató, CEO of Klubrádió, announcing the Kúria’s landmark decision with regard to one of the controversial writings of Zsolt Bayer. The decision was rendered in a case that involved Klubrádió.

I wrote about the article,”The Same Stench,” which was the subject of the case, at the time of its publication. In it Bayer called Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a member of the European Parliament, and András Schiff, the internationally acclaimed Hungarian pianist, “stinking excrement” and lamented the incompleteness of the massacre in the forest of Orgovány where many Hungarian Jews were murdered in 1920.

In “Let’s Talk It Over,” the most popular program on Klubrádió, its host György Bolgár talked to Péter Feldmájer,  the chairman of MAZSIHISZ. In the course of their conversation they labeled the Bayer article anti-Semitic. Bayer sued for infringement of his personality rights and also for damages, claiming that because of the interview he ceased to receive commissions for articles from the French daily, Le Monde. The case eventually ended up in the Kúria, which is the highest court of the land. No further appeal is possible.

In its  June 26 ruling, the Kúria found that a reading of Bayer’s article could logically and lawfully lead to the finding that the contents of the article were anti-Semitic. Bayer’s attempts to frame the reference to Orgovány as a mere metaphor failed. According to the ruling, he must endure the criticism that his article deserves and must allow others to form an honest opinion of the article without using the legal institution of personality rights to shield himself from public criticism.

This ruling of the Kúria is of landmark importance, as it finally shows that neo-Nazi, racist, and hate speech cannot be published with impunity in Hungary. Freedom of expression and its manifestation in the form of criticism stand as potential means for anyone seeking to take action against extremist statements.

All in all, Klubrádió is proud that it had a role to play in this very important decision.

I might add that it would be nice if the Media Authority actually allowed Klubrádió to broadcast on a frequency which can be used free of charge and which the station is entitled to use. Although at least a month has gone by since the court decision in Klubrádió’s favor, nothing has happened yet although the Media Authority has no right to appeal.

* * *

You may recall that a couple of weeks ago I spent a whole post on an interview with the CEO of Medián about the intricacies of poll taking in Hungary.  Medián just came out with a poll that probed public reaction to the tobacconist shop affair. Their first attempt at gauging public reaction was three weeks ago when 56% were against making tobacco products a monopoly and disapproved of the way it was done. By now that number is 73%. Moreover, the percentage of those who heard about the affair is exceptionally high: 94%.

What is especially interesting is the breakdown by voting groups.  There were basically three main questions asked. The first was whether it is appropriate for a government to decide who can and who cannot sell tobacco products. The second concerned the appropriateness of a government party favoring its own adherents in allotting the concessions. And finally the respondents were asked what would they do now if they were in the position to do something about the situation that was created by the government.

To the question about the appropriateness of the government deciding who can and who cannot sell tobacco products, the overwhelming majority (73%) were against it and only 19% were for it. Not even Fidesz voters are crazy about the idea. As for the idea of a tobacco monopoly, 43% disapprove while 10% have no opinion; 47% support the government on this issue. Supporters of MSZP, E14 and other smaller parties on the left overwhelmingly, and predictably, oppose the nationalization of tobacconist shops (85-90%). What is much more interesting is the reaction of those people who are undecided. Among them 76% are against the government scheme. Medián differentiated another category whom they call “active undecided” voters. Those are the ones who say that they definitely will vote but that they still don’t know for whom. Among them 74% opposed the monopolization of tobacco products.

To the question of whether it is appropriate for a party in power to favor its own, half of the Fidesz voters answered in the negative. All others, including the undecided and the actively undecided, were overwhelmingly (80-93%) opposed. Let’s not forget that Viktor Orbán announced that he saw nothing wrong with favoring Fidesz supporters over others.

Finally there was the question of what to do with the state of affairs that was created as a result of the tobacco monopoly and the way the concessions were granted. 51% of those asked would undo everything and would allow anyone who wants to sell cigarettes to be able to do so. 26% would start anew by scrapping the results and announcing a new competition for the available stores. Only 14% wouldn’t change anything.

What do these figures tell us, especially in light of other polls on party preferences? All three of the most recent polls show Fidesz leading by a large margin over MSZP and by 6-8% over a united democratic opposition. But the percentage of undecided voters is still very large. According to Tárki, it is 49%. If the population’s dislike of the monopolization of tobacco products and their disgust with the concessions is any indication, the undecided and especially the actively undecided voters may offer up some surprises.

* * *

And, finally, here is a priceless Orbán quotation. He was in Brussels today at a meeting of the prime ministers of the member states. He told reporters afterwards that he looked around the table and there was not one prime minister whose country was successful. It was a strange feeling to represent the only economically successful country in this company. And here are these unsuccessful losers who give advice to him, the only successful one. But he took no offense!

Success by Kevin Houle / flkckr

Success by Kevin Houle / flkckr

In line with his allegedly conciliatory attitude to the West European losers, Orbán decided to give in on the issue of political advertisement. As things stand now, no party can advertise on any  commercial television or radio station during the campaign season. He announced that this restrictive law will be changed to allow parties to advertise on commercial stations. But the stations must provide the service free of charge. I’ll bet they will be thrilled. On the other hand, given the financial state of the opposition parties, getting some free advertising might help restore the balance between Fidesz with its practically unlimited resources and opportunities and the poverty-stricken opposition parties. Of course, in the “devil in the details” department, we don’t know how much time the commercial stations will set aside for “upaid” political advertisements and whether these ads will be permitted during prime time or only when the vast majority of people are either at work or asleep.