Péter Csermely

Magyar Nemzet and the Orbán government: A falling out?

While we were analyzing the relevant sentences in Viktor Orbán’s speech of July 26 in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tuşnad an interesting exchange was taking place between Magyar Nemzet and the very government which this newspaper until now at least loyally served. The first spat between former friends occurred when the government contemplated levying extra taxes on companies which had received the bulk of government orders paid with funds from the European Union. Magyar Nemzet also expressed its disapproval of advertisement taxes on the media. In order to understand the reason for these indignant editorials one must understand that the company behind Magyar Nemzet is part of a complicated labyrinth of firms belonging to Lajos Simicska and his close business partner, Zsolt Nyerges.

These rumblings in Magyar Nemzet have only intensified since Orbán’s infamous speech. The editors of the paper, most likely encouraged by the owners, seem to have had enough of the boorish and aggressive behavior of people surrounding Viktor Orbán. Csaba Lukács received the job of writing an article about Viktor Orbán’s speech which created such turmoil all over the world. Of course, Lukács’s article was duly appreciative of the great thoughts of the prime minister. And he suggested that the opposition’s fierce attack on the speech was unwarranted because, after all, Orbán “only dared to state that the liberal organization of the state administration had failed and instead one must find something else.” As we know, he said more than that, but one can’t expect a journalist of Magyar Nemzet to expose the truly dark side of the speech.

At the end of the article, however, Lukács added a paragraph that had nothing to do with the weighty political matters discussed in Tusnádfürdő. Lukács, a Transylvanian native who moved to Hungary shortly after the regime change, noted with dismay that “the number of people around  the prime minister who are quite servile toward him but who show stupid aggressiveness toward everybody else has multiplied at a frightening speed lately. A typical example of the type is the press secretary of the prime minister who physically attacked our cameraman while he should help the work of the journalists. We would like to note: neither boorishness and aggressiveness, nor even panting servility, is a civic [polgári], Christian conservative virtue.” Well, that is a daring act in today’s Hungary.

Press Secretary Bertalan Havasi didn’t leave this paragraph unanswered. He accused the journalist of Magyar Nemzet of lying, pure and simple. He claimed that he was standing with his back to the cameramen and therefore couldn’t possibly have attacked them physically. In fact, he was the one who received verbal abuse from them.

Magyar Nemzet didn’t back down; instead, it provided the gory details of the encounter. In the newspaper’s version Havasi punched the cameraman of Magyar Nemzet in the stomach. As a result he lost his balance and fell on another cameraman, who also lost his balance with his own camera hitting him on the head. When the cameraman told Havasi that “you shouldn’t do that,” Havasi asked: “And then what will happen?” At which point the cameraman told him off by using an obscene word. I might add that Magyar Nemzet’s cameraman ended up in the hospital.

Bertalan Havasi is a constant companion of Viktor Orbán / Photo MTI

Bertalan Havasi is a constant companion of Viktor Orbán / Photo MTI

Opposition papers had great fun watching this exchange of words between the normally servile Magyar Nemzet and the almighty Bertalan Havasi. I’m sure that they were sorry that the cameraman didn’t hit the press secretary, as he threatened, because this is not the first time that Havasi has behaved in an unacceptable manner. In fact, the pro-government publication Válasz also noted that “Bertalan Havasi has gotten into altercations with several members of the press corps before.” Válasz seconded the opinion of Csaba Lukács that Havasi is “aggressive and arrogant and his behavior is unworthy of a public servant.”

Of course, Válasz is quite right, but Havasi’s reaction  “And then what will happen?” is typical not only of  him but of the whole regime. And the reaction is understandable, even justified, since there are no limits to the power of the prime minister and the people serving him.

I have already written about the troubles Orbán’s only new minister, Miklós Seszták, is encountering. The media discovered that as a lawyer Seszták was involved in some highly questionable business transactions. Since that post in Hungarian Spectrum some more dirty business dealings were unearthed, of which perhaps the most serious is a 30 million forint EU grant for Seszták’s car dealership. Of course, he himself did not apply for the money; an old high school friend came to the rescue. He spent the 30 million adding new offices to the already existing building of the dealership. In addition, Seszták seems to own some businesses registered in Cyprus, considered in Hungary to be offshore since Cyprus is a favorite haven for Hungarian tax evaders.

Enter Magyar Nemzet again. This time one of the three deputy editors-in-chief, Péter Csermely, wrote an editorial (vezércikk) with the title: “The minister should step aside.” Csermely didn’t mince words; he said that Seszták is unfit for the job of minister of national development. Or for any kind of high political position. After the appearance of this editorial, cink.hu quipped that “Magyar Nemzet became the printed version of the RTL Klub” which since the introduction of the advertisement levy makes sure that their news broadcast always contains some less than savory affair of either Viktor Orbán or some of his close associates.

And what was the reaction to Magyar Nemzet’s demand for Seszták’s resignation? Exactly the same as Havasi’s was in Tusnádfürdő: “And then what?” Nothing! Seszták has no intention of resigning because he obviously can count on Viktor Orbán’s support. And that is enough in Hungary not to worry about any repercussions of illegal activities.

For one reason or other Seszták seems to be a pivotal man in the new administration. So far he has focused on cleaning house, getting rid of about 200 employees in the ministry. What course the newly staffed ministry of national development will take is unclear, but Orbán obviously decided that the old guard had to go.

Since it is extremely difficult to get any information about Viktor Orbán’s inner circle, Hungarian journalists are just guessing about the reasons for Magyar Nemzet‘s new tone. One of the most commonly held views is that there has been a falling out between Viktor Orbán and Lajos Simicska, the paper’s owner. The prime minister wants to curb Simicska’s influence in the Hungarian economy and through it on Hungarian politics. Something is certainly afoot, but I guess it will take some time before we can uncover the real reasons for the exchange of words between Magyar Nemzet and the Orbán government.

Renewed attack on the Hungarian media: freedom of the press is at stake

As I was settling down to write this post, a large demonstration in Budapest was just coming to an end. It was organized by journalists who protested the sudden firing of the editor-in-chief of Origo, one of the best and most widely read internet newspapers. Gergő Sáling, the editor in question, has been working for Origo for twelve years, but it was only in November 2013 that he was named editor-in-chief of the paper. Why did the owner of Origo, Magyar Telekom, decide to sack Sáling? Origo has the reputation of being an independent site that views Hungarian politics in a critical manner. But rumor has it that pressure was put on Origo to change its government-critical posture, and as a result editors-in-chief have come and gone lately. It seems that Sáling was not pro-government enough. In fact, he made the mistake of allowing András Pethő, one of the journalists at Origo, to investigate the latest Lázár affair.

The sign says "Is it still possible to bark?" Source: Klubrádió

The sign says “Is it still possible to bark?” Source: Klubrádió

The Origo affair is only the tip of the iceberg. Since winning two elections in a row, Fidesz and the Orbán government have decided to attack the remaining remnants of Hungarian democracy with full force. Besides the NGOs, their other target is the media. This time, however, they may have gone too far. Something unexpected happened. Even right-wing journalists joined liberals to oppose the latest plans to silence critical voices.

A new bill was submitted for consideration to levy heavy taxes on media outlets’ advertising revenues. The new bill proposes taxes on all such revenues but on a sliding scale. Those outlets with the largest advertising revenues would have to pay a tax of 40%. The bill seems to have been aimed at RTL Klub, the largest foreign-owned commercial television station in Hungary. The other important commercial station is TV2, but it seems it would be spared the 40% levy. You may remember that TV2 was recently purchased by mysterious buyers suspected of being closely connected to Fidesz. So, the first reaction was that the Orbán government wants to eliminate TV2’s only serious competitor by financially ruining RTL Klub. The management of the television station claims that if they are forced to pay such a hefty sum on their advertising revenues, they might as well close their doors. Soon enough they will be bankrupt. In fact, RTL estimated that its share of the ad tax would be about 4.5 billion forints, nine times its 2013 profits.

The story might not be so simple, however, because it looks as if TV2’s management is also up in arms and ready to join RTL Klub’s protest. I also heard rumors that even HírTV might join them. That may be only a rumor, but today’s Magyar Nemzet came out with a scathing editorial on the advertising tax. Péter Csermely, deputy editor-in-chief of the paper, viewed the bill as a bald political move: “the two-thirds indeed wants to step on the throat of freedom of the press.” Strong words from Csermely who normally on the P8 program makes Fidesz politicians look good with his softball questions. In his opinion, taxing advertising revenues makes no sense whatsoever because the central budget will receive only nine billion forints from this new tax while every ten forints spent on advertising adds fifty forints to the GDP. So, he came to the conclusion that the proposed tax is meant to put a lid on free speech and the press.

But that is not all. László L. Simon, the Fidesz member of parliament who proposed, or more precisely lent his name to, the bill, threatened that further taxes, this time on internet social media, will be introduced. And speaking of the internet, a few days ago the Constitutional Court came to the conclusion that comments attached to articles are the responsibility of the publishers. This ruling may mean that online newspapers will no longer allow readers’ comments.

But let’s return to the Lázár affair that ended with the firing of the editor-in-chief of Origo. Some time ago, one of the journalists at Origo went to court because the prime minister’s office refused to give out details about secret trips János Lázár took. The courts backed transparency and the law and ruled that the details of the trips, rumored to be very lavish, must be revealed. The prime minister’s office reluctantly obliged. It turned out that the cost of these trips exceeded the wildest imaginations of the journalists. In November 2912 Lázár spent three days in London. The bill was 920,000 forints. In March 2013 he spent two days in Switzerland that cost 469,000 forints just for lodgings. In July he traveled to Italy, again for only two days, which cost the taxpayers 582,000 forints. Upon further probing, Origo found out that the bill totaling 1.97 million forints for these three trips actually covered the expenses of two people.

Lázár was incensed. He wrote a snotty “reply to the article of origo.hu” and posted it on the webpage of the prime minister’s office. The letter included such sentences as: “I am glad that the independent Hungarian courts find it important to get acquainted with my traveling habits.” Or “Appreciating the unbiased, objective, and correct reporting and valuing the journalist’s work in the defense of the Hungarian budget, I decided to renounce the travel allowance that I am entitled to.” He specifically mentioned András Pethő’s name, adding that he would like to make his day with this gesture. One’s immediate reaction is: if Lázár was entitled to the travel allowance, why is he returning the money?

We still don’t know much about the nature of these trips, but it was reported in the media that the persons who accompanied Lázár were “interpreters.” That is curious because, according  his official biography, he speaks both German and English.

Today we found out a few more tidbits, at least about the trip to London. According to Zsolt Gréczy, the spokesman for the Demokratikus Koalíció who gave a press conference on the subject, Lázár stayed at the Crowne Hotel, the most expensive accommodations in London. Apparently, that is the favorite hotel of members of the Hungarian government. Lázár’s job, it seems, was to convince the British to allow a meeting of Viktor Orbán with David Cameron. In fact, Viktor Orbán hoped that Cameron would come to Budapest to demonstrate his support of the Hungarian prime minister. DK learned, however, that Lázár completely botched his negotiations in the Foreign Office and in the end Szijjártó had to be sent to London to straighten things out.

And a final note. The reporter for the official Hungarian telegraphic agency, MTI, was present at the press conference. In fact, he even addressed a question to Zsolt Gréczy. However, MTI chose not to report on the event. That means that the details DK unearthed will get to very few newspapers and online outlets because they all receive MTI news free of charge. I read about it in Népszavabecause one of its reporters was there. This would not be the first time that the MTI management decides not to publish reports that do not reflect well on the Orbán government. So much for transparency and truth.

The free Hungarian media is under renewed attack, but it seems that this time even pro-Fidesz journalists are ready to stand by their colleagues on the other side of the great divide in Hungarian politics. They seem to realize, as Benjamin Franklin famously said, that “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”