RTL Klub

Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz parliamentary delegation show the way

After spending quite a bit of time on foreign affairs, we have to return to domestic policies because soon enough parliament will reconvene, and the Fidesz and KDNP caucuses are preparing for the new session. Members of the caucuses get together, normally at some resort, and are sequestered for a few days. Their agenda is to set the tone of politics for the next five or six months. This time the Fidesz caucus met at the Balneo Wellness Hotel near Mezőkövesd, the center of an area known for its distinctive folk embroidery. Obviously, there is no shortage of funds in the Fidesz coffers. The caucus has 115 members, and several ministers and undersecretaries also attend these retreats.

Balneo Wellness Hotel

Balneo Wellness Hotel

I find these gatherings amusing, especially when I hear from Antal Rogán, the whip of the caucus, “we request and authorize the government” to do this or that. Naturally, the situation is the reverse, Viktor Orbán tells Antal Rogán what he expects them to do. If they come up with an idea of their own, which doesn’t happen too often, Orbán usually decides against it. Or if they want information from the prime minister, they don’t always get it. This time, for example, apparently the MPs wanted to know more about the visits of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, but they heard nothing about either. It also seems they were hoping to hear more about the deal between the government and the RTL Group. They should have known better. When Viktor Orbán loses a fight, he doesn’t like to talk about it. Or, if an encounter, like the one with Merkel, is not exactly a success, he changes the subject.

So, let’s see what Viktor Orbán actually wanted to talk about. His greatest concern seems to be the immigration of “economic refugees.” In the last two years their numbers have grown substantially, and recently they’ve spiked. While last year 42,000 requests for immigrant status were received, this year, just in January, 14,000 such requests were filed. Orbán’s solution to the problem is draconian. He wants “to bolt the door to Hungary” to all “economic immigrants because we don’t need any of them.” Hungarian economic emigrants leave in droves while Hungary is bolted tight to anyone coming from “another culture.” He will not wait for the European Union, which is far too slow. Hungary will act on its own. I wonder how they will deport all those people who are currently in Hungary and what will they do with those who are on their way. An Irish proverb says “Never bolt the door with a boiled carrot.” What will the Hungarians use?

The government must have realized that the so-called school reform initiated by the second Orbán government was a failure. All schools were nationalized except for a few private schools and were put under one huge umbrella organization that turned out to be totally incapable of supervising about 120,000 employees and thousands of schools. We don’t know how the government is planning to undo the chaos created by Rózsa Hoffmann (KDNP), but it looks as if another “reform” is underway. Every time I hear of a new school reform I just shudder. So far the government hasn’t talked to educational experts or teachers’ unions, and it hasn’t spelled out the details of its plan. It has simply resurrected an old idea of Zoltán Pokorny, former minister of education in the first Orbán government (1998-2002), to extend the eight grades of compulsory education by one year. Apparently, it was inspired by the “Polish model,” which introduced a ninth year of elementary education–along with an entirely new educational philosophy. It seems, however, that Viktor Orbán doesn’t like the idea, so most likely it will be dropped.

Another concern of Viktor Orbán is the state of Hungarian healthcare, which is rapidly deteriorating instead of improving. Orbán seems to be frustrated. At the meeting he complained that 500 billion extra forints had been sunk into healthcare and yet the hospitals are still in the red. Their current debt is 70 billion forints, which must be paid out of the central budget. Their suppliers, mostly Hungarian middle-size companies, are also hurting. For the time being, the newly appointed undersecretary will remain, but I have feeling that his days are numbered. The government’s solution is simple: forbid the hospitals from accumulating any new debts. If a hospital director doesn’t follow this order he will be fired. It is hard to fathom how such a strategy will help the situation. By the way, there’s an apparent contradiction worth mentioning here. On the one hand, the government wants to reduce the number of hospitals and most likely cut back on the number of employees, while on the other hand Antal Rogán “requested and authorized” the government to make money available for a brand new hospital in Budapest. It turns out that money for this new hospital will come from the European Union while maintaining the existing hospitals must come from Hungarian government resources.

Although the Hungarian media is full of the news that Viktor Orbán had to give in to the demands of RTL Klub without the television station toning down its news coverage of government corruption, we learned today that “Fidesz authorized the government to negotiate further with Brussels” concerning the advertising levy. What can that mean exactly? Well, nothing good, I fear. Viktor Orbán will take his sweet time thinking about the deal between János Lázár and the top management of the RTL Group. Moreover, Orbán made it clear that the amount of money he was hoping to get from the advertising levies cannot be reduced as a result of the compromise with RTL Klub. So, we can all use our imaginations trying to figure out what Viktor Orbán has in mind when he talks about further negotiations with Brussels.

If I properly interpret the leaks from the meeting of the Fidesz delegation, Orbán will not back down on government supervision of non-governmental organizations. In his opinion the Hungarian government is entitled to know what kinds of foreign subsidies are given to Hungarian civic groups. So, I assume the harassment of these groups will continue. So will the “national freedom fight.” Rogán revealed that “the Hungarian people expect that the government will always stand for the national interests” and that as a result of the government’s policies “national self-esteem” has grown during the last five years. Orbán also has no intention of changing his “independent” foreign policy because “Hungary has become a strong country” thanks to his leadership. He repeated that cheap gas means inexpensive utility prices, which he considers critical to his political longevity. Only Putin can give him what he needs. What Orbán will give in return is as yet unknown.

Thoughts in advance of the German and Russian visits to Budapest

Yesterday the Neue Zürcher Zeitung published an article about the forthcoming visits of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin to Budapest titled “Orbans Tanz auf zwei Hochzeiten,” indicating that Viktor Orbán will be able to have his cake and eat it too. He will remain a member in good standing of the European Union and will be a close friend of Russia at the same time. I, on the other hand, maintain that he will not be able to pull off that extraordinary feat. There are many signs that the Hungarian prime minister is already in retreat.

Let’s start with the Merkel visit. Hungarian and foreign observers have come up with all sorts of explanations for her trip, starting with the simplest one–that she could no longer postpone it. After all, she has not visited the Hungarian capital in the last five years, ever since Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, which professes to be a Christian Democratic party, won a stunning victory in 2010. Her last trip took place in 2009, on the twentieth anniversary of the Hungarian opening of the Austro-Hungarian border for East German refugees, when the socialist-liberal government of Gordon Bajnai was still in power. If the purpose of the trip was to have a serious discussion about the Russian-Ukrainian crisis and Hungary’s role in it, Merkel’s five-hour stay, with very little face time with Viktor Orbán, would not suffice. She is coming because she promised to and because, according to a 1992 agreement between Hungary and Germany, she has to.

There are analysts who are convinced that Angela Merkel will not even mention the erosion of Hungarian democracy under Viktor Orbán’s regime, the systematic transformation of a fledgling democracy into an autocratic regime akin to the political setup that existed in Hungary between the two world wars. She has more pressing issues on her agenda: Greece, the sanctions against Russia, and the growth of the German anti-immigration movement–PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes / Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West), especially popular in the former East Germany. It is unlikely that Merkel will waste any time on the woes of Hungarian democracy. Her only aim is to make sure that Viktor Orbán stands by the extension of the sanctions. This hypothesis, in part at least, is outdated: Hungary obediently voted for the extension on January 29.

Others are more optimistic. They maintain that the trouble with Angela Merkel’s visit is that it seems to put a stamp of approval on the illiberal regime of Viktor Orbán. This is certainly how the Orbán government is portraying it. If Merkel says nothing about the state of democracy in Hungary, Orbán’s regime scores a victory. There is pressure on Merkel at home, however, to do something about the Hungarian situation. She has to give the appearance that her visit is something of a warning to Viktor Orbán.

There is some truth in this interpretation. In fact, there are signs that behind the scenes some “disciplinary measures” have already taken place. The successful negotiations with the leaders of  the RTL Group indicate that Orbán got the message: there will be consequences if the Hungarian government blatantly and illegally discriminates against a media outlet just because it doesn’t like RTL’s news broadcast. Orbán caved, and I for one am certain that he didn’t get much in return. I find it interesting that the official announcement of Merkel’s visit occurred very late, on January 28, the day when according to Népszava‘s information the Hungarian government agreed to a substantial reduction in the enormous tax it had levied on RTL Klub. Was this agreement the price, or part of the price, of Merkel’s visit?

Because that’s not all. In his regular Friday morning interview Orbán announced that the exorbitant tax levies on the banking sector will most likely be gradually reduced because the Hungarian economy has greatly improved. “If possible, the interests of the country and the businessmen must be reconciled,” said the man who until now had laid all the financial burdens of his erroneous economic policies on businesses, especially foreign ones.

There might be several reasons for Orbán’s cooperation in addition to German negotiations. One is that the Americans undoubtedly know more about the Hungarian mafia state and Viktor Orbán’s role in it than they let on, but the Hungarian prime minister doesn’t know how much they know. That must be a powerful incentive to stick with the countries that provide Hungary with economic aid and military shelter. Another consideration might be the effect of the sanctions and the sinking price of oil on the Russian economy, which makes close ties with Putin’s Russia a less desirable option than, let’s say, a year ago.

And that leads us to the Putin visit on February 17. It was almost a year ago, in March of 2014, that the United States and the European Union began applying sanctions against Russia. Although Hungary agreed to support the move, in August Viktor Orbán declared that “Europe shot itself in the foot,” meaning that the sanctions actually hurt only the West and did nothing to weaken the Russian economy. Just about this time, however, oil prices began falling. The combination of sanctions and falling energy prices has made the Russian economic situation close to desperate by now.

Orbán was initially very proud of what he considered to be the crowning achievements of his Russia policy: the Southern Stream, which would have brought gas to Hungary circumventing Ukraine, and the Russian loan for the extension of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. Since then, Russia abandoned the Southern Stream project because of lack of funds, and many people think that the much heralded Paks deal is also in trouble. Thus, the rationale for close relations with Russia has more or less evaporated, which leaves Viktor Orbán in the unenviable position of suffering the ill effects of his overly cozy relation with Putin while reaping practically no benefits.

Depiction of the Trojan Horse at the Schlilemann Museum in Akershagen, Germany

Depiction of the Trojan Horse at the Schliemann Museum in Akershagen, Germany

Under these circumstances I doubt that the initiative for the Putin visit came from Budapest. It is no longer to Orbán’s benefit to make a lavish display of friendship with Russia. And indeed, the government is trying to downplay the importance of Putin’s visit, noting that it is only a working trip and not a state visit with the usual fanfare. For Putin, by contrast, it is an important trip at a time when nobody wants to have anything to do with him. Just think of the humiliation he suffered in Brisbane, Australia. He wants to demonstrate that he has at least one good friend  in the European Union.

Putin’s second reason for the trip, I suspect along with others, is to find out how much he can rely on Viktor Orbán. Will he deliver as promised? Or it was just talk? Perhaps Orbán oversold his usefulness to Putin and is turning out to be a useless ally from the Russian point of view. Last August Jan-Werner Müller wrote an article in Foreign Affairs titled “Moscow’s Trojan Horse: In Europe’s Ideological War, Hungary Picks Putinism.” Well, the Trojan Horse may be just an empty shell and the damage it can cause within the European Union little to none.

The Orbán government and RTL Group: a cease-fire?

Soon enough it will be a year since the Orbán government decided to levy an exorbitant tax on the largest and most profitable commercial television station in the country, RTL Klub. I wrote extensively about the tug of war between the Hungarian government and the German-owned station. According to rumors, the government plan was to squeeze the station’s owners into selling and then have the station be purchased by some “well-deserving,” meaning pro-government, individual or individuals whose newscasts would be as lopsided as those of HírTV and the state-owned MTV. Apparently, RTL was not ready to sell, so the government had to settle for the second largest commercial station, TV2, which was eventually sold to a shadowy group of people. The special levy that specifically targeted RTL Klub was intended as a form of punishment. Knowing Viktor Orbán’s warped psyche, I’m sure that this story is more than mere rumor.

So, the war began. RTL Klub coughed up the money. What else could they do?  But they paid the government back many times over. Their newscast, which used to consist of short, mostly tabloid items and police reports, was extended to an hour with a heavy emphasis on political news. Suddenly the dirt that emerges daily around this government could be seen on a commercial station’s evening news, watched by 1 million people as opposed to the state television’s propaganda news with its 400,000 viewers. The people who in the past had watched RTL Klub for its “entertainment lite” programming suddenly were confronted with the kind of news that earlier had never reached them. The result was stupendous. Although some commentators wondered whether RTL Klub’s viewers would be turned off and would switch to TV2, exactly the opposite happened. RTL Klub’s viewership grew substantially. Political analysts are convinced that Fidesz’s tremendous loss of popularity is due, at least in part, to RTL Klub’s newscasts.

From the beginning RTL Klub planned to take its case to Brussels because, while RTL Klub’s share of the Hungarian advertising market is 13.5%, it is obliged to pay 90% of all revenues received from taxes on advertising. Indeed, last October RTL Klub lawyers turned in an official complaint to the European Commission. Yet for months we heard nothing. Then, on January 19, Népszava reported that some Fidesz politicians would be very happpy if Viktor Orbán “made peace” with RTL Klub. The paper added that “according to some sources, the Orbán government is counting on ‘a cease-fire’ before the arrival of Angela Merkel” in Budapest on Monday.

RTL Group headquarters in Luxembourg

RTL Group headquarters in Luxembourg

A week later 444.hu learned that János Lázár had already had several conversations, not with the Hungarian CEO of RTL Klub but with Andreas Rudas, director of East European operations, and Guillaume de Posch, CEO of the international RTL Group. Earlier they met in Munich and last week in Budapest. 444.hu claimed to know that they will meet again in Berlin sometime this week. The government allegedly wants to end the war with the German firm, which complained about its treatment in Hungary to Angela Merkel herself. The paper also seemed to know that the top management of RTL Group was ready to make a deal but that Dirk Gerkens, the man who is heading the Hungarian RTL Klub, refuses to compromise. Gerkens was indeed outspoken and combative, which raised the ire of some true believers. Gerkens told Bloomberg that he received threats of violence, delivered via friends and e-mails. He added that he moved his family out of the country, left his apartment for a hotel in central Budapest, and hired bodyguards.

After the report of 444.hu about the ongoing negotiations, rumors began to circulate in the media, especially after Népszava yesterday came out with the alleged details of the deal. According to the paper, the 50% tax on RTL Klub will be reduced to 5-10% but only if the station “tones down” its newscasts and fires Dirk Gerkens. Not surprisingly, journalists are up in arms. FSP (Péter Földes), whose blog regularly appears on Népszabadság On Line (NOL), summarized the sentiment. If what 444.hu and Népszava reported is true, then “RTL is preparing to commit public suicide combined with betrayal.” I agree, and that’s why I think such an outcome is unlikely. It would not only be ruinous for the RTL Group’s reputation but would also make the Hungarian government’s interference in the media, which they steadfastly deny, blatantly obvious. I don’t think it is in the interest of either party to cut such a “dirty deal.”

Meanwhile, in the last few hours HVG learned that the Orbán government’s decision to retreat on the 50% levy on RTL Klub resulted from diplomatic pressure: both the German chancellor and the prime minister of Luxembourg, where RTL Group is headquartered, strongly suggested to Viktor Orbán that he settle his dispute with Europe’s largest media firm.

Apparently, contrary to Népszava‘s claim, negotiations have not yet ended and the deal has not been sealed. Lázár, who is negotiating for the Hungarian side, admitted that his job as negotiator has been very difficult because “the prime minister insists on upholding the advertising tax.” For Orbán “this is a question of principle.” But it looks as if principle will have to be sacrificed in the face of diplomatic pressure and the hopelessness of Hungary’s case if the RTL Group actually sues. It seems that the prime minister will sketch out changes in the advertising tax tomorrow morning during his regularly scheduled radio interview, with details about the exact figures to be revealed later.

So, another defeat, another retreat. These are hard times for Viktor Orbán. Moreover, I suspect that the newscasts of the Hungarian RTL Klub will not change substantially in the future. RTL Group cannot afford it. Neither can Viktor Orbán.

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.

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.

Plans to destroy independent Hungarian civil society: The Norway Fund

A few days ago I wrote a post about János Lázár’s attack on the commercial television stations, especially on RTL Klub. I discussed how the station retaliated by including news that until now it had avoided broadcasting, perhaps not wanting to raise the hackles of the Orbán government. They were hoping, I assume, that by avoiding risky topics the station might be left alone. The strategy didn’t work. It has become obvious that the Orbán government wants to destroy RTL Klub because it is owned by a foreign company.

Just today György Barcza, the new pro-government editor-in-chief of Napi Gazdaság, attacked the CEO of RTL Klub, demanding “more humility and less arrogance from someone who is eating the bread of Hungarians and who at times must fall back on the assistance of Hungarians.” What caused the outburst? Napi Gazdaság, a paper allegedly dealing with economics and finance, accused RTL of spending 1,650,000,000 forints on honoraria, thereby demonstrating the vast riches accumulated by the firm. The correct number was 1,650,000. The very idea that a private firm is accused of living off of Hungarians is pretty outrageous, and that this was said by a so-called economist is truly outlandish.

Now let’s move on to the NGOs that the government finds objectionable. 444 got hold of the government’s list of thirteen NGOs which are, so to speak, black-listed.  The government objects to organizations involved in civil and human rights, like TASZ (Társaság a Szabadságjogokért), and organizations dealing with women’s issues, like Nők a Nőkért Együtt az Erőszak Ellen Egyesület (Nane), the feminist Magyar Női Érdekérvényesítő Alapítvány, and Patriarchátust Ellenzők Társasága (Patent). Orbán and Co. have a real aversion to transparency, so it is not surprising that Transparency International Magyarország Alapítvány is on the list together with K-Monitor Közhasznú Egyesület and the Asimov Alapítvány that is connected to Átlátszó, a site dealing with investigative journalism. Anything that has either “liberal” or “democracy” in its name is out, and finally there are the gays and lesbians who have been attacked lately by Imre Kerényi, a close adviser of Viktor Orbán, and by Zsolt Semjén, head of the Christian Democratic party and between 2010 and 2014 deputy prime minister. So, both Labrisz Leszbikus Egyesület and Szivárvány (Rainbow) Misszió Alapítvány are on the list. And let’s not forget the Roma Sajtóközpont (a press agency on Roma affairs).

NGOsOn June 19 KEHI (Kormányzati Ellenőrző Hivatal = State Audit) sent out letters to these organizations and gave them one week to release all documents having anything to do with the Norway Fund. Most of them have already refused to “cooperate” because they claim, as does the management of the Norway Fund in Brussels, that KEHI has no legal right to audit; the funds these NGOs received are not under the jurisdiction of the Hungarian state. Of course, the Hungarian government has a different opinion on the matter.

Átlátszó and the Asimov Alapítvány announced that they “would not even open the door” to the officials of KEHI if they show up. Krétakör, a theater group, also refused to cooperate and for good measure posted a video on Facebook depicting the head of the group leaving a brief message to the appropriate official of KEHI refusing to allow KEHI to investigate. Szivárvány Misszió also sent a letter to the official in charge in which they said that they “don’t handle state funds” and therefore they don’t know on what basis they are included in the investigation of state funds.

The sad fate of Hungarian NGOs has already received international publicity. Huffington Post published an article by Jon Van Til, professor emeritus of Urban Studies and Community Planning at Rutgers University, who spent some time teaching in Hungary. The title of the article is “Even the ruler of Hungary needs an independent third sector.” Van Til realizes, as by now most people who follow Hungarian politics do, that in Hungary “a duly elected government seems bent on creating a one-party state that controls nearly every aspect of the country’s life–public, civic, voluntary and even religious.”  Van Til considers the conflict between the Norwegian and Hungarian governments “bizarre” because the Hungarian government’s position is that “grants may be received from sources outside the government, but only if they are managed by the government and are directed to organizations it approves.”

The list of the thirteen organizations tells us a lot about the Orbán government. All that talk about the democracy that the Orbán government allegedly established between 2010 and 2014 is hogwash. Instead, Viktor Orbán is striving to establish a one-party system. Whoever doesn’t see this is blind. All those who stand in his way, be they RTL Klub or TASZ, will be crushed one way or the other.

One final word on the possibility that the attack on the gay and lesbian organizations that received funds from the NorwayFund might be part of a general governmental campaign against homosexuals. I already wrote about Imre Kerényi’s outburst, but now we have another high government official and politician, Zsolt Semjén, bringing up the subject. I should mention that Semjén is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and there is good reason to believe that he, just like former President Pál Schmitt, plagiarized his dissertation.

Semjén had a long interview on HírTV’s P8, a program that can be seen on Friday (péntek) at 8:oo p.m. During the interview he talked about the composition of the new Orbán government, the role of the Christian Democratic party, the preponderance of Protestants in the government, and, of all things, homosexuality. According to Semjén, “a small, yet loud interest group that wants to force this deviant behavior receives serious assistance from Brussels.” Actually, he used the word “brutális támogatás” instead of “serious assistance” where “brutális” nowadays is used to indicate something large and concentrated. As for same-sex marriage, Semjén opined that if two men can get married, “why not three?” A rather odd idea that popped into his head which he, I’m sure, finds hilarious. I assume the huge assistance from Brussels refers to the Norway Fund’s two recipients, the Labrisz Leszbikus Egyesület which received €62,436 and Szivárvány Misszió Alapítvány, a mere €4,163.

The Hungarian Liberal Party’s youth organization wrote an open letter to Zsolt Semjén in which they accused him of discrimination, which is unacceptable in a real democracy. But the problem is that we have to face the fact that Hungary is no longer a democracy and if the Norway Fund gives in on this score, it will acquiesce in Hungarian democracy’s systematic dismemberment.