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The new Hungarian media tsar: Mónika Karas

For Viktor Orbán control of the media is a political priority.  His government institutionalized this priority by creating the Media Authority, initially chaired by Annamária Szalai. She was the perfect person for the job, and I’m sure that Orbán mourned her death last April. He had to find a replacement who was both loyal to him and who, as mandated by law, demonstrated professional competence in media matters.

Months of searching and fiddling with the requirements followed. At one point there were rumors that Tamás Deutsch might be tapped since he had represented Fidesz in a parliamentary committee dealing with the media. Well, that was too bizarre an idea and I doubt that Orbán seriously considered his old friend for the job, a friend whom he had already exiled to Brussels years before. Mind you, exile in Brussels can always be cut short if there is need. Just think of János Áder who was called back after the fall of President Pál Schmitt. Still, a fouled-mouthed, irresponsible, and not too bright 50-year-old who has never grown up would have been a liability. Someone else had to be found.

Today the nominee to head the “independent” agency was announced: Mónika Karas, a lawyer who since 2004 has represented two Fidesz media outlets: Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV.

Perhaps the best comment I saw was a one-liner after the news hit the Internet: “This must be a joke.” Unfortunately, it is not. This woman will surely be appointed by János Áder for a nine-year term. As blogger “vastagbőr” (thick skin) pointed out, even if Viktor Orbán hangs on until 2022 Mónika Karas will still outlast him as head of the Media Authority for a few months. That’s called a long tenure!

Karas’s record as a lawyer is pretty dismal. Mind you, it is not easy to be the defense lawyer for Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV since both outlets are full of irresponsible propagandists with scant regard for the truth. Thus Mónika Karas lost one case after the other. “Vastagbőr” found twelve of her cases in the archives of the Hungarian News Agency (MTI). But this list is incomplete. I myself found a few more that MTI didn’t report on.

The summaries of these cases are boring reading. Almost all of them inform the reader that Magyar Nemzet lost the case in the lower court but that “Mónika Karas told MTI that they will surely appeal because the verdict is erroneous.” Later on came the report that Magyar Nemzet lost the appeal. She had to tell her sad story many times over between 2004 and 2013. One day I will return to some of her more important cases, including the one where she represented Szárhegy-dűlő-Sárazsadány-Tokajhegyalja Kft. in which the Orbáns had an interest in 2005.  She also worked for Árpád Habony, the éminence grise behind Viktor Orbán’s propaganda machine, and represented Antal Rogán’s district in downtown Pest against an Internet investigative website, Átlátszó (atltszo.hu). She is connected to Viktor Orbán, Fidesz, and its media empire in multiple ways. So much for the independence of the Hungarian Media Authority.

Mónika Karas / Magyar Nemzet

Mónika Karas / Magyar Nemzet

Karas represented Magyar Nemzet in 2012 when Ferenc Gyurcsány sued the paper over its claim that he plagiarized his senior paper. Once again she lost because of Magyar Nemzet‘s sloppy handling of the facts. Gyurcsány spoke from personal experience today when he said that Karas was as unsuccessful as a lawyer as she is unfit for her new job. He described Mónika Karas as “the cleaning lady of Fidesz’s lying factory.” He somewhat optimistically added that Karas will not be the head of the Media Authority for long because she will be removed from the agency right after the elections.

According to her official biography, Karas passed intermediate language exams in German and Russian and speaks English on an “introductory level,” which in my opinion means that she doesn’t know the language. As a sharp-tongued journalist said: “This way it will be difficult to write notes on Facebook, ask the Americans to forbid the appearance of kuruc.info, buy Sanoma [Media Group], or whatever her duties will be.” By way of explanation, Fidesz at the moment is in the middle of a frontal attack on Sanoma, which is the owner of the largest school textbook company in Hungary. The word is that the Orbán government wants to nationalize the whole textbook industry to create one big publishing company that publishes a single standard text for each subject.  Just like in the Kádár regime.

But there are much more interesting items that can be found in this official biography. What caught my eye was that Mónika Karas was legal counsel to Magyar Fórum Kft., the publisher of István Csurka’s Magyar Fórum, the anti-Semitic MIÉP party’s official organ, between 1993 and 2002. The biography also contains an item mentioning the innocuous sounding “Lapkiadó Vállalat” (Newspaper Publishing Co.). I must say that I was not suspicious until a friend who is much more familiar with the Kádár regime’s secrets than I am informed me that “the Lapkiadó Vállalat was an extraordinary outfit, not even a state company, but directly subordinated to the Party (MSZMP) leadership, also owned by the Party. To work there, one had to have a security clearance on a higher level than even at the secret police: they published all local papers and all official organs of the county Party committees.”

Another item in the official biography is her stint as general counsel for the company that published Esti Hírlap between 1992 and 1994. Well, the innocent sounding Esti Hírlap also has a history. According to my informant Esti Hírlap was the afternoon party tabloid (naturally also published by Lapkiadó Vállalat), widely considered to have been the semi-official organ of the secret service and in general of the Ministry of the Interior. Apparently Esti Hírlap, even after the regime change, was largely staffed by old-timers inherited from the Kádár regime.

So, it seems that Mónika Karas is one of those who transitioned easily from the communist media to the far-right media. By the way, those who want a sense of István Csurka’s anti-semitic Magyar Fórum at the time that Karas was working for Csurka’s company should read Zsófia Mihancsik’s article in Antiszemita közbeszéd Magyarországon 2001-ben (see pp 77-90), which contains a wide selection of quotations from Magyar Fórum.

Not surprisingly, all the opposition leaders are up in arms. Gergely Karácsony talked about the Karas appointment in the name of Együtt 2014-PM. He promised to ask János Áder not to put his signature on Karas’s appointment. But János Áder, who is just as much a puppet as Karas, is highly unlikely to accommodate. Karácsony called attention to recent signs pointing to the expansion of the Fidesz media empire. For instance, Századvég, a Fidesz think tank largely financed by the government, just purchased the economic daily Napi Gazdaság. Appointing the legal representative of the Simicska-Nyerges media enterprise will only solidify Fidesz’s hold over the media.

Ildikó Lendvai (MSZP) emphasized the international implications of the appointment. You may recall that the first serious clash between the European Commission and the Orbán government occurred over the media law. The conflict eventually ended with some minor adjustments to the media law but its essence remained pretty well untouched. By appointing Karas, Viktor Orbán’s message to Brussels is: “we are not going to change our media policies.”

Indeed, Fidesz’s grip on the media is as tight as ever and its media empire continues to expand. And, making sure that things will remain this way, perhaps until 2022, will be Mónika Karas.

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