Tamás Deutsch

The internet tax is only postponed: it most likely will be called something else

The first act of the drama is over, but I’m almost sure that more will follow since the participants in the recent massive demonstrations know Viktor Orbán only too well. Moreover, in his interview today on Magyar Rádió, he was quite blunt about his resolve to reintroduce the tax. The tax will be adopted “but not this way,” “not in this form.” That’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it?

The problem, according to the prime minister, is that once again the people “misunderstood” the original proposal because there was never any talk about an “internet tax.” The proposed tax was simply an extension of the already existing “telecommunication tax.” Again the same old story: all controversial pieces of legislation are misunderstood by the domestic opposition. And naturally they are misconstrued by the antagonistic domestic and foreign media.

People who know Viktor Orbán are only too aware of his absolute intolerance of contrary opinions. We were reminded of this character trait only today when Tamás Mellár, the conservative economist who worked at Századvég for a year until he resigned in disgust, told the following story to a Népszabadság reporter. One day, when four or five economic experts gathered for a meeting with Orbán, he dared say to the prime minister: “Forgive me, but you are wrong in that.” A deathly silence followed, during which Mihály Varga, minister of national economy, “pulled” Mellár’s hand under the table, signaling to him that such a thing is simply not done.

So, you can imagine the scene when the normally servile reporter who conducts Orbán’s Friday morning radio interviews had the audacity to say that it doesn’t matter whether we call the disputed tax an “internet tax” or a “telecommunication tax”–it is only “playing with words.” A brief silence followed, and one could feel the stunned surprise and wrath of the prime minister. It was a frightening moment. But that was not the only awkward exchange in the conversation. The reporter mistakenly thought that Orbán had exhausted the topic of the internet aka telecommunication tax and wanted to switch over to foreign criticism of Hungarian policies, which he thought was somewhat connected to the upheaval over the internet tax. Orbán snapped at him again. First of all, these two things don’t have anything to do with one another, he claimed, and, second, he does not want to talk about this now. What he wants to bring up and what is very important is that the Hungarian government has an understanding with internet providers to make the whole country internet ready by 2020. This is what is important.

As for the criticisms, Orbán had a very simple answer. Naturally, the accusations of Hungarian wrongdoing have nothing to do with the facts. It is noticeable that criticisms multiply when the government stands up for the Hungarian people which in turn hurts foreign business interests. Right now, for example, after the parliament passed a piece of legislation that forces mostly foreign banks to lighten the burden on Forex borrowers, foreign governments are trying to put pressure on Budapest. Falling into the same category are the mostly foreign internet providers who don’t carry their fair share of the tax burden. They make enormous “extra profits” that they take out of the country. These extra profits disappear into thin air. He leveled this charge despite the fact that earlier in the interview he praised the same foreign internet providers for continuing to pour enormous sums of money into the development of broadband service.

Finally, Orbán announced a “national consultation” on the subject of the non-“internet tax.” Tamás Deutsch, a member of the European Parliament who hangs out on Twitter all day long entertaining people with his obscenities, will be in charge of this grand consultation. Although Deutsch thinks that the tax is “stupid,” he called the protesters “ragamuffins” and “stink bugs.” As for the so-called “national consultation,” we have witnessed a few of these in the past and we know that they are a farce. Viktor Orbán sends out millions of questionnaires to voters containing questions that beg for affirmative answers that justify the government’s position. For example, “internet dependency is a serious psychological illness” or “the internet is dangerous to young people because of pedophiles roaming the Net.”

As for the mysterious “extra profit,” I get annoyed every time I hear someone use the term. And unfortunately one hears it far too often. It stirs up old memories of a compulsory university course called “political economy.” In it one learned the Leninist definition of extra profit. According to Lenin, extra profit derives from the exploitation of workers in the colonies. These extra profits are then distributed at home to raise the living standard of the working class in order to keep them quiet. According to Marxist-Leninist theory, all profit is based on exploitation of the workers but the extra profit is achieved by taking exploitation beyond the normal level. The notion of extra profit in today’s public discourse makes not the slightest sense. Viktor Orbán is taking advantage of the Hungarian people’s discomfort with capitalism and what it entails–including competition and profit–and invoking concepts from the very same communism he wants to banish once and for all from the country. And, by the way, the profit these providers earn is apparently rather low.

Delete Viktor

So, will Viktor Orbán’s announcement this morning quiet the protesters? It looks as if Viktor Orbán’s interview, widely reported in the foreign press as announcing a withdrawal of the tax–a capitulation by the prime minister, did not impress Hungarians. Tonight József nádor tér was still full of demonstrators, and the slogans and posters highlighted various “sins” of the government. For example: “Viktor, you will find the extra profit in Felcsút.” Norwegian and EU flags were seen everywhere. The speakers announced that there is no need for “national consultation” because that already took place in the last  few days on the streets of Budapest and other Hungarian cities. The speakers argued that the government needs extra taxes because of the corrupt tax authorities.

In Szeged a very large crowd gathered tonight. Here the speakers covered several topics, including corruption and the lack of media freedom. The internet is the only “free island which the government hasn’t occupied yet.” It is, one speaker claimed, the most significant invention since the discovery of fire and the wheel and the symbol of Hungarians’ tie to Europe. “We cannot stop at the internet tax, let’s demolish the walls while they are not yet plastered and painted. … Long live freedom and the fatherland!”

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The political reverberations after the Hungarian football fiasco

When soccer/football becomes a political matter, as was pointed out by a Swiss journalist straight from Felcsút, it is not surprising that a spectacular defeat of the Hungarian team will soon be part and parcel of high level politics. This is exactly what has happened. Fidesz politicians have been madly searching for scapegoats in order to avoid pointing the finger at the chief soccer enthusiast of the country, Viktor Orbán. The first victim of the “purge” was the coach, who resigned right on the spot. The second target seems to be Sándor Csányi, president of the Hungarian Football Association (Magyar Labdarugó Szövetség). I assume you know that Sándor Csányi is one of the richest Hungarians and CEO of Hungary’s largest bank, OTP.

Actually, if Viktor Orbán’s minions wanted to find a scapegoat in Sándor Csányi, they didn’t have to worry too much about a possible negative reaction to their attack from the chief. In the last few weeks a noticeable cooling of the friendship between the prime minister and the banker could be observed. The first punch came from Orbán’s side when the prime minister’s faithful chief-of-staff, János Lázár, called Csányi the country’s chief usurer. That got Csányi’s goat, who answered in kind and alluded to Lázár’s questionable role in the monopolization of tobacco products and the licensing of the tobacconist shops. If that weren’t enough, he gave an interview to Olga Kálmán in which he explained all the negative effects of the abnormally high taxes on banks. Even so, a few days later Csányi and Orbán could be seen amiably sitting side by side at some Videoton game.

After the miserable performance of the Hungarian national team, several Fidesz politicians attacked Csányi, making him and the secretary-general of the Association responsible for the state of Hungarian soccer. Perhaps the very first to go on the attack was Máté Kocsis, mayor of District VIII and the man in charge of the growing Fidesz communication team, who announced that the coach’s resignation is not enough. Of course, he meant a purge of the Hungarian Football Association headed by Csányi. He was followed by Tamás Deutsch, a Fidesz original and currently a member of the European Parliament, who in addition to Csányi wanted to summarily fire the secretary-general of the Association. The third person was Zsolt Wintermantel, mayor of Újpest and a member of parliament, who demanded that the whole upper echelon of the Association resign.

Viktor Orbán playing football / ATV

Viktor Orbán playing football / ATV

The reply from Csányi was not long in coming. This morning he gave a press conference in which called Deutsch “a Twitter hussar,” alluding to Deutsch’s fondness for mostly obscene tweets.  Csányi also recalled that when Deutsch was minister of sports in the first Orbán administration he ordered computerized gates for all Hungarian stadiums, which turned out to be useless junk. He suggested that Deutsch try to sell the whole lot and with the proceeds help Hungarian football. As for Máté Kocsis, Csányi didn’t spare words. He claimed that when Kocsis took over the mayoralty of District VIII there were six stadiums while now it has only four. “Such a man should shut up when it comes to soccer. As a spokesman for Fidesz he has so many other opportunities to lie.” As for Wintermantel, Csányi acted as if he didn’t really know his name: “What’s the name of that mayor? Oh, yeah, Wintermantel. He is the one who screams in front of every stadium and before each match. He should learn more about the facts. This is not politics, this is football.”

After all that, it is perhaps not surprising that both Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap “censored” Csányi’s words about Kocsis. Magyar Nemzet  left out the most important part of Csányi’s remarks–about Kocsis’s many opportunities to lie as a Fidesz spokesman. Instead they truncated Csányi’s message to Kocsis: “At the time of regime change there were six football fields in the District VIII. Now there are only four. Therefore go elsewhere to lie in connection with soccer.” Magyar Hírlap completely ignored Csányi’s remarks about the Fidesz politician.

This is what happens when politicians use sports, any kind of sport, for their own political purposes. This is especially true when the prime minister himself is the “guiding light” of soccer, which he claims is a “Hungarian sport.” If the coach is at fault and if the chairman of the Hungarian Football Association should be sacked, what should happen to Viktor Orbán who most likely is involved in even the smallest details of the Hungarian football business? Because he was the one who convinced Csányi to seek the chairmanship and who also made sure that he was elected to the position. And who is the person who outlines in great detail the whole future of the sport in Hungary? Naturally, the prime minister, who gave his longest ever interview to the journalist spokesman of the Puskás Academy. Nothing happens in the sport without his okay.

Meanwhile Ádám Szalai, center forward of the Hungarian team, vented his frustration. Interestingly, his complaints about the state of Hungarian soccer are very similar to what Ferenc Gyurcsány told his fellow MSZP members in Balatonőszöd: we have been lying to ourselves and refusing to see the growing problems. False hopes and promises. Nobody is ready to face the music. Nobody really wants to work hard. The bigwigs, I think Viktor Orbán included, insist on Hungarian coaches when these coaches are no good. No Hungarian player plays in any first- or even second-rate European clubs. He himself used to be considered an excellent football player at home, but when he was picked up by a German team it turned out that he really couldn’t compete with his teammates. He had to relearn how to play the sport. At the age of 25-27 one cannot learn to play soccer. What Hungary needs are foreign coaches who make them work hard and who can produce a new generation of players. The present set is useless. Forget about them.

But then there was the match between the Hungarian Roma top players (válogatott) against the Vatican’s Swiss Guard in July 2010. And you know what? The Gypsies won 8-1. Interestingly enough, we didn’t hear about Viktor Orbán’s sitting there in Felcsút, where the game was played, yelling: “Hajrá Magyarország, hajrá magyarok!  Take a look at the short video. It’s fun.

When I told this story to a friend of mine, she said something the Hungarian government might take to heart. Why not put some effort into organizing soccer clubs in villages where there is a sizable Roma population? Such a program wouldn’t need billions. You need balls, a field, and enthusiasm. It would keep those boys active and success would be a great boost to their egos. After all, Puskás himself started to play on an empty lot somewhere in Újpest. He and his friends didn’t even have decent balls. They made them from rags.

The key to future success most likely lies not in fancy football academies (and certainly not in stadiums) but in having thousands of kids introduced to the game. Playing soccer is not an expensive sport like tennis, skiing, or skating. Lots of poor kids can play it. Just like so many Afro-American kids could easily play basketball, often on abandoned city lots, and eventually some of them became world-famous basketball players.

Meanwhile, it looks as if Viktor Orbán will have to be satisfied with a foreign coach. I just wonder who in the world will take the job.

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.