Tusnádfrürdő/Băile Tușnad

The Hungarian news agency in the service of the state

A few weeks ago György Bolgár, who practically never writes on politics in the daily press, could no longer stand it. He wrote an article in Népszabadság about “the death of MTI,” the Hungarian news agency.

In 2010 several changes were made in MTI reflecting Viktor Orbán’s far-reaching plans for the agency. First and most critical, the government announced that from there on the services of MTI would be free. No longer would only the better-off newspapers and electronic outlets be able to afford articles written by the correspondents of MTI. Everybody, even the smallest provincial paper, would have free access to their archives. Well, one could say, isn’t that grand? How democratic. But naturally, this was not the real aim of the Orbán government. By making MTI’s news service free, they made sure that only MTI could stay afloat in the Hungarian media market. And indeed, since then the other news agency closed its doors.

Second, Viktor Orbán ensured that only loyal supporters would be in top management at the agency. Third, the scope of the agency was greatly restricted; MTI today is only a shadow of its former self. And fourth, its independence had to be abolished. Indeed, over the last four years MTI has become a state organ serving propaganda purposes.

The new logo of the Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI)

The new logo of the Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI)

The journalists working there are worried about their jobs and therefore tread lightly. Their reports go through several hands as one can see by the number of initials: “kkz, kbt, kto, kvs.” Four men or women were responsible for the article about The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial on Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő. Indeed, that is a very sensitive topic and no “mistakes” would be tolerated.

As György Bolgár contended in his article, the situation is worse now than it was in the Kádár regime. Then at least the journalists were told by the party what they could and what could not write about. Now frightened journalists are measuring their words on every subject at the MTI headquarters in Budapest. And they have good reason to be frightened: back in 2011 a seasoned correspondent to Berlin was sacked because of “wrong wording” in a report on conductor Zoltán’s Kocsis’s interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

A couple of days ago Tamás Szele wrote an article, “English Lesson to MTI,”  in Gépnarancs.  In it he compared MTI’s reports on three important editorials from the United States about Viktor Orbán’s by now notorious speech on his vision of an “illiberal state.” The editorials appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. I decided to devote a post to the subject as well because non-Hungarian speakers should be aware of how the Orbán government controls the flow of information. This topic is especially timely since it was only yesterday that we could read Neelie Kroes’s words on the self-censorship that is prevalent nowadays in Orbán’s Hungary. Gergely Gulyás in his answer to Kroes hotly contested the existence of any kind of self-censorship by pointing out the prevalence of anti-government articles in the Hungarian press.

So, let’s see how much the Hungarian newspapers who use the MTI newsfeed reported about the three editorials, starting with the Wall Street Journal editorial entitled “The ‘ Illiberal Idea Rises: Hungary’s Leader Issues a Warning to a Complacent West.” Anyone who knows Hungarian and is interested in comparing the original and the Hungarian version can visit MTI’s website. By my best estimate, MTI translated less than half of the article, leaving out some of the sentences uttered by Viktor Orbán that were deemed to be “unrepeatable.” For example, “I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.”  They also did not think it judicious to mention Russia, Turkey, and China “as successful models to emulate.” MTI generously left in the charge that “he has chipped away at the country’s constitutional checks and balances” but they omitted the next sentence: “He has packed courts and other independent institutions with loyalists from his ruling Fidesz party, politicized the central bank, nationalized private pensions, and barred the media from delivering ‘unbalanced news coverage.'”

MTI also didn’t include the Wall Street Journal‘s reference to “the rise of Jobbik” and its claim that “Fidesz has often abetted and amplified, rather than confronted, Jobbik’s ugly politics.” But at least we could read in the MTI report that “Mr. Orban looks with admiration to Vladimir Putin–and harbors Putin-like aspirations.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the WSJ‘s claim that “the goal of resurrecting a Greater Hungary stretching beyond the country’s post-World War borders is no fantasy for many nationalist elites” remained.

Now let’s move on to Fareed Zakaria’s “The Rise of Putinism” in The Washington PostThis article was so mutilated that practically nothing remained of it. MTI did include the beginning of the article: “When the Cold War ended, Hungary occupied a special place in the story of the revolutions of 1989. It was the first country in the Soviet orbit to abandon communism and embrace liberal democracy. Today it is again a trendsetter, becoming the first European country to denounce and distance itself from liberal democracy.” The next three paragraphs, however, were left out. In these paragraphs were several important sentences. For example, Zakaria mentions his 1997 essay about “illiberal democracies” and writes that “even I never imagined that a national leader–from Europe no less–would use the term as a badge of honor.” Well, you can imagine that that sentence could not be translated. MTI did, however, report the following sentence: “Orban has enacted and implemented in Hungary a version of what can best be described as ‘Putinism.'”

Zakaria’s article proceeds with a short synopsis of Putin’s career between 1998 and now and mentions that “he began creating a repressive system of political, economic and social control to maintain his power.” Obviously, comparing the current Hungarian regime to a repressive system of political, economic and social control to maintain power was too much for the sensitivities of MTI’s journalists. But they thought that the crucial elements of Putinism–“nationalism, religion, social conservatism, state capitalism, and government domination of the media”–did not need to be censored.

The next paragraph again led to forbidden territory and thus remained untranslated: “Orban has followed in Putin’s footsteps, eroding judicial independence, limiting individual rights, speaking in nationalist terms about ethnic Hungarians and muzzling the press. The methods of control are often more sophisticated than traditional censorship. Hungary recently announced a 40 percent tax on ad revenues that seems to particularly target the country’s only major independent television network, which could result in its bankruptcy.”

The last paragraph of the article about Putin’s gamble in Ukraine remained. If he triumphs in Ukraine, he can come out of the conflict as a winner but if Ukraine succeeds in resisting Russian encroachment “Putin might find himself presiding over a globally isolated Siberian petro-state.”

Finally, let’s see what happened to The New York Times’s “A Test for the European Union” written by the newspaper’s editorial board. This was a true hatchet job. The editorial consists of five paragraphs, but the first four were completely eliminated. I guess it was time for “the most unkindest cut of all” because this editorial was the most hard-hitting of the three and the one that showed the greatest knowledge of the Hungarian situation. “Orban’s government has taken steps to undermine the rule of law, gut press freedom, attack civil society groups and increase executive power.” The editors of The New York Times recall that when the Constitutional Court struck down some of the laws that the government introduced, “the government simply brought them back as constitutional amendments.” The editorial mentions advertisement revenues, the pressure on civil society groups, criminalization of the homeless, and stripping 300 religious groups of their official status.

The New York Times was also well-informed about the Venice Commission’s condemnation of the Orbán government’s actions. They knew about Neelie Kroes’s criticism of the advertising tax, calling it “a threat to a free press that is the foundation of a democratic society.” In the editorial they note that Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice, said that the EU should consider the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights. Naturally, none of these things could ever reach the eyes or ears of ordinary Hungarian citizens.

MTI accurately translated only the last paragraph, which contains some suggestions for the European Commission. “The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, needs to respond with more than the usual admonitions and hand-wringing.” They suggest a decrease of the 21.91 billion euros the European Union has allocated to Hungary. They mention the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights as a possible step.

The aim of the massive cuts in this particular editorial is clear. Neglecting to mention the “sins” of the Orbán government and reporting on only the harsh treatment suggested by the paper, MTI is abetting the government’s efforts to portray the West as an antagonistic foe that wants to punish the Hungarian people for defending their independence and sovereignty. Poor innocent Hungary! I’ve already read comments from outraged Hungarian patriots who question the right of anyone to demand punitive action directed at their country and only a few hours ago Tamás Fricz, a propagandist masquerading as a political scientist wrote a vitriolic article in Magyar Nemzet, questioning the right of Americans to meddle in the affairs of the European Union.

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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.

NGOs as threats to the building of Orbán Viktor’s “illiberal democracy”

Yesterday while analyzing Viktor Orbán’s latest speech I concentrated on the topic that aroused the greatest outrage in opposition circles, the Hungarian prime minister’s plans to introduce a so-called “illiberal democracy.”

Here I would like to talk about a topic that at first glance might seem tangential to these plans: the NGOs and civic groups in general. While Orbán dispassionately lectured his audience on the state of the world and Hungary’s place in it, he became visibly agitated when he turned to this topic. We may think that the question of who distributes the relatively small amount of money provided to Hungary by the EEA and Norwegian Grants is not worth a major international fight, but Viktor Orbán does not see it that way. For him the issue is of critical political importance.

I wrote earlier about the controversy surrounding these funds. Currently, a private organization distributes the funds, an arrangement that Hungary and the Norway Fund agreed to earlier. Sometime in the spring the Hungarian government unilaterally changed the rules of the game by insisting that the Budapest government should be responsible for the dispersion of the funds among the various civic organizations. The Norway Fund resisted the idea. After all, these civic groups are supposed to be, at least in part, the watchdogs of the government in power. Giving the government the right to decide which NGOs can and which cannot receive money would defeat the whole purpose.

Right now there is a standoff between Budapest and Oslo. Even the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, wrote a letter to János Lázár in which he expressed his displeasure at the government’s allegations that the Norwegian NGO Fund was used to support political activities in Hungary. He tried to explain that NGOs “should be able to pursue their public watchdog function … without undue interference in their internal functioning.” Lázár wasn’t moved. He argued that the Norwegian NGO funds “constitute public money, [and] it is the moral obligation of the Hungarian Government to order every measure in its discretion which is necessary for the thorough investigation of the questions to be examined, or the contents of the supported activities.” The sentence might be convoluted, but the message clear: Lázár insists on government oversight.

Why is this relatively small amount of money of such great political concern for the Orbán government? We can find the answer in Viktor Orbán’s speech delivered yesterday at Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad. These independent NGOs threaten the illiberal state he is building. He looks upon the NGOs, especially the ones that receive funds from abroad, as impediments to his plans. And as far as he is concerned, this is a very serious matter. As he put it, “here we are confronted with paid political activists. Moreover, these paid political activists are foreign paid political activists. Political activists paid by definable foreign interest groups about whom it is hard to imagine that they consider the sums given by them as social projects. Instead, our suspicion is justified that through this instrument [the NGOs] they try–in a given moment and in a given question–to influence Hungarian political life.” Therefore, the decision was made to create a parliamentary committee whose job will be “the continuous observation, recording, and release of foreign attempts at influence peddling. ”

NGOs2And this was just the beginning of his tirade. He complained about the fact that some of the people who administer these projects are getting paid from abroad, from the money allocated to Hungary, and that their salaries are greater than the salaries of Hungarian civil servants in similar positions and rank. He complained that  35% of the funds are wasted on overhead costs, which is intolerable. Once the Hungarian government gets hold of the funds, these costs will be reduced to a maximum of 15%.

Administrators in Brussels and in Oslo will have to be prepared for a protracted and ugly fight because Orbán is adamant: foreign money is not going to be used to undermine his government. If the Norwegian Fund decides to stick it out, the case most likely will end up in the European Court of Human Rights. Commissioner Nils Muižnieks in his letter to Lázár alluded to that possibility when he stated that “the case law of the European Court of Human Rights on the role of NGOs in democratic society is clear: when an NGO draws attention to matters of public interest, it is exercising a public watchdog role of similar importance to that of the press.” And he mentions the 2007 ruling in Zhechev v. Bulgaria as a case in point. In brief, Muižniek recommends that Hungary back down because, if the case gets all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights, defeat is certain. Not that Viktor Orbán cares about court decisions. He will do, if and when it comes, what he has done in the past. Blithely ignore the decision.

MSZP’s new strategy: Frontal attack on Viktor Orbán and his government

Lately I have been increasingly aware that MSZP politicians are changing tactics. They have decided to be less timid when it comes to criticism of Viktor Orbán, his party, and his government. Earlier, liberal and socialist politicians tried to avoid the kind of discourse that is characteristic of Fidesz and that contributed to the deep political division in Hungary.

The constant verbal abuse until recently came only from the right. The humiliated socialist politicians weren’t confident enough to raise their voices. But now, instead of tiptoeing around, they no longer mince words. It seems that they came to the conclusion that madly looking for polite words to describe the absolutely unacceptable policies and political discourse of Fidesz and members of the Orbán government leads nowhere. The Hungarian public is so accustomed to Fidesz rants that they no longer hear roundabout ways of expressing displeasure. Stronger language  and a louder voice became necessary.

Leftist politicians and political commentators no longer shy away from calling Fidesz a mafia-like organization that is in the process of trying to attain exclusive political power and that also strives for its own and its followers’ enrichment. It is enough here to think of Bálint Magyar’s excellent article on the Fidesz “upperworld” or Ferenc Gyurcsány’s total disregard of any possible consequences by calling Viktor Orbán a cheat and a liar.

source: markdenham.com

source: markdenham.com

Here I would like to concentrate on Attila Mesterházy, who recently delivered a very effective speech in parliament addressed to Viktor Orbán and who in the last three days wrote two op/ed pieces, one in Népszava and another in NépszabadságBoth papers have MSZP connections. Népszava used to be the paper of the Magyar Szociáldemokrata Párt. It began publication in 1873 and even today describes itself as “a social democratic daily.”

Attila Mesterházy seems to like numbered lists. His article in Népszava is entitled “Orbán’s Nine Lies” and today’s article in Népszabadság is “Fifteen Theses.” The first article is about the nine “accomplishments” of the Orbán government as they were enumerated by the prime minister in Tusnádfrürdő/Băile Tușnad in Romania at the end of July. In the second piece Mesterházy basically outlines what his party intends to do after winning the elections in 2014.

Here I will not be able to summarize all the points that Mesterházy makes in these two articles. Instead I will concentrate on the different tone, the different communication tactics that are a departure from both earlier MSZP strategy and the declared conciliatory tactics of Gordon Bajnai’s Együtt 2014-PM. I’m coming to the conclusion that MSZP, as opposed to the middle-of-the-road Bajnai group, decided that their followers demand stronger language and more resolute action once the Orbán mafia-government is out of office.

I think it was 23 years ago, in 1991, that the young Viktor Orbán in parliament said of Prime Minister József Antall “the prime minister is lying.” The air froze around him. Those were the days when members of parliament, even the ones in opposition, found it unacceptable to call the prime minister a liar. But now the largest opposition party’s chairman himself calls Orbán a liar, “someone who rewrites reality, someone who falsifies facts, someone who is sinking in the maelstrom of his own lies.” After this powerful beginning, Mesterházy lists all the lies Orbán uttered in Tusnádfürdő and finishes with the claim that these lies are necessary in order to cover up Orbán’s “politics based on the interpenetration of money and power.”

Mesterházy’s second article on MSZP strategy outlines what MSZP plans to do with the political and financial edifice that Viktor Orbán built in the previous four years. MSZP promises the dismantlement of Orbán’s system. In addition, they will redress injustice and punish those who are found guilty. MSZP is currently planning a thorough investigation of the shady land-lease program and the distribution of the tobacconist shops. Mesterházy “calls on everyone who feels that they received undeserved preferential treatment to return the ill-gotten land or give back their tobacco concessions. Otherwise we will take the land back and give it to those who really want to cultivate it. ” As far as the tobacconist shops are concerned, MSZP will put an end to the current system and return to the days when one could buy cigarettes at gas stations, supermarkets, and small corner stores.

But that is not all. Organizations and companies that currently provide questionable services to the government will also be investigated and “if it is found that payments were provided for services not actually rendered or a gram of cement was stolen, those responsible will not be able to avoid court proceedings.” These are unusually strong words for Attila Mesterházy.

On the other hand, he holds out an olive branch to the average Fidesz voter by pointing out that they are not responsible for what the Orbán govenment has done to the country because Viktor Orbán didn’t tell them his plans. “He shafted them, he misled them.” So, they shouldn’t feel ashamed.

Felcsút is becoming a symbol of all that is wrong with present-day Hungary. The small village where Viktor Orbán spent his early childhood and where he is building a monument to himself is a reminder of what can happen to a man who has lost all sense of reality because of unfettered power.

And that leads me to an article by Gábor Török, a political scientist who cannot be accused of anti-Orbán prejudices. Török is actually an admirer of Viktor Orbán’s political skills and points out that the prime minister in his long political career always kept in mind what people think of his actions and how the electorate reacts to his words and deeds. That’s why he finds what is happening in Felcsút, the construction of an enormous stadium right next door to the prime minister’s own house, so out of character. Doesn’t he realize what perception that whole project creates? Is he blind and deaf? “A stadium next to one’s own house may kill a politician. It only depends on the creativity and talent of his opponents.” Mesterházy mentioned Felcsút eight times in an article only slightly longer than this post.