As I was settling down to write this post, a large demonstration in Budapest was just coming to an end. It was organized by journalists who protested the sudden firing of the editor-in-chief of Origo, one of the best and most widely read internet newspapers. Gergő Sáling, the editor in question, has been working for Origo for twelve years, but it was only in November 2013 that he was named editor-in-chief of the paper. Why did the owner of Origo, Magyar Telekom, decide to sack Sáling? Origo has the reputation of being an independent site that views Hungarian politics in a critical manner. But rumor has it that pressure was put on Origo to change its government-critical posture, and as a result editors-in-chief have come and gone lately. It seems that Sáling was not pro-government enough. In fact, he made the mistake of allowing András Pethő, one of the journalists at Origo, to investigate the latest Lázár affair.
The Origo affair is only the tip of the iceberg. Since winning two elections in a row, Fidesz and the Orbán government have decided to attack the remaining remnants of Hungarian democracy with full force. Besides the NGOs, their other target is the media. This time, however, they may have gone too far. Something unexpected happened. Even right-wing journalists joined liberals to oppose the latest plans to silence critical voices.
A new bill was submitted for consideration to levy heavy taxes on media outlets’ advertising revenues. The new bill proposes taxes on all such revenues but on a sliding scale. Those outlets with the largest advertising revenues would have to pay a tax of 40%. The bill seems to have been aimed at RTL Klub, the largest foreign-owned commercial television station in Hungary. The other important commercial station is TV2, but it seems it would be spared the 40% levy. You may remember that TV2 was recently purchased by mysterious buyers suspected of being closely connected to Fidesz. So, the first reaction was that the Orbán government wants to eliminate TV2’s only serious competitor by financially ruining RTL Klub. The management of the television station claims that if they are forced to pay such a hefty sum on their advertising revenues, they might as well close their doors. Soon enough they will be bankrupt. In fact, RTL estimated that its share of the ad tax would be about 4.5 billion forints, nine times its 2013 profits.
The story might not be so simple, however, because it looks as if TV2’s management is also up in arms and ready to join RTL Klub’s protest. I also heard rumors that even HírTV might join them. That may be only a rumor, but today’s Magyar Nemzet came out with a scathing editorial on the advertising tax. Péter Csermely, deputy editor-in-chief of the paper, viewed the bill as a bald political move: “the two-thirds indeed wants to step on the throat of freedom of the press.” Strong words from Csermely who normally on the P8 program makes Fidesz politicians look good with his softball questions. In his opinion, taxing advertising revenues makes no sense whatsoever because the central budget will receive only nine billion forints from this new tax while every ten forints spent on advertising adds fifty forints to the GDP. So, he came to the conclusion that the proposed tax is meant to put a lid on free speech and the press.
But that is not all. László L. Simon, the Fidesz member of parliament who proposed, or more precisely lent his name to, the bill, threatened that further taxes, this time on internet social media, will be introduced. And speaking of the internet, a few days ago the Constitutional Court came to the conclusion that comments attached to articles are the responsibility of the publishers. This ruling may mean that online newspapers will no longer allow readers’ comments.
But let’s return to the Lázár affair that ended with the firing of the editor-in-chief of Origo. Some time ago, one of the journalists at Origo went to court because the prime minister’s office refused to give out details about secret trips János Lázár took. The courts backed transparency and the law and ruled that the details of the trips, rumored to be very lavish, must be revealed. The prime minister’s office reluctantly obliged. It turned out that the cost of these trips exceeded the wildest imaginations of the journalists. In November 2912 Lázár spent three days in London. The bill was 920,000 forints. In March 2013 he spent two days in Switzerland that cost 469,000 forints just for lodgings. In July he traveled to Italy, again for only two days, which cost the taxpayers 582,000 forints. Upon further probing, Origo found out that the bill totaling 1.97 million forints for these three trips actually covered the expenses of two people.
Lázár was incensed. He wrote a snotty “reply to the article of origo.hu” and posted it on the webpage of the prime minister’s office. The letter included such sentences as: “I am glad that the independent Hungarian courts find it important to get acquainted with my traveling habits.” Or “Appreciating the unbiased, objective, and correct reporting and valuing the journalist’s work in the defense of the Hungarian budget, I decided to renounce the travel allowance that I am entitled to.” He specifically mentioned András Pethő’s name, adding that he would like to make his day with this gesture. One’s immediate reaction is: if Lázár was entitled to the travel allowance, why is he returning the money?
We still don’t know much about the nature of these trips, but it was reported in the media that the persons who accompanied Lázár were “interpreters.” That is curious because, according his official biography, he speaks both German and English.
Today we found out a few more tidbits, at least about the trip to London. According to Zsolt Gréczy, the spokesman for the Demokratikus Koalíció who gave a press conference on the subject, Lázár stayed at the Crowne Hotel, the most expensive accommodations in London. Apparently, that is the favorite hotel of members of the Hungarian government. Lázár’s job, it seems, was to convince the British to allow a meeting of Viktor Orbán with David Cameron. In fact, Viktor Orbán hoped that Cameron would come to Budapest to demonstrate his support of the Hungarian prime minister. DK learned, however, that Lázár completely botched his negotiations in the Foreign Office and in the end Szijjártó had to be sent to London to straighten things out.
And a final note. The reporter for the official Hungarian telegraphic agency, MTI, was present at the press conference. In fact, he even addressed a question to Zsolt Gréczy. However, MTI chose not to report on the event. That means that the details DK unearthed will get to very few newspapers and online outlets because they all receive MTI news free of charge. I read about it in Népszava, because one of its reporters was there. This would not be the first time that the MTI management decides not to publish reports that do not reflect well on the Orbán government. So much for transparency and truth.
The free Hungarian media is under renewed attack, but it seems that this time even pro-Fidesz journalists are ready to stand by their colleagues on the other side of the great divide in Hungarian politics. They seem to realize, as Benjamin Franklin famously said, that “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”