UNFAIR AND UNBALANCED

In Hungary, Real News Has Become NSFW

You know how it goes: a wannabe strongman has rich friends who buy up media to shut down dissent, then claims innocence. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a case in point.

Laszlo Balogh/Getty

BERLIN—Lazlo Pore used to be a journalist. But then an Austrian investment banker burst onto the media market in Hungary, bought the newspaper that Pore edited, and sold the whole thing on to an ex-handyman who once played soccer with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Today, Pore sells gourmet sausages in a parking lot at the center of Pécs, a city in the south of the country.

Since the takeover, Dunántúli Napló (the Pécs local paper where Pore used to work) is filled only with positive news about Orban’s far-right Fidesz party, such as daily updates on the exact numbers of migrants arrested by police officers at the Hungarian border.

“For people who do not support Fidesz, the level of government propaganda is unbearable,“ Pore tells The Daily Beast. “There are serious disagreements on what is happening in politics and it is poisoning relationships—such are the sins of Orban.“

Indeed, Orban appears to have written a new kind of playbook for wannabe strongmen, and he looks all but certain to win a fourth term on Sunday. The electoral system, the judiciary and the constitution are already rigged in his favor and he is expected to use his fourth term in office to finish turning Hungary into an autocracy.  

For example, even though most of the country’s media is already under the control of oligarchs who are Orban’s friends there are still two major independent outlets, which Fidesz is said to be eying warily. Somehow, the online news portal Index.hu and the German-owned commercial TV channel RTL Klub still manage to draw a larger audience than the entire pro-Fidesz media empire.

“It is difficult to estimate the effectiveness of Fidesz’s communication,“ Gabor Polyak, an analyst at Mertek Media Monitor, tells us. “Fidesz does not work as a democratic party but as a religion, and its voters are committed believers who do not need any argument.“

Outside of Budapest, practically all newspapers are controlled by pro-government publishers. TV and radio stations sell their time to Fidesz’s political adverts, many of which demonize the liberal Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros. Pore says the majority of Pécs residents are just looking forward to Sunday’s vote being over.

Lazlo Pore wasn’t the only one to lose his job at Dunántúli Napló: most of the staff was fired or quit. Two reporters decided to set up their own news website, “Szabad Pécs” (Free Pécs). They—Attila Babos and Ferenc Nimmerfroh—believed the government-friendly outlets were unconvincing and boring (there is no investigative reporting) and that, ultimately, “people aren’t stupid.”

But some are intimidated, they found out. “A lot of people, especially in state jobs, told us that they don’t dare like us on Facebook or make donations, because they could get into trouble in their workplace,“ Nimmerfroh tells us.  Solid reporting is considered NSFW.

For Szabad Pécs, Nimmerfroh wanted to report the local news professionally and “without vengeance,” though local politicians ignored his information requests. He left the website a few months ago. “I had to make money,“ he explains to us. (He now works in the financial sector)

To make Szabad Pécs sustainable, Nimmerfroh and Babos (who is now running the website by himself) tried to apply for funding. But competition for help from Hungary’s besieged NGOs is high. Last year, the Fidesz mayor of Pécs called on residents not to rent out any offices to a charity that had recently been awarded a half-million-dollar grant by Georg Soros’ Open Society Foundation. The mayor’s orders were followed.

Fidesz does not work as a democratic party but as a religion, and its voters are committed believers who do not need any argument.
Gabor Polyak, an analyst at Mertek Media Monitor

Orban’s government has tried to keep a hands-off appearance while crushing free speech in Hungary. The collapse of the old news media business after the 2008 financial crisis helped, because it made foreign investors keen to sell off their assets in Central and Eastern Europe. And many did—for instance to Orban’s oligarch cronies.   

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It was an Austrian investment banker called Heinrich Pecina who made the deals with Western European publishing companies like Ringier, Axel Springer and Russmedia to facilitate the purchase of almost all the country’s regional newspapers. Pecina is also the man who—within a year—bought and shut down Hungary’s biggest opposition paper.

Pecina, 67, who was spotted having a one-on-one dinner with Orban earlier this year, has only ever given two interviews in his life: One was in a business magazine about the highs and lows of “living out of a suitcase,“ the other was a stiff sit-down about the shutdown of the opposition paper Nepszabadsag. “None of the Quakers screaming around here want this paper,” he’d snapped sternly, pointing to its loss-making financial records.

And since then: silence. Or as Pecina’s communications officer, Michael Fink, explains: “it is not our communication strategy to discuss business or private dealings.”

In the lower Austrian countryside, private security guards surround Pecina’s castle. The banker inherited the property from his grandfather, who was the estate manager of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. At the annual Austrian shooting fair, Pecina has the honor of carrying the body of the sacrificial stag, which he shoots himself. (Blood sports appear to be a big part of the billionaire’s life. One high-ranking Hungarian banker, whose name appeared entwined with Pecina’s in the Panama Papers investigation, said he knew Pecina from going hunting with him.)

“Pecina is the ideal middle man,” Attila Bátorfy, a journalist and teacher at the Central European University, tells us. “He is well mannered and has a very good reputation in the business world.” Dealing directly with an authoritarian and kleptocratic regime can be embarrassing for foreign investors, Bátorfy points out. But Pecina has the reputation of  “this man will do it for us.”

For some of the older Hungarian journalists, this is really bitter.

“Ten years ago, I thought the multinational corporations (many of which burst onto the market after the fall of the Berlin Wall) were going to save us from corruption in Hungary,” says Joszef Peter Martin, who used to edit an economic weekly and is now the executive director of Transparency International Hungary. “But now this illusion has gone as the multinationals either left the country or assisted in the backsliding of media freedom and democracy.”