Head of Hungary's powerful right-wing media portfolio resigns after bashing pro-government journalism

Head of Hungary's powerful right-wing media portfolio resigns after bashing pro-government journalism
Head of right-wing media conglomerate steps down after two months in office
By bne IntelliNews February 5, 2019

The chairman of the foundation that owns some 500 pro-government propaganda outlets resigned shortly after an interview in which he blasted the quality of right-wing journalism in Hungary, local media reported on February 5.

Istvan Varga said he reads independent outlets before browsing government friendly newspapers and websites in an interview with a small regional television on Friday. Newspapers on the conservative side lack quality journalists, he said.

"I don’t want to hear news channels saying that everything is perfect and the government only makes flawless decisions. It’s not propaganda, it’s not a press, it's something quite different and that should change," he said.

The rather odd comments from the former Fidesz MP made headlines in independent media on Monday and later that evening Varga resigned from his post without citing his reasons.

Varga was appointed chairman of the board of trustees of the Central European Press and Media Foundation (CEPMF) at the end of last year.

The CEPMF became the largest media holding in the country in November after taking over some 476 pro-government outlets. Right-wing media owners transferred their ownership to the foundation as charitable donations.

Orban builds up loyal media base

Prime Minister Viktor Orban channelled a vast amount of public money to build up a media conglomerate loyal to him. He wanted Hungarian ownership in the sector, deemed as a strategic area by the PM, to exceed 50%. During its years in opposition the now ruling Fidesz party leaned on daily Magyar Nemzet and news channel HirTV, controlled by Orban’s college roommate, the former party cashier Lajos Simicska.

On February 6, 2015 a public feud between the two marked a turning point and signalled the businessman’s fall from grace. Between 2015 and 2018 Simicska’s media became a fierce critic of the government arousing Orban’s anger. His companies were excluded from state tenders, and Simicska began to slip on the ranking of the wealthiest Hungarians.

The third two-thirds landslide victory by Fidesz in the 2018 general election sealed his fate his and that of his business empire.

Simicska laid down his arms and walked away closing his media outlets and selling his business empire to his partner. A year later, much of the stakes ended up in the hands of Lorinc Meszaros, the rising star of the new business elite, and the childhood friend of the PM.

After the fall of his former friend, Orban, learning from his mistakes, began to build up a media conglomerate split between five or six businessmen. Meszaros, who is deemed to be the proxy for Orban, gained control of the largest chunk of the media pie. He purchased all 19 rural county newspapers with vast subscriber base, which played an essential role in bringing in the votes of the country side voters.

The other power centre of the right-wing media included former consultant Arpad Habony, who was in charge of tabloids, and the late Andy Vajna, the film mogul who died last month. Vajna owned the country’s second largest broadcaster Tv2, which according to local press reports will also be integrated into the CEPMF.

Last November Meszaros, Habony and others donated their stakes in their media companies without financial remuneration to the state media holding, which will operate as non-profit foundation in the future. The government in December blocked any potential antitrust investigation into the single largest media transaction in the country's history by declaring the establishment of CEPMF as an issue of national strategic importance.

State media has been under the direct control of the ruling party since 2010, but other news outlets also receive regularly the main talking points of the government on a weekly basis. Chiefly these are exaggerating fears from illegal migration, praising economic success stories and denouncing opposition parties and critics. The government’s grip on the press will strengthen further with the centralisation of the media group.

Conservative daily returns to life

Conservative daily Magyar Nemzet (MN) will be published again on Wednesday, according to the publisher of daily Magyar Idok, which will be rebranded as the MN. The move was timed exactly for the fourth anniversary of a notoriously salty outburst by Simicska against Orban.

The oligarch’s vulgar verbal attack on the PM has since become a meme, the Hungarian abbreviation for “Orban is a f….r”, O1G, is now a recurring slogan at opposition protests and on social media.

Local commentators said the rebranding of Magyar Idok on the day of the breakup is the perfect revenge by the PM against his former friend. Simicska shut down the newspaper founded in 1938 one day after the election, despite bids from investors.

According to rumours it was part of the deal with Orban that allowed Simicska to walk away with the proceeds from his business stakes. Orban was more than happy to see his nemesis concede defeat.