This week’s issue of Heti Válasz, a right-wing print publication that is apparently going to be spared the purge that is currently unfolding in the world of pro-Fidesz newspapers, television stations and news sites, confirmed that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is looking to build a broad alternative media base to that currently offered by mogul and Fidesz oligarch Lajos Simicska, who has recently fallen out of favour with the regime. Fidesz has always been more adept at incrementally building a partisan media structure than the Hungarian left.
It’s worth remembering that after establishing Heti Válasz as a tame, moderate weekly magazine during their first stint in government (1998-2002), Mr. Orbán used his eight years in opposition to gradually break the traditionally left-leaning or liberal nature of Hungarian media. His allies, business partners and oligarchs founded Hungary’s first all-news television channel, HírTV, as well as a second, more radical news network called EchoTV. They established right-wing radio stations, such as Lánchíd Rádió and pumped money and support into daily papers, such as Magyar Nemzet, which is still the “gem” of the waning Simicska empire. Fidesz even launched blogs, such as Mandiner.hu, which initially was a small print publication edited by young, dynamic people associated with Fidesz’s youth wing, such as Balogh Ákos Gergely and Gellért Rajcsányi, and which maintains a generally moderate, libertarian profile.
But the Orbán regime’s decision to completely and overtly usurp the country’s public broadcaster and to turn M1–the main public television station–into a blatant organ of party propaganda and a new rival to the Simicska-owned Hír TV, is astounding in its crassness. “There are no viewership expectations attached to the new M1. Its only job is to do and say exactly what the government wants,” notes the pro-Fidesz Heti Válasz.
“The Simicska-Orbán battle at most strengthens our intention to build a system of new tools and resources. The party’s media portfolio is out of date and in 2018, we wouldn’t even have a chance to win, if we built our ability to define the campaign on a printed daily newspaper,” said an unnamed Fidesz politician to Heti Válasz.
The country’s new pro-Orbán media empire is being assembled by the mysterious and famously cut-throat Árpád Habony. Mr. Habony is a 47 year old businessman, who became Mr. Orbán’s strategic advisor. According to one study, in a matter of months, he managed to become Hungary’s fourth most influential person. Before this, Mr. Habony served in the background, advising Mr. Orbán following the right’s election defeat in 2006 and also ran a small business called Színes Tinták Bt. (based on the name, one imagines that they sold art or office supplies), which generated no revenue. Despite his lack of official income from business ventures and other sources, Mr. Habony became somewhat infamous in 2014 after being seen flaunting luxury accessories and clothing.
Mr. Habony is set to work together with Tibor Győri, another of Mr. Orbán’s personal advisors, in marginalizing Lajos Simicska and in building a rival pro-regime media empire.
This new empire apparently comes with some new players, in addition to the now avowedly pro-regime M1 news network. The government is looking to launch a new website entitled Via.hu, which will serve to reach out to far-right readers and especially to the growing number of former Fidesz supporters who are gravitating to Jobbik. Zsolt Bayer, the openly racist publicist at the Magyar Hírlap daily newspaper, is being given a key role at Via.hu.
The government is also planning to launch a new weekly tabloid paper–similar to the role that the Helyi Téma publication once played. Additionally, Gábor Liszkay will be launching a new print daily paper, based on the legacy of the Napi Gazdaság publication. The new paper will come with a new title and a different profile. Mr. Liszkay, formerly editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet and one of the first to lead the charge against Mr. Simicska, will aim to bring over a larger number of Simicska’s journalists and employees to the new publication, thus bleeding out Mr. Orbán’s rival.
The speed at which Mr. Orbán’s inner circle has set about building a new propaganda machine is remarkable. M1 certainly became a laughing stock the day it was launched, as a result of a whole serious of juvenile technical errors. But it is yet to be seen how swiftly and how brutally Mr. Orbán will be able to destroy Mr. Simicska, his best-friend-turned-arch-nemesis, and how effectively he will be able to relaunch his “new and improved” propaganda machine.