Corruption and the Hungarian Central Bank–This is how Fidesz destroys Hungary’s independent media

At the heart of the Fidesz party’s ability to stay in power is to detect the vulnerabilities of people and organizations, and then exacerbate these, making Hungarians beholden to the regime. The chaos surrounding a major Hungarian news site called VS.hu and large state subsidies that traveled to the site’s publisher in a secretive and a roundabout way, is indicative of how the Orbán regime uses a type of “soft power” (as opposed to open terror) to destroy independent media in Hungary and bolster his increasingly authoritarian state.

The VS.hu opinion news site was one broadly perceived as being fairly balanced in its reporting, and was open to opposition viewpoints. Over the past several days, however, we learned that the publication belongs to a company called New Wave Kft., which is co-owned by the cousin of Fidesz politician and Hungarian Central Bank president, György Matolcsy.

VS.hu logo.

VS.hu logo.

VS.hu received over 500 million forints (approx. $1.3 million) in public funding from a foundation affiliated with the Hungarian Central Bank. Public funds traveled from the  national bank led by Mr. Matolcsy to a company (New Wave Kft.) affiliated with his cousin, Tamás Szemerey. The monies that travelled to VS.hu represent a drop in the bucket, in terms of the tens of millions of dollars that the Hungarian Central Bank appears to have transferred to people and companies with either family ties to the bank’s president, or to the Fidesz party. New Wave Kft, which publishes Origo, in addition to VS.hu, received some $2.3 million from the Central Bank, while a range of right-wing and extremist authors and publications also received subsidies from the Central Bank. For instance, a show broadcast on Echo TV, owned by Fidesz oligarch Gábor Széles, received $30,000 in funding, while a publicist with Mr. Széles’s Magyar Hírlap daily obtained about $11,000, to explore the impact of multinational companies in Hungary. A wide range of other companies and individuals on the right received funding through the Hungarian Central Bank, in order to produce “analyses,” which arguably amounted to little more than thinly veiled government propaganda.

This is where VS.hu comes into the picture. It appears as though the publication received significant funds to publish material friendly to the government, or perhaps promotional information, yet at no point were journalists at the news site or the broader readership made aware of articles or essays that may have been “sponsored” in this way. The publication’s editor-in-chief, Olivér Lebhardt, resigned on Monday and noted:

“I made a mistake when I allowed for sponsored content to appear in our publication, without indicating who the sponsors happened to be. Of course, I wouldn’t have had much of a say in the matter, but this practice should have been reason enough for me to resign right there and then.”

Olivér Lebhardt.

Olivér Lebhardt.

As of Monday afternoon, 12 journalists affiliated with VS.hu submitted their resignations. VS.hu employee Sándor Joób, for instance, announced his resignation on Facebook and added that he would hand over his last pay cheque from VS.hu to a charity. Mr. Joób noted that this gesture aimed to help “restore the integrity of the journalistic profession.”

Mr. Joób’s principled stance is truly commendable. And the same could be said for the dozen or so journalists who have walked away from a steady job and existence, because they did not want to be associated with a publication that was the beneficiary of systematic corruption.

If more Hungarian journalists, civil servants, business people, academics and others took inspiration from the journalists and editors of VS.hu, it would be much harder for any authoritarian regime to grow deep roots.

7 Comments

  1. Avatar András B. Göllner says:

    There is a saying – the best way to rob a bank is to own it. That’s the approach taken by György Matolcsy, the Head of the National Bank of Hungary. The government of Orbán Viktor has a well documented track record in this form of robbery. The most recent example of this involves the MKB bank, which was brought under the supervision of the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office, stripped of most of its assets, and will now be sold for a pittance, to some Fidesz insiders, who will no doubt receive massive public subsidies, ostensibly to make the bank more competitive. Crime pays in Hungary, especially, if the criminals hold the reigns of power. All the statistical indices have been corrupted, to hide the true face of poverty, decay and corruption. Deception is the rule of the day. But who cares ? The streets of Budapest are teeming with tourists, the girls are playful, the strains coming out of the Franz Liszt Music Academy are sweet to the ears, the cafés and restaurants are full, the schnitzels are as good as ever along the Duna Corso. What more do we want ? Maybe a better fence, but that’s simple. Just ask Donald Trump. In Hungary’s case, the EU will pay for it.

  2. Avatar Charlie London says:

    When a journalist resigns you have to ask the question “Why now?”

    Hir TV suddenly discovered ‘integrity’ when the boss fell out with Orban – the journalists suddenly discovered the ‘BBC Code For Journalists’.

    There are plenty of reasons related to integrity and truth when you shouldn’t support a media organisation – even if you didn’t realise that Corrupt Matolcsy was ‘buying’ your organisation.

    Is Olivér Lebhardt jumping ship because he realises that sooner or later Orban’s house of cards is soon to crumble?

    When rats desert a sinking ship – someone has to be first – and may get their timing wrong.

    Bit late to discover ‘religion’ Olivér? Why not as soon as you realised your media website was corrupted?

    Who will employ you now if not another corrupt – Orban serving – media outlet? You’re tainted goods.

    For as sure as anything – it is there for all to see – outside Hungary.

  3. @charlie
    Take it easy, these journalists left their jobs and risk reprisals. Better late than never.
    In this whore of a country (kurva ország) they look virtuous, if not perfect.

    • Avatar Charlie London says:

      The problem with it is that Olivér resigned – with others – AFTER the gravy train left the station, in December 2015.

      Other – more brave media – actually covered the shenanigans of the MNB.

      Vs.hu were strangely silent.

      In addition vs.hu have been able to acquire expensive media portals recently – and were swimming in cash.

      MNB cash as it turns out.

      As a journalist you have to protect your integrity and be inquisitive of your Organisation too to ensure your credentials.

      Due diligence to protect your profession may not be easy – but the signs were there.

      Ignore them at your peril.

  4. TOTAL CORRUPTION is the defining feature of the Orbán regime. But it needs protection, e.g. that of the dictatorship.
    In the case this mafia state the Competition Office, the State Audit office, the HNBank Foundations ‘ trustees and finally the Chief Prosecution Office are / must be in cahoots with the robberers since they fail to act in accordance with their charters or applicable laws.
    Imagine how “independent” is s Chief Prosecutor if his wife is appointed to various position paying EUR 18 000 a month (in a country where the averige monthly salary is EUR 750.

  5. Pingback: 10 journalists resign over covert funding of Hungarian news website - Science AC

  6. Pingback: Fidesz expels journalists from Parliament for asking questions on Central Bank corruption scandal

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