One of Hungary’s national political weekly magazines, Figyelő, was bought by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s former adviser and government historian Mária Schmidt on Monday. While Ms. Schmidt promises to keep publishing the weekly, it is all but certain that the publication’s critical, independent voice will be gone. Figyelő will almost certainly follow the fate of the online publication Origo, or TV 2, both of which transformed into staunchly pro-Orbán and pro-Fidesz publication, after they were bought up by business interests close to the government. As our readers will recall: the most severe blow to the independent press in Hungary was the politically-motivated shuttering of the country’s largest national print daily, Népszabadság.
Our Canadian and American readers might find it odd that a civil servant, such as Ms. Schmidt, is able to purchase outright one of the main national publications in the country. In Hungary, however, even the mayors of the smallest rural towns (such as Lőrinc Mészáros, mayor of Prime Minister Orbán’s home town) can become one of the wealthiest, most influential businesspeople and media magnates in a few short years.
“Quality, equity and moderation”–these were the three words that Ms. Schmidt used to describe Figyelő‘s editorial policy under her ownership. She added that the publication was in dire financial straits, with debts owing to some 70 different organizations and individuals. “Had I not showed up as an investor, the publication would have ceased to exist,” remarked Ms. Schmidt, noting as well that she finds the publication’s current journalism “professional and of high quality.”
Figyelő is published by a company called Médiacity Kft. The political weekly’s readership is estimated at being between 7,000 to 8,000, although the newest circulation figures are not available.
Ms. Schmidt served as the Government Commissioner of the Memorial Year of the 1956 Revolution in 2016. Since 2002 she is also the Director of the House of Terror Museum in Budapest. During the sixtieth anniversary commemorations of 1956, Ms. Schmidt faced significant controversy and derision, after a government-commissioned pop song written for the anniversary by Desmond Child turned out to be a recycled piece of music already used in the past for basketball players in Miami. Ms. Schmidt spent US$ 183,000 in public funds on the recycled song. Worse still was the embarrassment caused by a billboard produced for the anniversary celebrations, which incorrectly identified the “young fighter” depicted in the historic photograph. The late Pál Pruck appeared on the billboard, yet the caption read László Dózsa–an actor whose alleged role in the revolution has been called into question by historians. Ms. Schmidt did not believe that the photograph did, indeed, depict Mr. Pruck. Mr. Dózsa, who is still alive, refused to confirm that the caption was incorrect.
Ms. Schmidt would not listen to Mr. Pruck’s own daughter, referring instead to Mr. Dózsa as a “hero” and Mr. Pruck as a “convicted criminal,” who later went on to speak against the 1956 revolution during the Kádár era. Ms. Schmidt also called the criticism that arose from the poster a “baseless attack” against her. To be sure, Mr. Pruck’s family never claimed that he was a revolutionary hero of any sort–they simply asserted correctly that the government’s anniversary poster boy was their father, and not Mr. Dózsa.
The photographer who had taken the photo, as well as historians confirmed what Mr. Pruck’s daughter was saying all long–the photograph depicted Mr. Pruck and not Mr. Dózsa. Ms. Schmidt never admitted her error, but wrote a lengthy letter to the family claiming that there is no definitive proof as to who actually appears on the photo (even though the photographer and historians agree) noting instead the heady days of the uprising were confusing and produced lots of misinformation.
As for the future of Figyelő: if the fate of Origo, TV 2 or, indeed, Mediaworks is indicative of what happens to independent media when bought up by those close to the government, then we can expect Hungary to lose yet another critical voice.