The Hungarian government gobbles up media wherever its citizens live. With the recent expansion into Romania’s media, their control over the electorate is nearing completion.
A well-respected journalist based in Transylvania, central Romania, Hugo Agoston saw his employment contract with Fundatia Progress abruptly terminated at the end of 2016. Mr Agoston was a writer for Maszol.ro, a Hungarian language news portal run by Fundatia Progress.
In a public statement, he slammed the site’s funder for incessant censorship. He spoke about “political pressure”, “threats” and “instructions” as to what political topics to cover.
What Mr Agoston was complaining about was not some Romanian politico, but Fidesz, the right-wing, populist party now in power in neighboring Hungary. In a move to beef up its voter base prior to the 2018 elections, Fidesz has rapidly spread its influence over the media that cater to Hungarians residing in Romania.
But what Mr Agoston described were only the first, timid steps that Fidesz and their cronies were taking to gag criticism outside of Hungary’s borders. Things have gotten worse since.
Hungarian language media in Romania today are caught in a cleft stick, as reporters are forced to comply with pressure or lose their jobs, according to a dozen journalists interviewed for this story in the past three months. One of them, based in Cluj-Napoca, said that most of the Hungarian language publications in Romania are coordinated directly from the office of Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, the leader of the Fidesz Party.
The interest in capturing the Hungarian media in Romania is electoral: the many ethnic Hungarians living in Romania were granted the ability to vote in Hungary by Orban’s government in 2010. Through business allies in Hungary and political supporters in Romania, Fidesz has practically annihilated voices of dissent. It’s now moving fast on corralling votes.
Except for a couple of county papers, most of the Hungarian language publications in Romania are loss-incurring operations. A combination of limited audience and free access to online content has hobbled them all. The outlets that are still alive and kicking are subsidized.
Maszol.ro is one of them. On 30 December 2016, when Mr Agoston was chucked out along with three other writers of Maszol, Fundatia Progress also folded Erdelyi Riport (Transylvania Report), another Hungarian language publication in its portfolio, and one that was known for its liberal affinities. Fundatia Progress argued that financial constraints and poor audience figures prompted them to do so. Erdelyi Riport’s journalists pointed out that the audience was growing healthily when the publication was shut down.
Fundatia Progress is an NGO based in Bistrita, a city in central Transylvania. In its 20-year history, the foundation has drawn cash from a plethora of sources, including the British and American governments, companies and private funds.
The money used to sponsor the Hungarian language publications came from the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR), an influential party built along ethnic lines that goes to bat for the Hungarian minority in the country. UDMR has won seats in every Romanian parliament since 1990. Today, UDMR is Fidesz’s key partner in Romania.
For more than a decade, several groups have tried to topple UDMR’s hegemony in the Hungarian community of Romania, but they all failed. One of them was the Hungarian People’s Party of Transylvania (EMNP), which was founded in 2011 with a primary mission to create a parliament and government for Transylvania’s Hungarians.
These groups have tried to make hay of Fidesz’s earthy repugnance of UDMR, vigorously instilled by Mr Orban, who habitually keelhauled UDMR for agreeing to be part of several Romanian governments. Mr Orban also wanted an ally in Romania who would accept total subordination, something that he is used to back home. Nine years ago he even shook hands with the head of the Hungarian Civic Party (MPP), an extremist, right-wing party whose only quality was that it accepted being Fidesz’s toady in Transylvania.
But none of these groupings managed to dismantle UDMR’s stranglehold on Romania’s Hungarian community. When Mr Orban saw that MPP was yet another failure, he grit his teeth and turned to UDMR, the only party commanding credibility among Transylvania’s Hungarians. He offered political and financial support, as well as unconditional help for Hungarians sentenced in Romanian courts (a rather unusual offer), and requested instead total obedience from UDMR on any issues of interest to Fidesz, including censorship of critical media.
“It’s a very close relation [between the two],” said another journalist from Cluj-Napoca, the second largest city in Romania. “Authorities in Hungary call for specific [journalists] to be removed and for specific publications to be shut. UDMR arranges all that.”
All journalists interviewed for this article preferred to speak on condition of anonymity; some of them said that they fear for their safety.
A Vote Machine for the Digital Age
Fidesz’s courtship of the Hungarian minority in Romania is an old political project that was launched back in 2010, when Mr Orban’s party won the elections in Hungary. Later that year, the new Fidesz government adopted the law giving the right to citizenship to Hungarians living abroad.
As Hungary, a losing party in World War I, gave up two-thirds of its territory under the 1920 Trianon Treaty, large Hungarian communities were left behind in several countries, including Romania and Slovakia.
According to the latest census, of 2011, some 1.3 million Hungarians live in Romania, making it the largest minority in the country, accounting for more than 6% of Romania’s population. Some put that figure much higher, close to 2 million. Most of them live in Transylvania.
The Hungarian government expects to increase its pool of citizens by one million ethnic Hungarians from outside Hungary by the end of 2017. More than 510,000 Hungarians residing in Romania have taken Hungarian citizenship to date, according to estimates from the Hungarian National Council of Transylvania (EMNT), an NGO. Of those, up to 200,000 have so far registered to vote in Hungary’s elections.
EMNT is yet another key player propping up Fidesz’s plans. As one local explained, the UDMR is the power broker and EMNT is the executor. Established in 2003, EMNT operates through a network of local centers scattered across Transylvania. They helped register some 85,000 Hungarians to vote in the 2014 elections. Now, EMNT is running an aggressive campaign across Transylvania to sign up more voters for the upcoming elections in 2018.
Fidesz’s sustained campaigning in Romania is driven by fears that votes in Hungary would not give the party an absolute parliamentary majority, which would empower them to do anything, including changing the constitution. According to calculations made by Fidesz’s own psephologists, the party is now two MP seats short of securing a two-thirds majority in the next parliament. It seems that only votes from abroad could secure those two posts.
Fidesz did not return calls inviting them to comment for this article.
Another Fidesz strategy to control the media abroad is through businesses, a project that Fidesz has successfully implemented on its home turf. In August 2017, a company named Media Development Management (MDM) announced that it purchased the press portfolio in Hungary, mostly local newspapers, of the Austrian-owned publisher Russmedia. It was the last step in a regional media takeover that Fidesz’s business associates completed in nine months.
MDM is controlled by the Austrian businessman Heinrich Pecina, who has acted in a series of deals on Mr Orban’s and Fidesz’s behalf. He was instrumental in last year’s shuttering of the daily Nepszabadsag, the largest opposition newspaper in Hungary, known for its criticism of the Orban government. Later on, Mr Pecina sold the title to Opimus Press, a company owned by Lorinc Meszaros, who has been a close friend of Mr Orban since school days.
Part of the Russmedia deal was the sale of Russmedia Newspaper, publisher of several local newspapers in Romania, including the local dailies Jurnal Bihorean and Jurnal Aradean, the news portal Bihon.ro (all in Romanian), and the Hungarian language daily Bihari Naplo.
“The Romanian dailies are not truly important for the new owners,” said an Arad-based journalist who intimately knows the Jurnal Aradean operation. “They are interested mostly in publications that directly speak to the Hungarian community. But as they [these newspapers] came in a package, it’s safe to bring some popular Romanian media under control as well.” Jurnal Aradean has a daily circulation of over 13,000, a low figure, but that still makes it the best-selling local daily in Romania.
MDM used a loan from MKB Bank, partly owned by Mr Meszaros, to buy Russmedia. MDM is owned by the Cyprus-registered CPS Trading & Investments Cyprus Limited, a company first incorporated in 2010 as VCP Trading & Investments Cyprus Limited. VCP in the company’s title then stood for Vienna Capital Partners, Mr Pecina’s main investment firm operating in Austria. Last March, the company’s name was changed to its current one, a move that followed a transfer of shares in November 2016, according to information from the Cyprus trade registry. All that indicates ownership changes in the company at a time when Fidesz and its close businessmen were gearing up for the last round of acquisitions in the media before the elections.
Mr Pecina is a controversial businessman, who has links with dubious Russian companies and oligarchs, and a history of litigation. In a case last August, an Austrian court found Mr Pecina guilty of fraud involving his company, VCP.
Romania is not the only place where Fidesz has been investing. Three Hungarian media groups, Modern Media Group (MMG), Ridikul Magazin and Ripost, last April jointly bought a 45% stake in the all-news TV channel Nova24TV in Slovenia. The three companies are reportedly led by Arpad Habony, Mr Orban’s main political advisor. Nova24TV is perceived as a propaganda channel of the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) led by Slovenia’s former Prime Minister, Janez Jansa, a big fan of Mr Orban’s policies.
Here to Stay
The spread of Fidesz’s influence over media outside Hungary is hurting independent journalism at a time when it is already suffering. Several illustrious Hungarian intellectuals based in Romania have repeatedly denounced the pressures made from Budapest on Transylvania’s Hungarian media. Sociologist Magyari Nandor Laszlo wrote in an essay that Fidesz brought the subordination of Hungarian media in Romania to an “unprecedented” level.
Some journalists also warn about the nationalist passions that Fidesz can inflame in Transylvania, a region where 27 years ago Hungarians and Romanians violently clashed in what remains the bloodiest interethnic incident of post-communist Romania. “They [Fidesz] are so stupid, irresponsible and arrogant to only care about their own political goals,” said an Oradea-based Hungarian journalist.
One of Fidesz’s most fervent supporters is Laszlo Tokes, a Calvinist pastor born in Cluj-Napoca who has helped create some of the key structures supporting Mr Orban’s party in Transylvania. Now a Fidesz representative in the European Parliament, Mr Tokes is remembered for his firm resistance in the 1980s to the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. His brashness inspired the movement that led to the fall of the communist dictatorship in Romania in 1989. Mr Tokes’ grandest project today is the autonomy of an area in Transylvania populated in majority by Hungarians. Shaken by growing secessionist fervor across the continent, the EU opposes the idea.
Fidesz has thus far worked so tenaciously in Hungary and outside that its victory in the 2018 elections is a sure bet. Some, even among its critics, can only acknowledge how astutely and minutely they are planning their next electoral triumph.
Many politicians and observers in the liberal camp expect populist politics to hop the twig; but Fidesz’s expansion across Eastern Europe only shows that the populist show is in its very early days.