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Defunct Hungarian political daily Magyar Nemzet rebooted as propaganda

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2019.02.08. 18:25

Four years to the day after former owner and oligarch Lajos Simicska's very public political break-up with Viktor Orbán, his former political daily Magyar Nemzet is back, though this time under the umbrella of the giant pro-government media conglomerate

The once-prestigious daily was originally founded in 1938 and survived fascism, a world war, the communist era and the democratic transition of 1989 with just two short pauses - the first when the Third Reich occupied Hungary in 1944, and the second after the fall of the 1956 revolution. The third time Magyar Nemzet was missing from the newsstands was last year when its owner at the time, Lajos Simicska decided to shut the paper down for good.

The rebooted Magyar Nemzet is not an entirely new enterprise, but it's not a continuation of the old one either. It was created by simply rebranding pro-government newspaper Magyar Idők - a political daily that was created precisely to counter the very paper the name of which it is taking today. But how did this happen?

"Orbán egy geci!"

On 6 February 2015, life stopped in Hungary - everyone was waiting for the latest details on the public meltdown of Lajos Simicska, Hungary's probably most powerful oligarch at the time. 

The friendship of Viktor Orbán and Lajos Simicska goes way back to their early days of university. Simicska was not a founding member of Fidesz, but he had been a confidante of Orbán and acted as an advisor around Fidesz ever since the party's start. He became Fidesz's financial director in 1993 and he was appointed as leader of the Hungarian tax authority in 1998 during the first term of Viktor Orbán as PM, but resigned a year later to concentrate on business. Many regarded Simicska as the financial mastermind behind Fidesz, and even his later critics (notorious right-wing pundit Zsolt Bayer for instance) acknowledge that Fidesz would not exist in its present form without him. The full extent of his business interests were hidden beneath a complex web of corporations for a long time, but his portfolio included construction conglomerate Közgép which became a favourite at public contracts between 2010 and 2015, and he controlled several Fidesz-friendly media outlets of strategic importance at the time, such as 24-hour news channel Hír TV, prestigious political daily Magyar Nemzet, nationwide radio Class FM, and the freely distributed Metropol amongst others.

That morning, the editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, Gábor Liszkay suddenly resigned due to "reasons of conscience," followed by a number of other prominent staff members throughout Simicska's media portfolio, which sent the businessman off the handle. Simicska spent most of the morning calling one journalist after the other giving many profanity-filled interviews, or more precisely, yelling "Orbán egy geci" (roughly translating to "Orbán is an asshole") into the phone and how he was going to fire every single loyalist from his media outlets. He said he had enough of Orbán's dictatorial tendencies and was put off by the prime minister's newfound fondness for Putin's Russia. As he later said in an interview, Orbán had long since been toying with the idea of Simicska purchasing commercial TV station RTL Klub, and when Simicska said it would probably be too expensive, the prime minister supposedly replied "No problem, then the Russians or Rosatom will buy it for me anyways." That was one of the last times they spoke, as he considered that to be tantamount to treason and said: "that was not what we joined forces for".

However, the roots of the conflict probably spread beyond the democratic sensibilities of the former oligarch, as the advertisement tax introduced during Orbán's second term seemingly designed to put pressure on RTL Klub had negatively affected the bottom lines of Simicska's business interests as well. Besides this tax, the rise of other oligarchs also threatened Simicska's privileged position. State advertising no longer concentrated solely on Simicska's portfolio, his share was in a steady decline since July 2014, and his political influence diminished as the prime minister started to keep his distance from him, which also contributed to the rising tensions between Orbán and Simicska. The wave of resignations was simply the last straw, and Simicska snapped.

The Replacements

Simicska quickly turned all of his formerly pro-government media outlets against Fidesz, who suddenly found themselves in a vacuum that had to be filled fast - and the business circles swirling around the ruling party did not waste much time to do so.

Within a little more than a month, public media's main TV channel was relaunched to broadcast 24-hour news to counter Simicska's HírTV, and after Liszkay purchased business daily Napi Gazdaság, he transformed it into Magyar Idők, an exceedingly pro-government political daily that was supposed to replace Simicska's Magyar Nemzet. By the end of next year, Budapest's transport company ditched Simicska's freely distributed daily paper Metropol and its distribution points were soon taken over by Lokál, published by Árpád Habony's Modern Media Group at the time, and he also lost his nationwide radio station Class FM and his businesses received fewer and fewer state contracts.

According to data from Mérték media analysis group, Simicska's media outlets secured around 45% of state advertisements in some of the months preceding his public split with Orbán. Afterwards though, his share dwindled to almost zero within a year, and all the government campaigns and ads of state-owned corporations were channelled to feed the newly created right-wing media empire owned by Lőrinc Mészáros, Andy Vajna, and Árpád Habony (who proceeded to donate most these media interests to the unified propaganda conglomerate in late 2018, but that is a different story).

Simicska's surrender

Simicska was using his reserves, and in a last-ditch effort to save himself, he tried to get behind Jobbik to prevent Fidesz from winning the 2018 elections but his plan failed miserably, as the incumbent government's party went on to win their third consecutive parliamentary supermajority. The Hungarian opposition was waiting for Simicska to "drop his nuke" right until the elections -  as one of Orbán's oldest "partners in crime," if someone had any dirt on the prime minister, it was him. But as he even hinted at it before, the "nuke" never came. Magyar Nemzet  delivered one embarrassing story about the government after the other throughout the campaign - they wrote about the suspicious dealings of Fidesz's Lajos Kósa with a fraudster, the free Swedish hunting trip of deputy PM Zsolt Semjén, and many others, but nothing groundbreaking. These stories did not even seem to make a dent in the popularity of the governing party.

While for a moment it might have seemed as if the former oligarch was redeeming himself by creating a safe haven for critical journalism, what came after the elections sure dispelled that notion.

Simicska gave in - serving no purpose to him following what he considered to be his own personal defeat, he closed Magyar Nemzet in a couple of days. The official reasoning stated in a matter-of-fact way that the paper is no longer financially feasible, and that became the fate of most of his other outlets such as weekly newspaper Heti Válasz and the Budapest-based Lánchíd Rádió. HírTV remained operational only to suffer a hostile takeover a few months later, when Gábor Liszkay took control of the station, turning it into yet another mouthpiece of the government over the course of a day, terminating shows and firing a number of employees, filling the sudden gaps left in the programming with a speech by Viktor Orbán from the archives.

Simicska sold almost all his business interests to Zsolt Nyerges, his former business partner who proceeded to pass them on towards businessmen near Lőrinc Mészáros.

Adding insult to injury

The story ended this Wednesday with a symbolic gesture precisely four years after Simicska's infamous tirade. The Central European Press and Media Foundation - the giant propaganda conglomerate created last November - acquired the rights to the name Magyar Nemzet and rebranded  Magyar Idők - the paper that was created as an antithesis to the critical iteration of Magyar Nemzet - to wear the skin of its now-defunct rival.

"Four years after" - the headline on the cover of the first issue reads, and it shows that the timing was clearly not a coincidence. The article pledges Magyar Nemzet to take its place at the frontline of the "intellectual freedom fight," the nature of which is clarified in the article right below, simply titled "Together we stand, divided we fall," that is admittedly the ars poetica of the propaganda conglomerate.  The paper defines itself against multiculturalism, political correctness, and human-rights fundamentalism (whatever that may be), and claims the 21st century to be not an age of inclusion, openness, and tolerance, but an era of left-wing liberal attitudes and taboos that have to be broken. 

The manifesto of the foundation controlling over 450 different titles (and exempted from competition authority procedures by Orbán) grips the concept of the "left-wing media advantage" tight and runs with it, saying their goal is only to restore balance to the Hungarian media landscape. 

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