Fidesz has won over the Hungarian online press in Transylvania

Newspaper stand at the Teréz (Lenin) boulevard at the Western railway station in 1960. Photo: FORTEPAN©2010-2014
Newspaper stand at the Teréz (Lenin) boulevard at the Western railway station in 1960. Photo: FORTEPAN©2010-2014

Hungarian public money is increasingly present and government is gaining influence on the Hungarian media in Transylvania. In 2016 the income of the biggest news websites was coming from public money from Hungary. Even though up to now the Hungarian media in Transylvania was not promoting any government propaganda, the question remains: will this change with the upcoming elections?


Those who are familiar with the situation in the media are not surprised by the fact that the Hungarian media in Transylvania is facing severe lack of funding and is trying to stay afloat by using funds coming from Hungary.

But by 2016 there was a perceptible change in the funding policy: while before the Fidesz government was supporting the so-called „right-leaning” media platforms, today, irrespective of the views held, significant financial support is granted to the four most important portals- székelyhon.ro, maszol.ro, Transindex.ro and Főtér.ro – coming directly from the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office, from the public lottery, Szerencsejáték Zrt. and also from the state owned electricity company, MVM Zrt. The question is whether this support comes with a price, and if it does, how and when will it have to be repaid.

The original article in Hungarian:

Magához édesgette a Fidesz az erdélyi magyar online sajtót

The shift is significant. Even though in the past twenty five years the Hungarian media outlets in Transylvania were constantly receiving funding as part of the financial support framework targeting the Hungarian community in Transylvania, the beneficiaries changed according to which government, right-wing or left-wing was on power.

Megainvestments using Hungarian public money

A not too oversized financial support was every now and then granted to different media outlets. Péter Medgyessy made a hasty decision regarding funding which lead to creating the Transylvanian Hungarian Television (Erdélyi Magyar Televízió, ETV). After the change of government the most outstanding media investment also used Hungarian public money: since 2011 the majority owner of the biggest Hungarian media company in Transylvania, the Udvarhelyi Híradó SRL, is Foundation for Hungarian Media Without Borders (Határok Nélkül a Magyar Sajtóért Alapítvány). This foundation grants financial support to four local newspapers, regional dailies and weeklies, among them also the leading portal, székelyhon.ro.

The foundation is financing the media outlets with several million euros, its income being donations coming from state owned Hungarian companies. Besides the Udvarhelyi Híradó media outlet group, the foundation is also supporting Főtér.ro, a smaller portal publishing mainly op-eds.

From Simicska to the Propaganda Ministry

At the beginning the foundation used to be part of the sphere of influence of Lajos Simicska. But in 2015, in the aftermath of the Orbán-Simicska conflict, the businessman handed over the foundation together with all the Transylvanian and Southern Slovakian media outlets it used to provide financial support for.

Since then, according to their 2016 public financial report, the foundation received 150 million HUF (448,000 EUR), meaning 3/4th of its overall budget from the Prime Minister’s Office, which is called the „Propaganda Ministry” by Hungarian independent media. The Hungarian Development Bank (Magyar Fejlesztési Bank Zrt.) donated 50 million HUF (162,000 EUR).

They are also open towards the „left”

It still strikes as new, but it is probably due to the agreement between the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (DAHR) and Fidesz that the financial support policy has overcome the right-left dichotomy („left” and „right” are being used here for the sake of simplicity, they do not necessarily refer to political ideologies of the outlets): today, the two big DAHR- controlled and traditionally „left leaning” portals, maszol.ro and Transindex.ro are both partly financed by Hungarian public money.

For a long time, the „leftwing” media outlets did not receive any support from the Fidesz governments. In 2015 though the ice broke when Progress Foundation, which publishes the news portal maszol.ro received 2 million HUF (6,400 EUR) from Szerencsejáték Zrt. In the same year the Pallas Athéné Domus Concordiae Foundation (PADOC), created by the the Hungarian National Bank with the purpose of distributing financial support to Hungarian institutions outside of Hungary, granted 600 thousand HUF (1,900 EUR) to the Média Index Association which the publisher of Transindex.ro.

The smaller amounts were followed by more significant ones in 2016: maszol.ro (Progress Foundation) received 20 million HUF (64,000 EUR) from Szerencsejáték Zrt., Transindex.ro (Média Index Association) received 10-10 million HUF (a total of 20 million HUF, 64,000 EUR) from MVM, the Magyar Villamos Művek Zrt. and Szerencsejáték Zrt.

Why is this a problem?

This is a problem because nor the Prime Minister’s Office, nor PADOC, nor the MVM Zrt. or the Szerencsejáték Zrt. qualify as professional media investors. They have no interest in supporting transparency, free debate, and a professional Hungarian press in Transylvania. Instead, they serve and represent the interests of the Hungarian government and as such, discretely finance certain projects important for the Hungarian government.

By accident it has been revealed that the list of beneficiaries is not decided upon by the MVM Zrt. independently, but by the National Communications Authority. And this is probably also the case for Szerencsejáték Zrt.

Besides, the last time when we heard in Transylvania about the MVM Zrt. and Szerencsejáték Zrt. was when the two state owned companies granted financial support for a series of civil organizations related to the Hungarian People’s Party. This is why it is hard to believe that there are no terms and conditions written in the barely readable small print section.

Do those couple of millions really matter?

Compared to the huge amounts of money poured in government media the amounts granted to the Hungarian media in Transylvania is indeed not significant. But we should also keep in mind that apart from Udvarhelyi Híradó, we are talking about small news websites where maybe a dozen of journalists are working. For them, even 10,000 EUR is a significant amount, as their jobs might be depending on it.

In 2016, according to its annual financial report, the Erdélyi Médiatér Egyesület (Asociatia pentru Spatiul Media Transilvan/The Association for Transylvanian Media Space) which is the publisher of Főtér.ro had an yearly income of 633,000 RON (138 thousand euros). This amount equals approximately 43 million HUF, which is the amount received from the Foundation Határok Nélkül a Magyar Sajtóért (Foundation for Hungarian Media Without Borders) as well. The existence of the opinion portal Főtér.ro depends completely on such support.

Főtér is not enlisted on the Romanian audit page, Trafic.ro, thus we lack data on their traffic, but we assume that their traffic is not bigger than that of local portals such as uh.ro, szatmar.ro or erdon.ro. In our article we placed them on the fourth position given that they address regional rather than local issues, and as a consequence, in our view, their traffic is similar to that of „bigger” portals.

According to our calculations, in 2016 the total income of the Media Index Association, the publisher of Transindex.ro was totalling 497,000 RON (108,000 EUR). 60% of its income, namely 20 million HUF (64,000 EUR) came from the MVM Zrt. and from Szerencsejáték Zrt. Truth be told, the situation is a bit more complicated than that, as besides the association which is the publisher of the portal, there is another media company behing Transindex.ro, the Media Net SRL, which last year had an income of 208,000 RON (45,000 EUR).

Even though for Progress Foundation, the publisher of maszol.ro the main source of income is still government funding coming from Bucharest via DAHR, in 2016, one quarter/one third of the foundation’s total income, namely of 20 million forints, was made up of also 981,000 RON (214,000 EUR) coming from Szerencsejáték Zrt.

We lack data on the 2016 income of Udvarhelyi Híradó SRL as the yearly financial report has not yet been uploaded to the website of the Ministry of Finances. But according to data from 2015 one third of its its yearly income of 17,3 million RON (3,8 million EUR) came from Határok Nélkül a Magyar Sajtóért Alapítvány (Foundation for Hungarian Media Without Borders) which granted a financial support of 392 million HUF (1,3 million EUR).

Easy money leads to vulnerability

This is how the most important three to four Transylvanian Hungarian online media outlets – to a bigger or smaller extent – are financed by Hungarian public money.

This is „easy money” because, according to our informations it is sufficient to hand in a one or two page application. This also means that the applicants don’t have to invest any energy in marketing, in commercial sales, in writing applications, overall less energy and money is invested in operating a media outlet as business.

But this creates advantages only on the short run: on medium and on the long run the business knowledge and the professional networks weakens, and the media company becomes increasingly vulnerable. In consequence, if above mentioned financial support terminates, some portals might be facing a difficult economic situation.

But you should also spot the irony here: these portals are rivals, in January 2017, maszol.ro and transindex.ro had a public skirmish regarding their audience numbers.

There is censorship, but there is no propaganda. For now

By today it is clear that (self-)censorship in the Hungarian media in Transylvania is an everyday practice, and if a journalist or editor deals with a politically sensitive issue, it will have consequences. But up to now the anti-refugee propaganda was not prevalent, publishing defamatory articles about György Soros and committing character assasination is not common practice either.

But it is still not known whether this will change with the upcoming parliamentary elections taking place in Hungary. What we do know though is that in the recent past a Ministerial Commissioner has been appointed and has the task of convincing more and more Hungarian citizens living outside the border of Hungary to vote.

„We are not forbidding anything, at worst, we debate”

„(…) we are not misleading our readers, nor our colleagues: we stand by the values we represent, there is no unbridgeable contrast between the owner (the Foundation) and what we believe in. Preventing anything, especially the influence of Hungarian politics is not something we should be doing” – said László Szőke, the managing director of the Foundation owning the Udvarhelyi Híradó SRL when answering the questions of Átlátszó Erdély related to preventive strategies regarding the political influence of the Hungarian Government on the published content.

According to Szőke „speaking in general about the influence of Hungarian politics is too broad and vague and means nothing. At most, certain issues, topics, messages might be filtered by the content director and editor in chief: but a material gets published following a professional debate ending in consensus, but which cannot go against the editor’s will.
Self-censorship is present to the same extent as it is present in the case of Átlátszó or Index: at our group of portals there is agreement in terms of accepting the values that are determined by our minority status and to which our colleagues also adapt to (otherwise, they wouldn’t have joined us!) and yes, how Hungary relates to us, Transylvanian Hungarians is also part of it. How the political situation in Hungary affects us will be of course dealt with on our portals, because that makes total sense. We are not standing in the way of anything, at most, we are debating. And we do not agree that a portal should have an editor-in-chief who is too obeying.”

„Our supporters have no influence on us whatsoever”

The editor-in-chief of Főtér.ro, Attila Zsolt Papp told us: „I would like to make an apparently small, but important distinction right at the beginning: the Foundation Határok Nélkül a Magyar Sajtóért (Foundation for Hungarian Media Without Borders) is not the owner of the Erdélyi Médiatér Association (Transylvanian Media Space Association) which is the publisher of Főtér, but it is its financial supporter: this means that it is not the Foundation which created a platform, but a Transylvanian Hungarian mediaproject seeked and found financial support which was granted by the Foundation. We are not receiving financial support automatically, but based on an application that we hand in every year; also, we are not part of any mediaportfolio related to the Foundation.

This practically means that our supporters have no influence on our editorial principles: it is the editors who decide on the content that is to be published and this is quite visible when browsing through our archive. In the past three years I have not sensed any kind of political pressure or attempt to interfere with our materials (Just as a reminder: during the 2014 Parliamentary elections Főtér has already been running for four months and for now there are no signs that this would change in the future. Besides, this is also my personal undertaking: as editor-in-chief I am not willing to accept any interfering in the work of the portal and its content- and this will not change.”

We also addressed our questions to the president of the executive board of Progress Foundation, the publisher of maszol.ro, Nagy-Debreczeni Hajnalka, but she did not give us a meaningful answer. Transindex did not react to our inquiry.

Sipos Zoltán

The author of this article used to work at Transindex until November, 2015.

Translation: Etelka Tamás-Blaha