Lehel Kristály, the new editor-in-chief of Bihari Napló does not want to get involved too much with the daily content, but he asked the editorial staff not to publish any article about politics without his permission.

At the beginning of July 2019, István Rais W. left the position of editor-in-chief of the Bihari Napló – the Hungarian daily newspaper of Bihor county, Romania – after more than twenty years, a uniquely long time in both Hungarian and Romanian press. The daily newspaper Bihari Napló is edited and published in Oradea / Nagyvárad, a city with a large Hungarian community located only eight kilometers away from the border with Hungary.

Rais formally resigned, but not from his own initiative, as we learnt from our sources requesting anonymity from the editorial staff. The publisher of the newspaper did not signal any dissatisfaction with his work: last year, Rais was elected product manager of the year at the company that publishes the daily paper.

Bihari Napló, together with several other news outlets in the Western part of Romania is published by Inform Media Press SRL, a company registered in Romania. However, important decisions are made at its parent company, the Inform Média Lapkiadó Kft. based in Debrecen, Hungary, close to the Romanian border. The majority ownership of Inform Média Lapkiadó was acquired by the Central European Press and Media Foundation (CEPMF) established by the Hungarian government. The Government of Hungary decided on the acquisition of key Hungarian media companies on the 5th of December, 2018.

The new editor-in-chief signed on by the publisher is Lehel Kristály,

a journalist from Szeklerland (central region of Romania where ethnic Hungarians form a majority), who settled in Budapest in recent years. According to our sources, Kristály does not want to give up entirely his life in Budapest and does not want to intervene in the daily content of the Bihari Napló, but asked the staff not to publish any political articles without his approval.

Kristály Lehel, the new editor-in-chief of Bihari Napló
Kristály Lehel, the new editor-in-chief of Bihari Napló. Source of the photo: Kristály's Facebook-profile

Since 2018, Kristály is also the press officer of the biggest annual political event of the Hungarian community in Transylvania, namely the Bálványos Summer University and Student Camp (aka Tusványos after its location in the middle of Szeklerland, Tusnádfürdő). Throughout its 30 years of existence, the weeklong event was always supported by Fidesz, the highlight of the camp being the annual speech of Viktor Orbán, prime-minister of Hungary.

István Rais W. gives up only the editorial control of the daily paper. The fact that he remains in charge of the distribution suggests that the publisher might want to change only the editorial stance of the Bihari Napló: the paper fully supported the RMDSZ (DAHR – Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania) and its local leaders. István Fodor, the director of the Inform Média Lapkiadó did not respond to our inquiry so our supposition about changing the paper‘s political direction remains unconfirmed.

We reached out to István Rais W., too, but the resigned editor-in-chief invoked his confidentiality agreement and did not want to comment on the case. Lehel Kristály also refused our request by mentioning his obligation to ask for permission from CEPMF to make a statement, a permission that he did not receive.

Budapesti kontroll alá került a legnagyobb erdélyi magyar megyei lap - Átlátszó Erdély

A napi tartalomba nem szól bele, de politikai témájú anyagot ne tegyenek közzé engedélye nélkül: ez a Bihari Napló új főszerkesztőjének, Kristály Lehelnek a kérése. Egyedülállóan hosszú idő, több mint 20 év után távozott a Bihari Napló főszerkesztői tisztségéből Rais W. István.

 

Several decades, multiple expectations, one editor-in-chief

Our internal sources told us that none of the owners interfered with the content of the newspaper during those two years while the publishing company was owned by Austrian businessman Heinrich Pecina (notorious for shutting down the biggest left-leaning Hungarian daily newspaper, Népszabadság), shortly by the oligarch Lőrinc Mészáros, then by the CEMPF. This non-interference surprised the employees of other Hungarian media companies with the same ownership.

While the former owners of Bihari Napló did have – over time even contradictory – expectations regarding the editorial stance of the paper, Rais still managed to retain his position as editor-in-chief since 1998, which is unique in the history of the Transylvanian media. In the ‘90s, István Rais W. tried himself in politics, too: he was elected several times as a member of the municipal council of Oradea on the list of RMDSZ, the political representation of the Hungarian community.

In the ‘90s, the newspaper was owned by its journalists and distributors, and partly by the journalists’ own Fehér Dezső Foundation. Journalists regarded this ownership structure as a guarantee of their independence, especially because outsiders could not buy shares in the paper. As we learnt, one of the insiders, a distributor started buying his colleagues’ shares in 2000, until he accumulated more than 50% of the shares, when it became clear for the others that his action was financed by Sándor Kiss, a local businessman and politician of the RMDSZ / DAHR.

Kiss bought up the Romanian local newspaper, Jurnalul Bihorean with the same method, and sold both for double the price in less than a year to an Austrian investor who bought several local media outlets on both sides of the Hungarian-Romanian border. Initially the company was called Inform Media, then rebranded as Russmedia, then renamed Inform Media in 2016, after Heinrich Pecina bought it.

(Sándor Kiss, one of the richest local businessmen, established himself in 2000 as a powerful leader of Bihor county and the county organization of RMDSZ / DAHR. According to the indictment of the National Anticorruption Directorate published in 2015, he designed and in 2003 operated a fraudulent scheme of public procurement through which he drained a few hundred thousand euros from the county’s budget in the following years. In June 2018, Kiss was sentenced to eight years imprisonment, but at the end of the year the Court of Appeal decided to restart the trial due to procedural shortcomings. In 2012, Kiss was no longer elected as the head or deputy head of the Bihor County Council. He left the leadership of RMDSZ / DAHR county organization only in 2016, well after the start of his corruption trial.)

István Rais W., resigned editor-in-chief of Bihari Napló
István Rais W., resigned editor-in-chief of Bihari Napló on the state-funded meeting of the Hungarian press of the Carpathian Basin, June 2019, Visegrád, Hungary. Source of the photo: Facebook-profile of István Rais W.

Russmedia as a publishing company had completely different expectations and made a radical change in the content and outlook of Bihari Napló, but did not replace the editor-in-chief, although – according to our information – this was among its first measures at every other publication acquired in that period. The new, more tabloid-like concept of the paper focused on short news and large images, pushed the formerly leading political content somewhat to the periphery, banished the traditionally time-consuming genres, and favoured short articles instead of more thorough pieces. Many people could not live with the new style, the editorial staff has shrunk to a fraction through dismissals and layoffs. László Szűcs, former editor-in-chief of Bihari Napló, vividly captured this era at the end of it on Erport.ro, a political and cultural news site.

The new owner standardized the layout of its print papers regardless of the different languages and regions, and very slowly gave place to longer articles, too. The paper’s ever-increasing support for the local RMDSZ / DAHR organization did not change after Russmedia sold it to Heinrich Pecina, nor in those seven months since the CEPMF has bought it. Probably because the Bihari Napló was only a part of a bigger regional media package traded frequently after 2015. The print run was around 9500 in the first quarter of 2019 according to BRAT (Romanian Joint Industry Committee for Print and Internet), thus reaching the largest Hungarian readership in a single county in Transylvania.

Silence is not an option anymore

As Örs Szeghalmi told us, he was the most vocal journalist of the paper who publicly criticized its evident political support given from 2010 onwards to the Bihor county organization of RMDSZ / DAHR. Szeghalmi had been working at Bihari Napló since 1995, led the political column between 2004 and 2014 until he was downgraded to a reporter status because on his own Facebook profile he criticized the practice of the newspaper that regularly dedicated two or three pages in the Easter and Christmas editions to the holiday wishes of the local leaders and mayors of RMDSZ / DAHR.

One of István Rais' last measures as the editor-in-chief was to cancel the contract of Örs Szeghalmi in June 2019. The formal reason was internal reshuffling, but Szeghalmi views it as the last step of the process of the last 15 years when he became increasingly marginalized, restrained from political topics, then removed from the impressum. He admitted that he hung to his job even after a pay cut due to the absence of an alternative in local press and because of his personal convenience, even though he considered the professional standards of the newspaper unacceptable.

Insider sources told us that his colleagues and the management of the paper viewed negatively the fact that Szeghalmi neglected his job duties, and before the more severe sanctions, he received verbal and written warnings. According to them, his dismissal is unrelated to the change of ownership or the resignation of István Rais W. who lead the paper for more than twenty years.

What the financial report shows us

From 2016, the turnover of Inform Media Press SRL has increased dramatically from 470,000 EUR to 2,6 million (2018). The likely explanation for this growth is that the company developed its printing and distribution network. During this period, however, the company is permanently on a loss: last year it produced a loss of 108,000 EUR, its debts amounting to 1 million EUR.

While the company had 87 employees in 2016 and 183 in 2017, in 2018 the number of employees is zero in the publicly available database of the Romanian Ministry of Finance.