The Hungarian government granted a support of 6 million EUR to a Transylvanian NGO following a previous grant of 4,5 million EUR. How does the current readjustment and upgrade of Hungarian media in Transylvania and the Hungarian media of the Carpathian Basin look like? If success is measured by the number of businesses being set up around the NGO, we are indeed witnessing a real success story.

One year after the “vertical and horizontal development” of the Erdély 3.0 “complex concept”, there is no visible output of the 1.45 billion HUF (4.5 million EUR) grant of the Hungarian government. On the 20th of March 2019 another 1.9 million HUF (6 million EUR) were allocated by the Hungarian PM to the Erdélyi Médiatér Association (its official name: Asociatia pentru Spatiul Media Transilvan).

According to the 1148/2019. (III. 20.) governmental decision the grant aims to support the “Hungarian language media of the Carpathian Basin”, and will be wired through the Bethlen Gábor Foundation in 2 installments of 950 million forints.

But how was the previously allocated 1.45 billion HUF spent?

We are still groping in the dark as the Ministry of Human Resources denied to release the detailed budget, narrative proposal and financial report. The reason? In December 2018 the beneficiary asked for a change in the document, and the contract is undergoing changes, thus the information we requested is used as a reference in the decision making process.

The Freedom of Information Act in Hungary was amended in 2015, and information used to ground decision making process was exempted from the range of public information. This became the perfect blanket rule: as all information is used as basis of reference in decision making processes, it can be applied to anything.

But the amendment of the contract is not the reason why the Ministry of Human Resources rejected releasing public information: in July 2018, when the amendment of the supporting document hasn’t been launched yet, we were denied the requested information and data regarding the detailed budget plan and the narrative proposal with the same argument, that the information qualifies as data used as a basis of reference for making future decisions.

The contract does not reveal what the money is being spent on

Previously, in March 2018 we handed in a similar FOI request to which we didn’t receive any answers – truth be told, a couple of weeks sooner, the Ministry of Human Resources released the contract signed with the Erdélyi Médiatér Association, but the contract contained no information on what the money was spent on.

Why are we interested in the financial support received by the Erdélyi Médiatér Association? The NGO in the past published the medium-sized Foter.ro internet news website, and was basically unknown up until December 2017, when it received 1.45 billion forints, equaling 4,5 million euros from the Hungarian government.

This amount was astronomical. Just to give you a sense of the annual budgets of Hungarian media in Transylvania: Foter.ro news website previously a yearly budget of 40 million HUF (120,000 EUR). The yearly budgets of the szekelyhon.ro having a similar number of readers as maszol.ro was of 180,000 EUR. (Our article on the Hungarian government funding of the Hungarian online media in Transylvania can be accessed here).

The guesses about how this money will be spent started instantly. It was clear right from the start that the bigger part of this amount will be used for saving the Udvarhelyi Híradó Ltd., currently undergoing bankruptcy. We wrote a summary about the situation of the company, which found itself in the middle of the Simicska-Orbán quarrel in December, 2017.

Long story short, by December 2017 several dailies (Krónika, Vásárhelyi Hírlap, Csíki Hírlap, Gyergyói Hírlap, Udvarhelyi Híradó), and one weekly (Erdélyi Napló) as well as the most viewed news portal (szekelyhon.ro), all published by Udvarhelyi Híradó SRL found themselves in deadlock and asked for bankruptcy protection.

Besides bad management, the company found itself trapped in the middle of a political game. The relation between Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán and his former ally, the leader of Fidesz’s economic heartland, Lajos Simicska deteriorated.

In 2015 the conflict escalated into an open war, which, besides threatening messages being sent to one another, also meant that the Hungarian government did everything to make Simicska’s situation difficult and eventually push his companies out of business. They have succeeded following the elections of 2018.

The situation affected the Udvarhelyi Híradó SRL:

1. The owner of the company, „Határok nélkül a magyar sajtóért” Foundation (Without Borders for the Hungarian Press Foundation) was controlled by Simicska;

2. Simicska was not willing to invest in the Hungarian media abroad, but wasn’t willing to hand over the media to Orbán for free;

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The Hungarian community in Transylvania, flooded with financial support from Hungary. These are the biggest winners

3. Because they were afraid that Simicska would use the state support for own purposes, the Hungarian government and state companies were reluctant to sponsor the foundation;

4. Udvarhelyi Híradó Ltd. wasn’t able to cover its expenses, and asked for bankruptcy protection.

2018 was the year of acquisitions

How does the project initiated by Szilárd Demeter, the unofficial ambassador of the Erdélyi Médiatér Association look like and how was it designed to significantly alter and modernize the Hungarian media in Transylvania? Demeter has no official role in the association, but he was the one who lobbied for the huge amount of funding eventually granted by the Hungarian government.

Demeter, having Sekler roots has graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy of the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj, and started his political career as the press officer of MEP László Tőkés. After that he started working for Századvég Foundation, a think thank close to the Hungarian government. It is not known what he was working on there, but there are signs that he was in the team of Árpád Habony, a communications guru of the government. Not long ago he was named the director of the Petőfi Literary Museum.

In January 2018, Demeter gave an interview about his plans in the Hungarian media in Transylvania:

“We presented a complex concept, which besides building an integrated media contains also the elements that could shape and create the Transylvanian media scene, and provided the concept for all those platforms that would be put in the service of community building. We would mostly favor online platforms, as this is the direction where things are going.

We are not only thinking about platforms, but also of an efficient online content management and we have suggestion for developing other ideas as well. We are looking into developing infocommunications solutions that could help the actors of the Hungarian arena of the neighboring countries. There is a separate workgroup which is focusing on this.”

A simple media consumer wouldn’t be able to tell that the media outlets in the interest of Erdélyi Médiatér Association have flourished following the significant capital they had received. The quality of the content is the same as it was before, there are no signs of technical developments, and the initial enthusiasm of the journalists also disappeared.

It is also true though, that we have not seen propaganda either, despite the fact that the media in Hungary has been completely transformed into a propaganda machine, and many feared that this will happen in the Transylvanian media as well.

A series of small businesses started to gravitate around the NGO. Because of the denial of the release of public information, we need to rely on the Romanian company database and a couple of facts mentioned by László Szőke, the director of the media portfolio in his essaylike paper published on the 4th of March, 2019. We have addressed him a series of questions related to the events in 2018, but we are still waiting for his answers.

Rekordösszegű médiatámogatások Erdélyben: burjánzó cégháló, nem szűnő homály - Átlátszó Erdély

Tegnap újabb 1,9 milliárd forint támogatást ítélt meg a magyar kormány az Erdélyi Médiatér Egyesület számára a korábbi 1,45 milliárd után. De hogy áll jelenleg az erdélyi és Kárpát-medencei magyar média nagyszabású átalakítása és korszerűsítése? Ha az egyesület körül megjelenő cégek száma a siker mércéje, akkor egy igazi Kárpát-medencei sikersztorinak vagyunk a szemtanúi.

The story started on January 8th, 2018, when the Udvarhelyi Híradó Ltd., under bankruptcy procedure was saved on the platform of a company from Székelyudvarhely called Prima Press Ltd., which was operating a small local radio and a teletext. Prima Press provided the platform for saving the local news outlets (Vásárhelyi Hírlap, az Udvarhelyi Híradó, Csíki Hírlap and Gyergyói Hírlap), together with the Székelyhon news website and Krónika national daily, which were all operated by the Udvarhelyi Híradó Ltd. Prima Press also took over the several hundred employees of the Udvarhelyi Híradó Ltd.

At that date, on January 8th there was no official relation between Prima Press Ltd. and the NGO. According to the Official Monitor, on January 26th there was a raise in the association’s registered capital, so the association ended up owning 4.7% of the company owned by a local businessman, János László, and by his company, Arkum Invest Ltd. Two weeks later, on February 8th, the Erdélyi Médiatér Association acquired Prima Press Ltd. completely.

Export of knowledge to the Hungarian communities of the neighbouring countries

In February 2018 a company named Magyar Médiaszolgáltatást Támogató Központ Nonprofit Ltd. (Hungarian Mediaservice Support Nonprofit Ltd.) was registered in Hungary. The founder of the company was Éva Judit Korda, who is also the president of the Határok Nélkül a Magyar Sajtóért Foundation, the owner of Udvarhelyi Híradó Ltd.

What is the role of the Magyar Médiaszolgáltatást Támogató Központ Nonprofit Ltd.? According to Szőke, this nonprofit has the role to export the (nonprofit oriented) knowledge of the Transylvanian holding to the Hungarian communities living in the neighbouring countries, Slovakia, Serbia, Ukraine, and has the role to provide full IT support to the group of companies.

In May 2018 Transversum Ltd. was founded – its founders are the Magyar Médiaszolgáltatást Támogató Központ Nonprofit Ltd. and the Erdélyi Médiatér Association. Transversum is dealing with the financial, human resource and legal matters of the holding, covers management and estate administration tasks, and also functions as its advertising agency. (We wrote in detail about the Transversum Ltd. here).

They have engulfed the mediaproject of the Hungarian right wing party, Jobbik

In May, 2018 the Varjúvár Kiadó Ltd. was founded – its founders were the Magyar Médiaszolgáltatást Támogató Központ Nonprofit Ltd. and Erdélyi Médiatér Association. According to Szőke this company is responsible for projects which do not have a publisher (Előretolt Helyőrség, Nőileg, Nethuszár, Székelyföld.ma). This same publishing house is also operating the documentation and investigations center of the conglomerate and publishes the Székelyhon daily’s monthy annex, Kilátó.

The group is also publishing the monthly literary magazine called Előretolt Helyőrség, and Nőileg, another monthly magazine, as well as the online portal of Cimbora, dedicated to children, called cimbora.net, and also two smaller sites: Nethuszár and the Székelyföld.ma. The latter used to be closely related to the Hungarian right wing party, Jobbik. The Háromszék, Székely Hírmondó, Nyugati Jelen and Brassói Lapok are also partners of the trust.

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At the beginning of August 2018, there was a raise in the registered capital of Agotika Ltd., which operates the Friss FM radio station in Sepsiszentgyörgy. Thus, Erdélyi Médiatér Association became also one of the owners together with Prima Press Ltd. Its previous owner, Judit Ágota Petroczki left the company on August the 20th.

Szőke’s report also reveals that the radio station Mix Fm, Fény TV channel, and the local teletext of Gyergyószentmiklós operated by Kelet Info Ltd. also became part of the trust. (This transaction bears no trace in the company register, but probably because the register has not yet been updated).

Is Szőke loosing influence?

An important factor would be that László Szőke’s role has started to diminish: he has been a key figure of the mediaproject for a while informally, later formally, but since August 2018, he was placed in a role that sounds important, but is probably insignificant: he is the development director of the media portfolio.

The management of Prima Press Ltd. was taken over by a former journalist and businessman, Imre Zilahi. He has also become the manager of Agotika Invest Ltd. and Transversum Ltd. The manager of Magyar Médiaszolgáltatást Támogató Központ Nonprofit Ltd. is Áron Győrfi, while the manager of Varjúvár Kiadó Ltd. is István Horváth.

For the readers of these journals the biggest change is that 4 local dailies (Vásárhelyi Hírlap, Udvarhelyi Híradó, Csíki Hírlap and Gyergyói Hírlap) merged into a single one, and the merged content is published on 12 pages in Székelyhon, a change which saw a series of mixed reactions: many readers look for reading local news and topics.

According to Szőke’s report, 2018 was the year of building: “all members of the trust have undergone an internal financial audit, and they are looking forward to the integrated management of core business processes (ERP) soon to be introduced. The editorial offices were upgraded and a unified content managerial system has also been introduced, which also functions as the biggest, up to date, live databank of press releases”.

„And this is just the beggining…” – says Szőke at the end of his article.

We asked for legal remedy in relation to our unanswered public data requirement, and we are following closely its aftermath and will keep you updated with any further developments on the issue and topic as well.

Translation: Etelka Tamás-Balha

Photo: Szilárd Demeter (right) and László Mohácsi (left) the president of the Erdélyi Médiatér Association. Source: Facebook