Attacks on the Press 1999: Hungary

Hungary joined NATO in April and remained a front runner for European Union membership. However, these diplomatic victories could not mask the government’s growing contempt for the press and especially for journalists investigating stories that might embarrass the ruling Fidesz Party.

In 1999, Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the Fidesz Party sought more control over state-run media, especially the main Hungarian television channel, MTV1. During the summer, the prime minister orchestrated major personnel changes at MTV1 in order to ensure more favorable coverage of the government. Orban’s opponents labeled this a “political purge.”

Other developments exposed the government’s growing intolerance for adverse news coverage, especially probes into high-level corruption. On five separate occasions, police searched newspapers’ offices in connection with their coverage of political scandals. Authorities also launched criminal investigations of journalists for allegedly violating criminal statutes barring the publication of state and banking secrets.

In one case, Laszlo Juszt, editor of the weekly magazine Kriminalis and the host of a popular crime show of the same name on MTV1, was subjected to sustained government harassment after he disclosed leaked government documents on the air. The documents undermined the prime minister’s and other Fidesz leaders’ claims to have been put under surveillance by the Socialist-led government, which held power until mid-1998.

Hungarian police arrested Juszt, searched his home, and sealed off the offices of Kriminalis. His television show was also canceled. Juszt was only briefly detained; in July, the city prosecutor’s office dropped all charges for lack of evidence. But Hungarian police protested this decision, forcing the prosecutor’s office to reopen its investigation. In January 2000, the prosecutor again dropped the charges against Juszt.

In September, Prime Minister Orban announced that he was ordering investigations of newspapers that had published stories about the so-called VIP scandal at Postabank. The weekly Elet es Irodalom broke the Postabank story in June, when it published several articles describing how the bank had granted low-interest loans to a long list of VIPs between 1991 and 1998. As a result of this practice, the bank nearly collapsed and was subsequently bailed out by the government.

Elet es Irodalom printed the names of only nine public officials, chiefly opposition politicians, who they confirmed had benefited from the practice. The daily Napi Magyarorszag also faced Prime Minister Orban’s wrath as a result of its coverage of the Postabank affair.

In August, the daily Vilaggazdasag printed what it claimed was the complete list of VIP account holders, which included celebrities and public figures, including politicians from the opposition. In September, police searched Vilaggazdasag for the original document and interrogated journalists at all three newspapers.

The inquiry was still formally under way at year’s end, although prosecutors privately acknowledged that they had little evidence against Elet es Irodalom and Napi Magyarorszag. The Vilaggazdasag case, however, remained unclear. While the general outlines of the VIP story have been confirmed, some observers speculated that the expanded list published in Vilaggazdasag had been fabricated and then leaked to the press with the aim of discrediting opposition leaders and diverting attention away from another breaking scandal that involved Fidesz and members of Orban’s family.

On August 20, Elet es Irodalom published an article on the Orban family’s business ventures, claiming that companies linked with the Fidesz Party had helped the prime minister’s father and brother develop their mining interests in the early 1990s. The prime minister and his party denied the charges and demanded that the weekly publish a retraction.

Elet es Irodalom refused, instead publishing the official letter it had received from Fidesz listing the party’s demands. Fidesz then filed a lawsuit against the paper. In October, a city court judge ordered Elet es Irodalom to run a correction. The prime minister held a press conference the same day in which he declared victory and condemned the paper for printing lies. However, Elet es Irodalom appealed the judge’s decision to a higher court, which ruled in the paper’s favor in December.

In January 2000, another judge ruled that Elet es Irodalom had incorrectly referred to “Fidesz companies” when it meant companies owned by Fidesz members or close associates of the party, while providing no evidence that such firms existed. The judge ordered Elet es Irodalom to run a retraction, and the paper complied.

At year’s end, an unidentified man tossed a hand grenade into the courtyard of the building housing Elet es Irodalom‘s offices, causing some property damage. Some observers suspected the attack was linked to the paper’s corruption probes, although both the editor and the government rejected this hypothesis. Police launched an investigation that was still under way in early 2000.

Elet es Irodalom‘s case was hampered by the fact that the burden of proof in Hungarian civil-libel cases lies with the accused. Also, public officials enjoy the same protections as private individuals. As a result, journalists must provide evidence to the courts to prove everything they publish. Judges have the final word on the veracity of controversial articles and can compel media outlets to print corrections. The vast majority of civil-defamation suits are filed by officials, many of whom enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution.

The same is true of powerful public figures. On September 3, a Budapest judge ordered the TV station RTL Club to apologize to reputed Russian mobster Semyon Mogilevich, now a Hungarian citizen with heavy investments in the country’s defense sector, for airing a report citing Western press reports that described Mogilevich as “the biggest mobster in the world.” (An August article in The New York Times, citing a CIA wiretap, reported that Mogilevich had taken out a US$100,000 contract against Robert Friedman, the New YorkÐbased investigative journalist who first reported on his links with organized crime.) The judge ruled that the station lacked sufficient evidence to prove this statement and ordered it to apologize on the air.

June 1
Laszlo Juszt, Kriminalis HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION

Juszt, editor of the weekly magazine Kriminalis and former host of a television program of the same name on the state-run channel MTV1, was arrested on charges of revealing state secrets.

The National Security Office accused Juszt of publishing classified documents in the previous week’s issue of Kriminalis. The documents, which Juszt claimed to have obtained from a member of Parliament, apparently undermined claims by Fidesz Party leaders, including Prime Minister Viktor Orban, that the previous government had put Fidesz Party members under surveillance when Fidesz was in opposition. According to the documents, there was no evidence that such surveillance had taken place.

Juszt was held for seven hours, while police searched his Budapest home, his farm outside the capital, and the offices of Kriminalis. Police confiscated all the magazine’s computers and many documents and sealed off the premises. On the same day, the Hungarian national channel MTV1 terminated Juszt’s contract and canceled Kriminalis. Juszt said he was also forced to close his magazine because the police raid had “made it impossible to work.” He was freed pending trial.

September 2
Vilaggazdasag HARASSED
Andras Banki, Vilaggazdasag HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Laszlo Illisz, Vilaggazdasag HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Melinda Kamasz, Vilaggazdasag HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION

Police raided the Budapest offices of the daily Vilaggazdasag to search for a leaked list of government officials and others who had received preferential rates for loans and deposits at the formerly private Postabank between 1991 and 1998. The preferential rate system was blamed for Postabank’s near-collapse last year. The Hungarian government bailed out the bank, which remains in state hands.

Vilaggazdasag published the controversial list of several hundred politicians and prominent public figures in its August 30 issue. Editor Banki said his staff had destroyed the original document, which was mailed by an unidentified source. Police investigators also searched the homes and cars of Banki and reporter Laszlo Illisz, whose byline appeared above the article that accompanied the list.

On September 7, police interrogated Banki, Illisz, and deputy editor Melinda Kamasz to determine whether they had violated a Hungarian law protecting so-called banking secrets (Section 300/A of the penal code), which carries a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment.

In late November, police recommended that the prosecutor general’s office charge all three journalists under the banking-secrets law. At year’s end, the prosecutor general’s office was still reviewing the case.

September 17
Eva Vajda, Elet es Irodalom HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Attila Oszabo, Elet es Irodalom HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION

Vajda and Oszabo, reporters with the independent weekly Elet es Irodalom, were hauled into police headquarters for questioning about their coverage of the so-called VIP scandal at Postabank. The police then launched a criminal investigation into their alleged violation of a law protecting banking secrets (Section 300/A of the Hungarian penal code), which carries a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment (see September 2 case).

In early September, Prime Minister Viktor Orban ordered police to investigate all newspapers that had published stories about the VIP scandal. He did so under pressure from officials who were implicated in the articles. However, Elet es Irodalom had published the names of only nine public officials who they confirmed had benefited from the scheme. As a result, police did not press charges after concluding their investigation in late November.