Safe in Hungary, Orban Pushes His Message Across Europe
Posted June 4, 2018 7:46 p.m. EDT
Updated June 4, 2018 7:48 p.m. EDT
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia — By finishing first in national elections in Slovenia on Sunday, hard-liner Janez Jansa has ridden a right-wing populist wave into power in yet another European country. Among those he can thank is Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, who campaigned at his side and darkly warned that the election was about “the survival of the Slovenian nation.”
Orban has become a right-wing hero with his blunt attacks against liberal democracy. Yet if his support was important, so, too, was the help of Orban’s friends.
In the past two years, Hungarian businessmen close to Orban have quietly invested in, or started, a handful of right-wing media outlets in Slovenia and in Macedonia. One, Skandal24, a sensationalist gossip magazine, took aim at some of Jansa’s opponents with salacious, thinly sourced articles. Another, the television channel Nova24TV, ran alarmist reports about migrants — and also got an “exclusive” interview with Orban in May.
“Jansa is exactly the kind of leader Slovenia needs,” Orban told Nova24TV.
As they gather strength across Europe, populist parties are proving adept at manipulating the media to push their messages and attack mainstream parties. In Italy, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement is now part of a new coalition government, despite being accused of using a misinformation campaign to discredit opponents. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party has long used its television channel, FPÖ TV, to spread its message and build its base.
In consolidating power in Hungary, Orban has recognized the huge power of media and now seems intent on trying to expand his sphere of influence. In 2017, one of his closest advisers, Arpad Habony, met with Stephen K. Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, in Washington. The purpose of the visit, according to a person familiar with the meeting, was to discuss starting an outlet in Eastern Europe like Breitbart News, a platform often used to promote hard-edge nationalist ideas. Inside Hungary, Orban’s allies control much of the domestic media and use their outlets to push his anti-immigrant, nativist message. During the recent Hungarian election campaign, the pro-Orban media bombarded voters with sensationalist articles about the threat of a coming immigrant horde — even though immigration has slowed to a trickle. Friendly outlets routinely portrayed Orban as the defender of a nation under siege from decadent Western beliefs.
By investing in Slovenian media — even if only in a few outlets like Skandal24 — Orban’s allies effectively give him a voice in a neighboring country, which they used to support Jansa. It is still too soon to know whether Jansa will be able to piece together a governing coalition in Slovenia. But if he does, one beneficiary would be Orban, who would have a potential ally inside the European Union at a moment when the bloc’s leadership is contemplating funding cuts for Hungary.
“Orban obviously wants someone like Janez Jansa as prime minister of Slovenia,” said Danilo Turk, a former U.N. official who was Slovenia’s president from 2007-12. “If Orban had a person on the same wavelength in Slovenia, that would only add to his influence in Europe.”
The majority owner of Skandal24 is Peter Schatz, a Hungarian businessman from Orban’s circle. There is no evidence that Orban is dictating the magazine’s editorial line, but there is little question that Schatz is clearly aligned with the Hungarian leader.
Once a low-profile executive at Hungarian state television, Schatz emerged in 2015 as the co-owner of Ripost, a pro-Orban newspaper that depends heavily on the Orban government. From January to November of 2016, nearly 97 percent of its advertising revenue came from the government, according to financial documents leaked to the Hungarian investigative portal Index.hu and shared with The New York Times.
As he gained influence in Hungary, Schatz moved into Slovenia, and then into Macedonia. In September 2016, Ripost bought a 15.1 percent stake in Nova24TV, a Slovenian television company and news website founded by supporters of Jansa’s party, the Slovenian Democratic Party. On the same day, two other companies — including one co-owned by Habony, the Orban adviser — bought near-identical shares.
Those investments in Nova24TV turned out to be coordinated: Bank documents obtained independently by The Times, and first published by Mladina, a Slovenian political magazine, showed that all three had been funded by Karoly Varga, a Hungarian construction mogul who has won a disproportionate number of state contracts during Orban’s tenure.
In June 2017, Schatz bought a majority stake in a second Slovenian media company, New Horizon, which publishes a right-wing weekly magazine, Demokracija. The purchase turned him into a formal partner of the Slovenian Democratic Party, which remains the company’s minority owner. A month later, Schatz — through New Horizon — agreed to lend 60,000 euros (nearly $70,000), to the party itself, according to Zoran Mladenovic, the supreme state auditor at the Slovenian Court of Audit, who oversees scrutiny of political party finances.
Because New Horizon is not a financial institution, the loan was deemed illegal by the Court of Audit, which has referred a decision on possible fines to a district court.
“It is unusual in the first place that a political party would acquire a loan from a company that is not allowed to give loans,” Mladenovic said.
A few weeks later, Schatz — again through New Horizon — started Skandal24, which quickly set its sights on leftist politicians and the centrist prime minister, Miro Cerar. One article attacked him for claiming reimbursement for travel expenses while on official business. The following week, the magazine splashed a thinly sourced article about a left-wing politician’s love life across two pages.
In summer 2017, Schatz also took control of Alfa TV, a right-wing television station in Macedonia that has long supported Nikola Gruevski, the former prime minister who is Orban’s closest ally in the country. Schatz now has a majority stake in the broadcaster, according to research by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an international network of investigative journalists. During the same period, a former colleague of Schatz at Hungarian state television, Agnes Adamik, also bought a series of right-wing online outlets in Macedonia.
Adamik did not respond to requests for comment.
“They are investing in a new kind of political alliance,” said Sandra Basic-Hrvatin, a media researcher at the University of Primorska and a former member of an independent commission that advised the Slovenian Culture Ministry on media policy. “They’re investing in a media empire to influence elections and to build up a new political force in the EU,” added Basic-Hrvatin, who has herself been targeted by Schatz’s outlets because of her criticism.
Schatz, Nova24TV, Demokracija, the Slovenian Democratic Party and Orban’s spokesman all declined to comment. The editor of Skandal24, Marjanca Scheicher, hid behind a door when a Times reporter made an unannounced visit to the shared offices of Skandal24, Nova24TV and Demokracija. Miro Petek, a spokesman for the Slovenian Democratic Party, later wrote a column for Nova24TV criticizing the tone of the reporter’s emails and his focus on outlets linked to the party. If Jansa is able to form a governing coalition, media freedom is likely to re-emerge as an issue in Slovenia. In his first turn as prime minister, Jansa, a former dissident and columnist during the communist era, started a crackdown on the country’s established news outlets, accusing journalists of bias and claiming that they had catered to the interests of the political elite, including many who were part of the former communist government.
Slovenian regulators are looking at the issue of foreign media ownership, most notably a planned takeover of the country’s main private television network by a regional telecommunications giant that is majority-owned by a U.S. investment firm. Supporters of Jansa say this deal has far greater implications for Slovenian media than the ownership of smaller outlets like Skandal24 and Nova24TV.
Ziga Turk, a former Cabinet minister for the Slovenian Democratic Party, said the Hungarian investment in right-wing Slovenian outlets had helped balance what he described as a media landscape skewed against right-wing parties.
“It’s positive for pluralism because these voices, and also the audiences of these voices, would not otherwise have a media to rely on,” said Turk, who oversaw the regulation of Slovenian media from 2011-13.
He added that Schatz’s outlets had only a “marginal” influence, with a reach that is “not like Fox News.”
Media experts in the region say Schatz’s purchases are not likely to drastically change the balance of voices in countries like Slovenia and Macedonia. Yet Schatz’s involvement has reinvigorated two outlets friendly to the far right and allowed for the creation of a third, Skandal24.
“These are not huge investments, but they’re important because other political parties don’t have this kind of media,” said Marko Milosavljevic, a media researcher at the University of Ljubljana. “These outlets can play a big role. They can help set the agenda — because other media have to report what these outlets are saying.”
And they represent a signal of intent from Orban.
“Formally speaking, it is not the Hungarian state that is making these investments,” said Milan Kucan, who was president for the first 11 years of Slovenia’s independence. “Formally, these are just Hungarian businessmen. But in reality they act as the long arm of Orban.”