Hungarian media expansion in Balkans raises concerns but lacks impact

Planet TV’s buyer, TV2 Média Csoport Zrt, was reportedly co-ownership by Jozsef Vida, one of the richest Hungarians, describe as a member of the business circle around the Hungarian ruling party, Fidesz.

The Hungarian expansion started in 2017, when three companies from Budapest – Ridikul, Ripost and Modern Media Group – bought Nova24TV in Slovenia. In 2018, Ripost and Modern Media Group left Nova24TV when two companies Hespereia and Okeanis became the new owners of their shares. The two companies were created on the same day in November 2018, by the same lawyer.

Among the owners of the Hungarian companies were Peter Schatz and Agnes Adamik, who later changed her name to Agnes Kovacs. They both previously worked for the Hungarian public broadcaster. Arpad Habony, as part owner of the Hungarian group Modern Media Group, was also involved.

Nova24TV is jointly owned by members of the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), led by the current Prime Minister, Janez Jansa, one of Hungarian Prime Minister Orban’s main allies in the EU. The investment was would have backed by Karoly Varga in 2016, a billionaire whose construction companies have been among the biggest winners of public contracts awarded by the Hungarian government in recent years.

As a result of this agreement, R-post-R of Peter Schatz acquired a majority stake in Nova obzorja, the editor of Demokracija, a political weekly co-owned by the SDS.

Macedonian charges against Hungarians

Macedonian financial police have filed a complaint against Peter Schatz for tax evasion, BIRN has learned.

Financial police told BIRN Schatz that he had made illegal gains for himself and for his company CHS Invest Group, which is the majority shareholder of Alfa TV.

“[Schatz] did not declare income totaling 11,959,475 denars (approximately 190,000 euros), ”police said.

According to the police, Schatz damaged the budget of North Macedonia to the tune of around 19,000 euros.

The money laundering investigation against Schatz is still ongoing. In August last year, the financial police asked the prosecution to freeze money held by another Schatz company, Target Media Skopje, as it was suspected of being used for the transfer of potentially dirty money from Slovenia. and Hungary.

Despite these suspicions and an official request, the money was not “frozen”.

“The Target Media legal entity is only used to transfer funds directly from foreign legal entities to Alfa TV,” the financial police said.

According to the police, the companies used for the money transfers were Ripost Zaloznistvo from Ljubljana and Ripost Media in Hungary.

“[They] have no employees, their funding comes from sources of dubious origin, ie. there is a suspicion of a crime, an abuse of official position and authority, and the funds transferred to the Republic of North Macedonia by these foreign entities are made in order to conceal that they originate from a possible crime, using invoices for suspicious marketing services, ”the financial police added.

Peter Schatz did not respond to BIRN’s request for comment.

Just as their media-buying frenzy in Slovenia focused on outlets close to Jansa, Schatz and Adamik’s investments in North Macedonia have targeted those close to another political ally of Orban, former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.

Since 2017, Hungarian interests have taken over websites, and; First republika Dooel Skopje, which publishes the portal; and the media LD Press Skopje, which publishes the portal Hungarian interests also own broadcaster Alfa TV.

The approaches of these Hungarian investors who are close to the Fidesz party, who is hostile to independent media in his country and has orchestra the co-opting or murder of critical media there inevitably raised concern among some observers.

Four Members of the European Parliament – Kati Piri, Tanja Fajon, Tonino Picula and Andreas Schieder – submitted a list questions to the European Commission earlier this year about these Hungarian media investments and whether they represent Hungarian interference in the democratic process in the Balkans.

On November 25, the European Parliament organized a plenary debate, “Hungarian media interference in Slovenia and North Macedonia», Where Vera Jourova, Vice-President of the European Commission, addressed these questions.

“Regarding North Macedonia,” said Jourova, “the Commission and the EU delegation are following developments in the media sector in the country very closely. The Commission reports on these issues in its regular enlargement packages, including in its latest 2020 report on North Macedonia. This report assessed that greater transparency on media ownership and possible illegal media concentration is needed.

Kati Piri, a Dutch politician and MEP of Hungarian descent, went further, saying it was no surprise that the Hungarian leadership, with the help of Slovenia, mounted an international interference operation that poured millions of euros into pro-Jansa and pro-Gruevski media. organizations. “[W]We all know very well that Orban’s outrageous propaganda efforts in North Macedonia and Slovenia are just the tip of the iceberg. Whether in Brussels, Ljubljana or Skopje, Orban has only one goal: to undermine the European Union for his own personal gain, ”she said.

Again Balazs Hidveghi, MEP from the ruling Fidesz party in Hungary, refuted this, arguing that these companies have invested capital in the media of other member states purely for profit, in accordance with one of the most fundamental principles of the EU – free movement of capital. “The same goes for North Macedonia: investments are private matters for media companies, and they have nothing to do with politics,” Hidveghi insisted.

Laura T. Thrasher