How public funds built a propaganda media empire for Orbán’s allies in Pécs
Earlier this year, we wrote about the Urban Civic Fund, where the state funds that are supposed to be used to support NGOs fueled the election campaign of the ruling Fidesz party of Hungary. An example of this process can be seen in detail in the city Pécs, where several news websites with pro-government messages appeared before the elections, funded by public funds.
Shortly before the April elections, Pécs saw a proliferation of websites specializing in local news. The news portals typically reported on regional developments and cultural events in a seemingly neutral tone, but never failed to advertise the Fidesz candidates of the two constituencies of Baranya county.
Behind the newly established sites (Pécs Aktuál, Pécsi Érték, Téma Baranya) we find a network of organizations, which, although officially designated as NGOs are in fact linked to the local Fidesz chapter. These organizations were partly funded by the state, including the Urban Civic Fund, and public money was also used for key media appearances and campaign events before the elections.
A fund for GONGOs
The Hungarian government set up the Urban Civic Fund (Városi Civil Alap, VCA) shortly after the country lost its eligibility for the so-called EEA and Norway Funds over a disagreement with the donor countries. After officially leaving the program, they created a new fund from the Hungarian budget. While the government’s main accusation against the EEA and the Norwegian partner was alleged political bias, the results of the first new VCA program ended up being extremely one-sided. Most of the groups that received most funding were closely associated with the ruling party. The recipients included so-called NGOs headed by mayors, representatives and local organizers of Fidesz.
The largest sums were given to groups to develop their public profiles, i.e., to by ads or to distribute new publications. Before the April 3 elections,
Átlátszó warned that because of this, the program could essentially become a form of campaign financing for the governing parties, using public funds.
This appears the case in Pécs. The two constituencies of the southern city were important swing constituencies in the 2022 elections, so both political blocs have allocated significant sums of money to the campaign here.
In early 2020, a new local newspaper and website was launched under the name Pécs Aktuál, with Gergely Kapitány as its creative contributor. Mr. Kapitány previously worked as a campaign advisor to former Pécs mayor Zsolt Páva, a member of Fidesz. Later, he was the head of the Pécs Communication Centre (then known as the Pécs Media Center), after which held positions KESMA, the pro-Orbán media conglomerate.
The owner of P1 Media Group Zrt., which runs Pécs Aktuál, József Fodor-Petrov also has a background in pro-Fidesz media, and he even used to be a local representative of the party.
Public money goes round
Mr. Fodor-Petrov also leads a so-called NGO named Magyar Garabonciás Foundation. Last year, the foundation received HUF 15 million from the VCA for media purchases. They ended up advertising in the aforementioned Pécs Aktuál, meaning the Foundation was used to funnel public funds to its director’s business. By the end of the election campaign served as a campaign platform for the two Fidesz-candidates of the city, Péter Hoppál and János Kővári. This year, Fodor-Petrov’s foundation received another HUF 11 million from the VCA.
In 2021, the seemingly apolitical Bio Város Association also won HUF 15 million from VCA to produce content promoting environmental awareness. This year it won the maximum amount again, HUF 11 million.
One of the representatives of the Association is Tamás Dániel Vezér, was previously the press director of the Pécs chapter of Fidesz. Currently, his Bio Város Association is also cooperating with Pécs Aktual, advertising their content on the front page of the portal.
Publicly funded campaign rally
Another so-called NGO named Agytörő Association is also promoting its content in Pécs Aktuál. The group, despite only having been formed in 2021, has received a grant of HUF 11 million from the VCA this year. The Association’s articles are signed by Teréz Raics, a former Fidesz delegate in municipal companies who is also a representative of the Bio City Association.
Both organizations also promote articles on a previously registered website named Téma Baranya. The site is published by HPM Design Kft, a company of Gábor Papp, who is described by our sources in Pécs as one of the county’s well-known Fidesz-affiliated businessmen, who has won several public tenders during the previous Fidesz administration.
The Vörös Sárkány Cultural Association is also in a special situation, having received HUF 5 million in 2021 for its tender, officially to spread “objective information about Pécs”. The association has agreed to purchase info-communication tools and to operate a medium that can “prevent the spread of fake news and to strengthen local identity and local patriotism”.
The association’s representative, Róbert Tóth, ran in the 2019 municipal elections as a Fidesz candidate, but the organization itself is known primarily for organizing the so-called “Suburban Day”.
This event, disguised as a festival, was really a campaign rally in support of Fidesz candidate János Kővári,
featuring a speech of the politician. Of course, the event was also funded by the public: the state-controlled Human Resources Support Agency (EMET) provided 7 million HUF for it.
The same few actors receive funding on behalf of several NGOs
As for the Vörös Sárkány Association, it is not clear how they fulfilled their obligation to fight “fake news”, as it even lacks a functioning website. However, the domain data of another recently launched portal in Pécs, pecsiertek.hu, shows that it was registered by Mr. Tóth’s group. This is also puzzling because according to the site’s own disclaimer it officially belongs to yet another NGO called the Pécsi Értékközösség Foundation.
This is yet again another local NGO that also received support from the VCA this year and is linked to Fidesz. Its representative, Péter Végh, is also a board member of the Alliance for Pécs, a group allied with the local Fidesz chapter. They also publish another site, pecsiertek.hu, which also campaigned for János Kővári.
Written and translated by Zalán Zubor, the Hungarian version of this story is available here.
Cover image: the centrum of Pécs, Facebook/szeretlekpecs