Allied with the leaders of both Hungary and Serbia, the main political party among ethnic Hungarians in Serbia has intruded on media freedom and taken control of huge funds sent from Budapest, to the detriment of democracy, critics say.
Given his surname, Csaba Pressburger was perhaps destined to go into journalism.
An ethnic Hungarian in Serbia, in 2009 Pressburger rose to the post of editor-in-chief of the main daily newspaper serving the Hungarian community in the country’s northern Vojvodina province, Magyar Szó.
Magyar Szó was founded in 1944 and, during the Cold War when Serbia was part of non-aligned socialist Yugoslavia, enjoyed a degree of freedom denied media in Hungary and other countries where ethnic Hungarians lived behind the Iron Curtain.
The paper is currently owned by the National Council of the Hungarian Ethnic Minority, MNT, a state body tasked with representing the interests of Hungarians living in Serbia and which is dominated by the main ethnic Hungarian political party, the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, VMSZ.
In the best traditions of Magyar Szó, Pressburger says he was promised total editorial independence. But the promise meant little.
“VMSZ tried to influence what we write about,” Pressburger told BIRN. “First, they wanted to convince me not to be critical and to write more about VMSZ and less about the other parties.”
“They thought the interests of their party were the same as the interests of Hungarians. But I wanted to show other opinions, so we gave room to other parties as well.”
In 2011, the MNT ousted Pressburger.
“They had a list of what I was doing wrong,” he said. “Roughly 80 percent of my ‘mistakes’ were that Magyar Szó didn’t cover VMSZ enough: we reported from a VMSZ press conference in the wrong way or we didn’t publish a photo about a ribbon-cutting ceremony important to VMSZ, and so on.”
Pressburger’s ill-fated tenure coincided with the start of what journalists, analysts and former members of VMSZ say has since been a lurch towards authoritarianism within the party, which since 2007 has been led by founding member Istvan Pásztor.
That was the year VMSZ threw its lot in with Hungary’s right-wing Fidesz party, which three years later – in 2010 – took power and set about instituting Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s self-styled ‘illiberal democracy’.
A local academic, who declined to be named, said: “The paradigms dominant in Hungary are clearly gaining popularity in Vojvodina. That much is clear.”
Under Orban, the independence of the media, courts, culture and universities has come under intense fire in Hungary, a trend replicated among the millions of ethnic Hungarians who live in neighbouring states as a result of the post-World War One carve-up of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Orban has made it easier for Hungarians ‘beyond the borders’ to get citizenship and poured money into ethnic Hungarian communities via local proxies. The result is an army of voters who overwhelmingly support Fidesz and the consolidation of power in local politicians beholden to Budapest.
In the case of Serbia’s Vojvodina province, media freedom has been squeezed and control of Hungarian state funds vested in people within or close to VMSZ, with minimal scrutiny of how the money is spent.
“This was a reaction to the developments in Hungary,” lawyer László Józsa, a former VMSZ colleague of Pásztor, said of the decision to ally with Fidesz. “But it was decided by Pásztor himself, and it was a mistake.”
“Today, the situation is quite worrying,” Józsa told BIRN.
“Ethnic parties can only survive if they demonstrate their absolute loyalty toward Fidesz. And in Vojvodina, one can only prosper if one demonstrates absolute loyalty toward VMSZ. This is very dangerous because this is a small Hungarian community in Vojvodina: there are no real alternatives to VMSZ.”
In 2015, Józsa and others formed a faction within the party called Hungarian Movement, MM.
“Pásztor made more and more decisions by himself without asking the leadership of VMSZ,” said Jenő Maglai, a former VMSZ mayor of the Vojvodina town of Subotica and another founder of MM.
“Those who tried to disobey his authoritarian endeavour suddenly found themselves outcasts,” he said. The members of MM were eventually expelled.
Fortunately for Pásztor, Orban is also firm allies with Serbia’s ruling conservatives in the Progressive Party, led by President Aleksandar Vucic. Critics of the Progressives say Vucic is also following Orban’s lead in marginalising dissenters and controlling the media.
The Progressives are in coalition with VMSZ in the national parliament, the Vojvodina assembly and in local municipalities, perhaps ironically given Vucic was once an ultranationalist aide of convicted Serbian war criminal Vojislav Seselj, who during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s wanted Hungarians expelled from Serbia.
Neither Pásztor nor his son Balint, a VMSZ deputy in the Serbian parliament and member of the VMSZ presidency, responded to requests for comment for this story.
Holding the purse strings
There used to be roughly 450,000 ethnic Hungarians in Serbia. But since the 1960s their number has been in steady decline, dropping significantly in the 1990s when Yugoslavia fell apart and again since Orban simplified the rules for ethnic Hungarians to qualify for citizenship in 2011.
For Hungarians in Serbia, where the average salary in Vojvodina is about 300 euros per month, a Hungarian passport means citizenship of the European Union and the chance to seek employment and better pay elsewhere.
In 2011, they numbered some 250,000, but experts estimate they may be down to only 150,000 now. “It is no exaggeration to talk about an exodus,” said a former diplomat, who declined to be named.
Spurred in part by the demographic decline, the Hungarian government announced an economic development programme for Vojvodina in 2015 valued at 150 million euros.
Disbursement is controlled by a private foundation called Prosperitati, created in 2016 by Hungarian government decree “in cooperation with VMSZ” as a nominally independent body.
It is led by Bálint Juhász, a member of the VMSZ presidency.
Of the six members on the board of the foundation, three are also members of VMSZ or were candidates of the party in earlier elections. In Prosperitati’s branch offices, BIRN found that at least four staff members have or had direct links to VMSZ.
While the list of recipients is public and there is no obvious sign the money is being misused, the list of applicants and other details about how the system works and its financial accounts are unavailable.
One thing is clear: among the biggest recipients are business people with ties to VMSZ.
Lajos Csákány, a restaurateur with interests in commerce and real estate and who is widely considered close to VMSZ, received five million euros, while Stat Trakt Ltd, owned by János Zsemberi, a former VMSZ official and president of the Hungarian government-backed football club Topola FC, and ‘Masterplast’, a company owned by the immediate family of Tivadar Bunford, a former VMSZ leader, each received more than 2.5 million euro.
“When I request information from the Foreign Ministry – responsible for the program in Hungary – they reply that I should ask Prosperitati, as it’s the foundation that is handling the money,” said local journalist Virág Gyurkovics.
“But Prosperitati is a private foundation, so FOIA [Freedom of Information Request] doesn’t apply to them in Serbia. And so the circle is closed.”
Most of the money, however, is disbursed to small businesses in sums of several thousand euros, while VMSZ and Pásztor rarely miss the chance to take credit at regular events to award funds.
During a campaign for a referendum in Hungary on whether to accept EU-mandated quotes of migrants in 2016, VMSZ politician Ottó Bús told voters: “This is the moment when we ought to give something back, in exchange for what we’ve received.”
And invariably they do, in the form of votes for VMSZ and Fidesz. In the May 2019 European Parliament elections, roughly 50,000 Hungarians in Serbia voted, 95 per cent of them for Fidesz.
“I don’t know how they do it, but it’s quite visible,” said Viktória Radics, a local writer, poet and opposition supporter. She recalled one episode when an acquaintance received financial assistance to buy a home, under a part of the programme designed to encourage ethnic Hungarians to stay.
“My hairdresser received money from Prosperitati to buy a house. After that, she and her husband became VMSZ activists, where before they were apolitical,” Radics told BIRN.
‘No need for free press’
Media scrutiny of such tactics is minimal.
In the wake of Pressburger’s ouster as editor-in-chief of Magyar Szó, a number of other journalists considered his allies and critics of VMSZ left under a reorganisation of the paper that saw one office closed.
“This was the moment when MNT declared there is no need for free press in Vojvodina,” said Gyurkovics, who used to work for a weekly called Hét Nap, also owned by MNT.
Gyurkovics recalled being “yelled at” by the weekly’s director for writing a critical review of a theatre production and questioning the appointment – by MNT – of the theatre’s director.
“I learnt the limits, at least,” she said.
Private broadcaster Pannon RTV, run by a foundation co-founded by MNT, also receives funding from the Hungarian state.
“You can hear only the voice of VMSZ in these media,” said Norbert Sinkovics, another local journalist who works for Serbian-language media.
“There is nothing that resembles the watchdog role of the media.”
Radics, the writer and poet, said she had been told by a reporter on the Hungarian-language service of Serbia’s public broadcaster that she was on a “blacklist”.
“The reporter told me I can’t appear on TV because I’m supporting the opposition to VMSZ,” she said.
Pressburger went on to found the online news portal Szabad Magyar Szó with his former colleagues at Magyar Szó. Szabad means ‘Free’.
But they struggle to compete with mainstream outlets under the influence of VMSZ and media from Hungary available in Vojvodina.
In a report published last year, the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina, IJAV, and the Civil Rights Defenders cited political pressure, poor pay, censorship and self-censorship as some of the issues facing media among Serbia’s minority communities.
“In Serbia, especially in Vojvodina… we notice a weakening or loss of integrity of the media, newsrooms and journalists,” the report said. The authors warned that the autonomy of editorial policy was under threat from national councils of minorities as founders or owners of those media.
Sinkovics said the effect was clear in the hostility among Serbia’s Hungarians to the migrants and refugees that began crossing the Balkans in 2015 en route to Western Europe, a flow Orban tried to halt with a fence at the border with Serbia.
“Hungarians here agree with the fence”, said Sinkovics.
“I’m totally surprised. An ethnic minority should know how important fundamental rights are.”
Ákos Keller-Alánt (Balkan Insight)
Main illustration: BIRN
Akos Keller Alant is an award-winning investigative journalist and a news editor at Hungarian magazine Magyar Narancs. He mostly reports on politics, economics and corruption, and has interviewed leading Hungarian and international politicians for his work.
This article has been produced as part of the Resonant Voices Initiative in the EU, funded by the European Union’s Internal Security Fund – Police. The content of this story is the sole responsibility of BIRN. The European Commission does not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.