“It is impossible that ATV remains left-wing after [the] spring [election]. In fact, it is already nonsense that formally it still is.” – An ATV editor speaking anonymously to 444.hu
“It turns out our values and perception are much closer to each other than we have previously thought. Moreover, we think the same way about all the important issues.” – Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén addressing Pastor Sándor Nêmeth’s followers in 2017.
Only three months before the general election on April 8, ATV is being turned into yet another pro-government media outlet, say current and former employees, according to an article published by 444.hu detailing the history of the nominally independent broadcaster under the financing of the Faith Congregation.
Previously known for its left-wing bias, recently the broadcaster terminated a number of prime-time talk-show programs (Csatt, Hírvita, Tét, Szabad szemmel) devoted to informed discussion and debate of public issues. The past two years witnessed the departure of three of its most talented and respected journalists: Friderikusz host Sándor Friderikusz, Egyenes Beszéd (Straight Talk) hostess Olga Kálmán and Start and Szabad szemmel hostess Antonia Mészáros.
Current employees told 444.hu that when emblematic anchors Friderikusz and Kálmán – both Pulitzer Prize winners – and editor-in-chief András Bánó left the channel in quick succession in 2016, they could find plausible explanations for their departures. However, when former TV2 tabloid producer Péter Hajdú. a known Fidesz sympathizer, was contracted by ATV in 2016 and began hiring former TV2 reporters and show hosts, ATV employees quickly realized which way their channel was heading.
For over 10 years ATV’s majority owner, Sándor Németh’s evangelical charismatic Faith Congregation (HGY), and the now-governing Fidesz party were sworn enemies.
The first Orbán government (1998-2002) waged virtual war on the evangelical church. Both Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Minister of Interior Ibolya Dávid eyed the independent congregation with suspicion. Between 1998 and 2002 the tax authority under Lajos Simicska audited the Faith Congregation’s finances on no fewer than 18 occasions.
Realizing that the future of his congregation should not depend solely on the goodwill of the political elite, the church’s charismatic leader Németh gradually established a network of companies and organizations, including a publisher, schools and sports clubs, over the years to support his church. Seeking to style himself after American televangelists such as Pat Robinson, Németh purchased ATV in 2003.
Originally called Agro TV and dealing primarily with agrarian topics, under new ownership it was relaunched as a public affairs channel with a pronounced left-wing bias, not least to curry favor with the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP)-Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) coalition government in power at that time.
The pragmatic pastor
When it became apparent in 2009 that the days of the MSZP-SZDSZ government were numbered, the pragmatic Németh sought new alliances. In the 2009 European Parliament election, the Faith Congregation openly endorsed the Hungarian Democratic Forum’s (MDF) list of candidates led by Lajos Bokros.
According to a former HGY member and a member of the MDF campaign team, Németh subsequently made a pact with Fidesz chairman Viktor Orbán, the chairman of the largest opposition party, who reportedly promised that if they could form a government, they would coordinate with Németh’s church on church issues.
Once back in power in 2010, Fidesz granted Németh’s Faith Congregation “established church status” over the opposition of the co-ruling Christian Democratic People’s Party, entitling the church to annual state subsidies of HUF 269 million (USD 1.04 million).
Meanwhile, the congregation paid careful attention to preserve ATV’s independent image and this gained many new viewers. By 2013 Olga Kálmán’s Egyenes Beszéd had became Hungary’s most-watched public affairs program. In 2014, ATV became the fourth-most-watched channel in the 6-10 pm prime-time period, mostly due to Kálmán’s growing popularity. According to 444.hu, Fidesz tolerated ATV’s biased programming mostly due to the fact that the channel openly boycotted far-right Jobbik up until 2014.
Return of the prodigal church
After the public falling out between Lajos Simicska and Viktor Orbán at the beginning of 2015, the government kept a tighter grip on state advertising. Unable to sell advertising spots to individual state-owned companies, ATV had to directly negotiate with the Minister of the Cabinet of the Prime Minister, Antal Rogán. Current and former ATV employees told 444.hu that beginning in 2015, editors and reporters were repeatedly warned to avoid certain topics unpleasant to the government.
By the time of the 2015 migration crisis, Németh’s preaching started to echo the government’s xenophobic rhetoric. At the same time, the government started to spend millions of forints on anti-migration propaganda on ATV. According to opten.hu, between 2016 and 2017 ATV received a total of approximately HUF 300 million (USD 1.16 million) in state advertising, more than offsetting a decrease in the number of Hungarians offering up 1 percent of their income taxes to the evangelical church.
But maybe the most conspicuous sign of Németh’s devotion to the Fidesz government is that Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén requested and was granted permission to hold a lecture in HGY’s Hall of Faith last autumn. The Christian Democratic People’s Party politician was a vehement opponent of HGY. In 2002 as an undersecretary, Semjén said he was working really hard to “exclude this destructive, trafficker, anti-social and anti-family fake church from the category of churches.”
In November 2017, Németh himself invited Semjén to hold a theological lecture to the students of the congregation’s Saint Paul Academy. Before hugging Németh in front of hundreds of clapping students, Semjén said that “it turns out our values and perception are much closer to each other than we have previously thought. Moreover, we think the same way about all the important issues.”
In the last days of 2017, the government allocated HUF 758 million (USD 2.9 million) to the Saint Paul Academy to build a library and a conference center.