7 Convicted in Killing of Honduran Environmental Activist

A Honduran court found seven people guilty of participating in the 2016 murder of prize-winning indigenous and environmental rights activist Berta Caceres, while acquitting an eighth suspect in a case that has drawn international attention.

In a unanimous ruling released Thursday, three judges found that Elvin Rapalo, Henry Hernandez, Edilson Duarte and Oscar Galeas carried out the killing of Caceres, who was shot inside her home in La Esperanza in western Honduras one year after winning the Goldman Environmental Prize for her leadership against a dam project.

Murder carries a 30-year sentence in Honduras and the sentence will be released Jan. 10.

The judges issued guilty verdicts on lesser charges for army officer Mariano Diaz, ex-soldier Douglas Bustillo and Sergio Rodriguez, a manager of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, which Caceres had opposed. Emerson Duarte, Edilson’s brother, was acquitted. He had been accused of covering up the crime.

The ruling did not satisfy Caceres’ family, which wants those behind the killing to be prosecuted as well.

Roberto David Castillo Mejia, who was executive president of the company leading the construction work, DESA, when Caceres was killed, is accused by prosecutors of organizing the logistics of the killing. He is in prison awaiting trial.

The company has said Castillo and its other employees were “totally unconnected” to the murder.

Friends, family, activists and members of Caceres’ Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras demonstrated outside the court.

“We’re going for them. … Capture the intellectual authors of this crime!’’ the protesters shouted.

Her organization released a statement saying the latest ruling only affects “the lowest link in the criminal structure.’’

“We regret that the actions so far have not been directed against those who ordered the death of Berta or those who paid for her murder,’’ said Omar Menjivar, a lawyer for Caceres’ lawyer.

Activists held up a banner reading “The Atala are missing,” a reference to the Atala Zablah family, shareholders of DESA, which protesters accuse of being behind the actions against Caceres.

Caceres had reported receiving death threats, and her family said there was collusion between the company and state security forces.

The Honduran government has been under significant pressure from abroad to solve the killing in a country where impunity runs high.

G-20 Leaders Presented With Argentine Gifts

The leaders of the world’s largest economies received alpaca scarfs, silver bracelets, wine from Argentina’s Mendoza region and teas from Patagonia as they arrived in Buenos Aires on Thursday for the first G-20 summit to be held in South America. 

Heads of the Group of 20 industrialized nations touched down in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, for what looked to be a tough two-day summit that opens on Friday, with big differences on major issues including trade, migration and climate change. 

But first they were treated to a taste of Argentina. 

Women received silver bracelets with a commemorative design, while men received alpaca scarfs woven in Catamarca, a mountainous province in western Argentina. 

A spokesman for President Mauricio Macri’s office said first lady Juliana Awada had personally selected the gifts. Awada posted a video on Instagram of women hand-weaving the scarfs in Catamarca, using a technique hundreds of years old. 

Leaders will also receive chocolates stuffed with caramelized condensed milk — a local specialty known as “dulce de leche” — as well as specially made tea, candles and wine from the western region of Mendoza, which is renowned for its Malbec 

red wines. 

At a gala dinner Friday in Buenos Aires’ world-renowned theater, Teatro Colon, G-20 leaders will dine on a traditional Argentine menu of steak, lamb and choripan, a sausage served between bread, the event’s head catering chef told Reuters on 

Wednesday. 

Rosenstein Calls for Tech Firms to Work With Law Enforcement

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein called on social media companies and technology firms Thursday to work with law enforcement to protect the public from cybercriminals.  

 

Speaking at a symposium on online crime, Rosenstein said that “social media platforms provide unprecedented opportunities for the free exchange of ideas. But many users do not understand that the platforms allow malicious actors, including foreign government agents, to deceive them by launching vast influence operations.” 

 

He said it was up to the companies to “place security on the same footing as novelty and convenience, and design technology accordingly.”  

 

He warned that if the technology sector failed to do so, government would have to step in.  

 

“I think the companies now do understand if they do not take it upon themselves to self-regulate — which is essentially the theme of my talk today — they will face the potential of government regulation,” he said. 

Extortion scheme

 

Rosenstein’s remarks came a day after the Justice Department charged two Iranian hackers in connection with a multimillion-dollar cybercrime and extortion scheme that targeted government agencies, cities and businesses. 

 

Rosenstein said many tech companies are willing to work with law enforcement and to prevent the use of their platforms to spread disinformation. 

 

But he said that “some technology experts castigate colleagues who engage with law enforcement to address encryption and similar challenges. Just because people are quick to criticize you does not mean that you are doing the wrong thing.” 

 

U.S. law enforcement officials have long been pushing tech companies to make it easier for them to access information on private devices such as cellphones and social media accounts. But most firms have resisted, citing privacy of the users.  

 

Rosenstein said data encryption practices were a “significant detriment to public safety.”  

 

“Improvements in the ability to investigate crime and hold perpetrators accountable must match the pace at which technology is making crimes easier to commit and more destructive,” Rosenstein said. 

Trump Cancels Putin Meeting Over Moscow Seizure of Ukrainian Ships

U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday abruptly canceled a planned two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in response to Moscow’s seizure of Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea region.

“Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina,” Trump said on Twitter as he left Washington for Buenos Aires and the weekend G-20 summit of heads of the world’s leading economies.

“I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!” Trump added.

Trump tweeted about canceling the talks with Putin not long after telling reporters at the White House that the meeting would likely proceed as planned.

“I probably will be meeting with President Putin,” he had said. “They would like to have it. I think it’s a very good time to have the meeting.”

But he said he would get a final report during his flight concerning the Russian seizure Sunday of the three vessels and their crews in the Kerch Strait as they tried to make their way to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, in the Sea of Azov.

“I’m getting a full report on the plane as to what happened with respect to that and that will determine what I’m going to be doing,” he said.

The White House said Trump made the decision on board Air Force One after conferring with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

Russian news agencies reported the Kremlin had not been notified in advance of Trump’s decision. The Russian embassy in Washington said that if Trump and Putin aren’t going to meet, then the Russian leader “will have a couple of additional hours on the program for useful meetings.”

Request for NATO aid

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked NATO countries to send naval ships to the Sea of Azov to aid his country and “provide security” amid tensions with Russia. Ukraine, once a Soviet satellite state, is not a NATO member.

Poroshenko’s comments were published Thursday in the German newspaper Bild.

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu responded to Poroshenko’s request by saying the military alliance already has a strong presence in the Black Sea region.

She said NATO ships routinely patrol the area and several NATO allies conduct reconnaissance flights over the region. “We will continue to assess our presence in the region,” Lungescu added.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also rejected Poroshenko’s request, urging Kyiv to adopt a “sensible” approach “because there is no military solution to these disputes.”

Also Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he could play a mediator role between Ukraine and Russia.

Erdogan has held phone talks with leaders on both sides, and said he would continue discussing the issue with Putin and Trump at a G-20 summit.

Conflicting accounts

Ukraine said Russia used a tanker to block access to the Kerch Strait, which under a treaty is shared territory. Russia said the vessels illegally entered its waters.

Putin on Wednesday blamed Poroshenko for the incident, alleging it is an attempt by Poroshenko to boost his re-election chances next year.

Ukraine has imposed martial law in some of its border regions in response to the incident, and with a growing number of other European countries, urged Western allies to impose additional sanctions on Moscow.

Poroshenko said martial law will help “strengthen Ukraine’s defense capabilities amid increasing aggression and according to international law, a cold act of aggression by the Russian Federation.” He demanded Russia release the Ukrainian sailors and vessels.

The U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, told reporters Wednesday in Berlin he believes Kyiv’s account that its ships were operating within global maritime rules.

Volker said the Ukrainian vessels were returning to Odessa “when the Russian vessels then pursued them and attacked them.”

Ukrainian officials have released what they maintain is the precise location where its ships were fired upon.

Volker said he has not received independent U.S. verification of Ukraine’s information, but believed “the data the Ukrainians have provided is quite clear.”

Poroshenko wrote Thursday on Twitter that his country will impose unspecified restrictions on Russian citizens in response to Russia’s actions. Ukraine has already denied Russians entry into the country since last week’s incident.

Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, saying its ethnic Russian majority was under threat from the Ukrainian government. A month later, it fomented a pro-Russia separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine in an ongoing conflict that to date has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

Ukraine and the West repeatedly have accused Russia of fueling the conflict by providing rebel forces with weapons and other support, a charge Moscow has denied despite strong evidence to the contrary.

Kerch Naval Clash Upends Planned Trump-Putin Talks

Until the Russian attack Sunday on Ukrainian vessels in the Black Sea, the White House and the Kremlin had at least agreed on one thing, the agenda for Saturday’s scheduled face-to-face between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, their second summit meeting.

Arms control, security issues as well as the Middle East and North Korea were all set to figure prominently, senior U.S. and Russian aides told reporters in the run-up to the meeting.

The Kremlin had earmarked as their key issue, say Russian officials, Trump’s recent decision to abandon a landmark Cold War-era agreement prohibiting the U.S. and Russia from possessing ground-launched short-range nuclear missiles.

For the White House, securing a public commitment from the Russians to enforce United Nations sanctions on North Korea before next month’s planned summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was a key objective, according to U.S. officials.

But the Russian attack on three Ukrainian vessels shifted the dynamics of Saturday’s planned two-hour face-to-face between Trump and Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Argentina, say analysts, with the U.S. leader being urged to take a tough line that might imperil his overall determination to improve U.S.-Russian relations.

Trump suggested Tuesday he might cancel the meeting after Russian ships opened fire on and seized the Ukrainian ships near Crimea.  Then on Thursday, after telling reporters the meeting will go ahead, he tweeted that he has canceled the meeting “based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia.”  “I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!” he said.

Kremlin officials had earlier said they expected the meeting to be held.

“We don’t have to agree on all issues, which is probably impossible, but we need to talk.  It’s in the interests of not only our two countries, it’s in the interests of the whole World,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Earlier this week John Bolton, the U.S. National Security Adviser, said Trump was planning to discuss security, arms control and regional issues with Putin.  “I think it will be a continuation of their discussion in Helsinki,” he said, referring to the first summit meeting between the two leaders held in Finland in July, when they met for more than two hours with only their translators present.

The Helsinki sit-down prompted widespread criticism of Trump from across the U.S. political spectrum, with Republican and Democrat lawmakers expressing dismay at what they saw as the U.S. leader’s amplifying of Putin denials of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Washington wanted to see tougher enforcement of sanctions against Russia as a consequence of the Russian action, the first time the Kremlin has staged open aggression against Ukraine since Putin annexed Crimea four years ago and launched a destabilization campaign in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

German chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to address the Kerch incident at the G-20 meeting.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko piled pressure Thursday on the G-20 by calling for a tough collective response to Russia, saying he fears Moscow intends broader military action against his country.  European Union hawks have called for more sanctions to be imposed on Russia, although with the bloc already divided over policy towards Russia it is unlikely that will happen swiftly without a strong lead from Washington, say diplomats.

Trump waited more than 24 hours after the maritime clash before he commented on the incident, prompting criticism, once again, that he was going lightly on his Russian counterpart.  But once he did address the clash, his irritation was clear.  “I don’t like that aggression.  I don’t want that aggression at all,” he told the Washington Post.

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now an analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution told VOA if Trump “does not raise the question of the Russian conflict against Ukraine … the Russian would calculate the President is weak on this issue.  That’s going to be bad for Ukraine, but also bad for American foreign policy.”

 

 

Erdogan, Trump Set to Meet at G-20

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump are due to meet  on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Erdogan indicated U.S. support for a Syrian Kurdish militia would top their agenda.

Speaking before leaving for Buenos Aires, Erdogan said the planned talks would pick up on themes raised in Wednesday’s telephone call with Trump. Ongoing tensions between Ukraine and Russia initiated the call.

“They agreed to meet again at G-20 to discuss this concern and other important issues in the bilateral relationship,” read the White House readout of the call.

Trump and Erdogan have again started to work together on the many crises in Turkey’s region after months of diplomatic tensions. October’s release by a Turkish court of American pastor Andrew Brunson was the trigger for renewed cooperation and talks.

“There are some very thorny issues that have been postponed rather than resolved,” said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners. “But the release of Brunson has ended a psychological barrier to dialogue.”

At the top of Erdogan’s list of issues to be resolved is Washington’s ongoing support for the YPG Syrian Kurdish militia in its war against the Islamic State.

Turkey considers the YPG terrorists linked to a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey and is pushing for a road map agreement with Washington to end YPG presence in the strategically important Syrian City of Manbij.

Under the deal, American and Turkish forces would replace the militia. “We will discuss the Manbij issue at the [G-20] meeting with U.S. President Trump,” Erdogan said Thursday.

Former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served widely in the region, sees the Manbij deal as a blueprint for future efforts that would feature “joint Turkish-US patrols to push the YPG away from the border.”

Time is against the Kurds, he said. “We are at a new phase in U.S. Turkish relations with greater cooperation.”

Greater cooperation

A major stumbling block to greater cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey are the deepening Turkish-Iranian ties. Observers point out Washington increasingly sees curtailing Iran’s presence in Syria a priority, a role the YPG could play given it controls a fifth of Syrian territory.

“They [Washington] will ask Turkey to follow in line against Iran and hold the ground.” said Selcen, “Then, this will push Turkey to distance itself from the Astana process, from Iran and Russia altogether.”

The Astana process brought together Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran in efforts to end the Syrian civil war.

Leverage over Turkey

Trump does retain leverage over Erdogan. Turkish State-owned Halkbank is facing potential multi-billion dollars fines for violating U.S. Iranian sanctions.

“The fact that Halkbank is still on the hook with the American judiciary obliges Turkey to be nice to the U.S.,” said Yesilada.

Erdogan is expected to raise Halkbank with Trump at the G-20 summit.

Turkey’s controversial purchase of S400 Russian missiles also is likely feature in the talks. The U.S. is calling for an end to the deal, claiming the missiles threaten to compromise NATO weapons systems, in particular, America’s latest fighter the F-35.

Tit-for-tat

A U.S. Congressional report cautions against the delivery of the F 35 to Turkey if the delivery of S400 goes ahead in mid-2019. Such a move could also jeopardize Turkey’s ongoing participation in the manufacture of the fighter.

“The F-35 is important to Erdogan as part of the development of Turkey’s defense industry, which is a priority for the president,” said Yesilada.

Erdogan insists the S-400 purchase will go ahead, although he has suggested readiness to consider buying an American missile system as well.

International relations professor Huseyin Bagci, of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, says Turkey has “had enough with the economic and political crisis and now wants to repair relations. And Trump appears prepared to do this.”

Trump has received plaudits in Ankara for taking steps against Turkish Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States and denies Erdogan’s charges he was behind a 2016 coup attempt.

“Ankara is quite content with the state of a recent investigation by the FBI on Gulen’s approximately 180 charter schools in the U.S.” wrote columnist Cansu Camlibel for Hurriyet Daily News. “The FBI has been investigating tax and visa fraud, as well as money laundering, allegations against schools known for their ties to Gülen.”

The Erdogan-Trump meeting is not expected to result in any breakthroughs on critical issues that continue to plague bilateral ties. But analysts suggest both leaders share an interest in working to defuse tensions.

Ruling Party Candidate Leads in Georgia Presidential Runoff

Preliminary results from Georgia’s presidential runoff showed the ruling party-backed candidate, who favours balancing the ex-Soviet republic’s relations with Moscow and the West, leading her rival who advocates a stronger pro-Western line.

Figures from the Central Election Commission gave French-born Salome Zurabishvili 58.2 percent of the vote in the runoff, which was held on Wednesday. Opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze had 41.8 percent, based on results from 55 percent of the polling stations, the CEC said on its website.

Voting under close scrutiny

Earlier, two exit polls also showed Zurabishvili, a former French career diplomat who served as Georgia’s foreign minister from 2004-2005, with a clear lead.

The second round of voting was under close scrutiny by opposition and international observers for any sign that the ruling Georgian Dream party is using its control of state machinery to help Zurabishvili win.

The opposition said there have been attacks on its activists during campaigning and complained there were many irregularities during the vote, including attempts to pressure voters and manipulation of voter lists.

The ruling party has denied attempting to influence the outcome of the vote unfairly.

International observers said the first round of voting last month had been competitive, but had been held on “an unlevel playing field” with state resources misused, private media biased, and some phoney candidates taking part.

Balanced approach

Vashadze, who was foreign minister in 2008-2012, had been expected to use the presidency’s limited powers to send a vocal message of integration with the U.S.-led NATO alliance and the European Union — sensitive issues in the South Caucasus country that fought a war in 2008 with its neighbour Russia.

Georgian Dream and Zurabishvili take a more pragmatic line, balancing the country’s aspirations to move closer to the West with a desire to avoid antagonising the Kremlin.

Constitutional changes have reduced the authority of the president, and put most levers of power in the hands of the prime minister, a Georgian Dream loyalist.

Move to electoral college

The election was the last in which the president will be selected by popular vote. From 2024, presidents will be picked by an electoral college of 300 lawmakers and regional officials.

Zurabishvili won 38.6 percent of the vote in the first round on Oct. 28. That was just one percentage point ahead of Vashadze, who was a foreign minister in 2008-2012 in a resolutely pro-Western government that was in power when the conflict with Russia broke out over a Moscow-backed breakaway Georgian territory.

Georgian Dream was founded by billionaire banker Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s richest man, and critics say he rules the country from behind the scenes.

Zurabishvili’s supporters say she would bring international stature to the presidency. But her opponents have criticized her for statements that appeared to blame Georgia for the 2008 war and remarks about minorities that some see as xenophobic. 

UK Government to Face Challenges to May’s Brexit Plan in Parliament 

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s bid to win approval for her Brexit deal will have to overcome attempts to block or change it by rival lawmakers on Dec. 11, a proposed format for the debate published on Wednesday showed. 

 

The government has set out the details of a debate on a motion to approve May’s plan to take the country out of the European Union, allowing for amendments to be discussed that could try to reshape the deal she brought back from Brussels. 

 

The format of the debate has been keenly awaited to see whether rivals would have a chance to test their alternative exit plans, such as remaining in the EU’s customs union or making the exit conditional upon a second referendum. 

 

Any such amendments would not be legally binding on the government but would prove politically hard to ignore. 

May already has an arduous task to get the motion approved. It is opposed by a large group of lawmakers from her own party, the Northern Irish party that props up her minority government and by all opposition parties who say they will vote against it. 

 

Defeat would most likely unleash huge political uncertainty and could roil financial markets. 

 

According to documents filed at Britain’s Parliament on Wednesday, debates will be held on Dec. 4, 5, 6, 10 and 11, with up to six amendments selected on the final day. The opposition Labor Party said on Twitter the debate would conclude at 1900 GMT on Dec. 11. 

 

The amendments could be put to several votes, meaning that as well as overcoming the huge opposition to her plan, May will have to defeat attempts to add extra conditions to it or to thwart the exit agreement altogether. 

 

The government has previously voiced concerns that any of these so-called amendments that win support in the House of Commons could prevent the government from ratifying the exit deal because the amended motion would not provide the necessary unequivocal approval required under previously passed legislation.  

Kosovo President: Defining Borders Will Help Solve Disputes with Serbia

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci says defining the borders between Kosovo and Serbia is a key step toward easing tensions between the two nations. Border talks come 10 years after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia.

Kosovo has been recognized by more than 110 countries as a sovereign nation, though Serbia refuses to recognize it. Both countries want to join the European Union, but Brussels said disagreements over Kosovo’s sovereignty must be settled first.

“One thing should be clear: Without defining the borders, there cannot be a final, peaceful agreement that would guarantee mutual recognition [between Kosovo and Serbia],” Thaci said in an interview with VOA’s Albanian Service.

He added that teams from Kosovo and Serbia, as well as representatives from the United States, NATO and the European Union, will work together to “clearly define the border between Kosovo and Serbia.”

His comments follow meetings in Washington with National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo “encouraged Kosovo to seize this unique window of opportunity to reach a historic comprehensive normalization deal with Serbia.”

Bolton tweeted that “the U.S. stands ready to help both parties achieve this historic goal.”

Thaci did not elaborate on what has changed to allow progress after 10 years of tension and apparent stalemate.

​Border change

Neither Bolton’s nor Pompeo’s statements mention border changes, although in August, Bolton was the first senior U.S. official to say that Washington would contemplate the idea if the parties agree to it.

“Our policy, the U.S. policy, is that if the two parties can work it out between themselves and reach agreement, we don’t exclude territorial adjustments. It’s really not for us to say. It’s obviously a difficult issue. If it weren’t, it would have been resolved a long time ago. But we would not stand in the way, and I don’t think anybody in Europe would stand in the way if the two parties to the dispute reached a mutual and satisfactory settlement?” he said back then.

Bolton’s comments came after Thaci and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, floated the idea that could see Serbia getting parts of northern Kosovo with a mostly Serb population, and Kosovo getting parts of Serbia’s Presevo Valley, inhabited mostly by ethnic Albanians.

But neither leader explicitly addressed where the border would be redrawn and have not — at least publicly — put forth a detailed plan. The idea has sparked fierce opposition within their countries.

Thaci said Wednesday that there cannot be mutual recognition without defining borders.

“Everything will have to go through Kosovo’s parliament, whether it is approved or not. Or the other alternative is a referendum. But it is easy to be a skeptic. It is more difficult to take responsibility and do the work. That is why, invite everyone to act together, take responsibility, discuss. We can all agree to it, or we don’t. But if we don’t, we all together pay a price,” Thaci told VOA.

Vucic has rarely spoken about redrawing borders but recently complained that the idea seems to have little support in Serbia.

Western experts have warned that changing borders in the Balkans could destabilize the region.

​Precarious relationship

Flare-ups are common between the two countries. A tariff scuffle is the latest example.

A week ago, Kosovo’s government imposed a tariff of 100 percent on imports of Serbian goods. It was retaliation for Belgrade’s efforts to block Kosovo’s membership in international organizations.

Tariffs were imposed a day after Kosovo failed to become a member of Interpol, widely seen as a result of Serbia’s strong lobbying effort to prevent it.

After meeting Thaci on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Kosovo to “rescind the tariffs placed on imports from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to work with Serbia to avoid provocations and de-escalate tensions.”

Washington seems to be pushing the two countries to normalize their relations. Efforts to reach that goal will test both nations’ leaders and show how high a price Kosovo and Serbia are willing to pay to trade their troubled past for a more prosperous European future.

Huge Pro-government Media Conglomerate Formed in Hungary 

The owners of a vast majority of Hungary’s pro-government media outlets said Wednesday that they were donating their companies to a foundation, creating a huge right-wing media conglomerate. 

 

The Central European Press and Media Foundation’s assets will include cable news channels, internet news portals, tabloid and sports newspapers, all of Hungary’s county newspapers, several radio stations and numerous magazines, among others. Among the brands to be under its control are Hir TV, Echo TV, Origo.hu, Nemzeti Sport, Bors, Magyar Idok and Figyelo. 

 

Most of the publications donated to the foundation were acquired or founded by allies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the past few years. Some of them turned from relatively independent outlets into unabashed supporters of the government, with copious state and government advertising. Since Orban’s return to power in 2010, international studies consider media freedoms to have steadily declined in Hungary. 

 

Agnes Urban, a media analyst at Budapest’s Mertek Media Monitor, said that after the “unprecedented” move “it makes little sense to speak about freedom of the press in Hungary” because of the power the conglomerate will have. 

 

“From now on, there will be total control over the right-wing media close to the government,” Urban said. “These companies were competing with each other for state advertising … but now the system will be much more centralized and it will be much cheaper to operate. 

More difficulty in operating

 

“The few remaining independent media companies will also find it much, much harder to operate, since they will be up against a single, huge competitor,” Urban concluded. 

 

Attila Toth-Szenesi, editor-in-chief of index.hu, which has seen its access to public information and state officials drastically reduced in recent years by the Orban government, said the consolidation of the right-wing media may help advertisers see more clearly where each media outlet belongs. 

 

At the same time, he said, it would simplify having the same centrally edited content in all the publications controlled by the foundation. 

 

“We already saw this happen a couple of years when Lorinc Meszaros took over most of the county newspapers,” Toth-Szenesi said. Meszaros, an Orban friend and former gas fitter who is now considered one of Hungary’s richest people, was among those who donated their media portfolio. 

 

The foundation, or CEMPF, said that one of its goals is to “help the survival of the Hungarian written press culture.” 

 

“In our conviction, this simultaneously serves the interest of readers and the representation of civic values,” the foundation said. 

 

The foundation will be led by Gabor Liszkay, a newspaper publisher known for his loyalty to Orban. 

 

In surveys on media freedom published annually by Freedom House, a Washington-based think tank, Hungary’s score was 23 in 2010 and 44 this year, with zero the best score and 100 the worst. Since 2012, Freedom House has described Hungary’s media status as “partly free.” 

Donated for free

 

The 10 companies that joined the foundation donated their media outlets and publications for free, even though their joint estimated value was possibly $100 million (88 million euros) or more. 

 

“The fact that such valuable firms were practically gifted to the foundation at the same time and in such an obviously coordinated way shows very well how the Orban system works,” said Daniel Pal Renyi, a journalist specializing in media matters at Hungary’s 444.hu news portal. “This demonstrates that the owners did not have real ownership rights, but were carrying out political tasks … and ultimately it’s the political will that gets its way.”