Euronews defends its independence after the takeover by a company linked to Hungary – POLITICO

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Euronews said there was no risk to its editorial independence after it was announced that it was acquired by a Portuguese venture capital firm that has close family ties to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and close ties to the surrounding business ecosystem.

Alpac Capital’s links with Hungary became such a hot topic of discussion that even Orbán himself loomed large in the fray on Tuesday, downplaying any suggestion of political interference in the multilingual broadcaster and joking that his Fidesz party had no intention of forging an “empire global “.

Pan-European TV broadcaster on Friday announced that fund manager Alpac Capital had signed an agreement to acquire the 88 percent of Euronews shares held by Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris.

Sensitivity around the acquisition centers on Orbán’s close ties to Mário David, a former legislator in the European Parliament and father of the CEO of Alpac. The Portuguese investment company has an office in Budapest, received capital from large Hungarian companies and Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó helped promote the launch of an Alpac fund for regional investments in 2017.

Asked about Alpac Capital’s relationship with Hungary, Euronews chief executive Michael Peters told POLITICO that although the company’s CEO and managing partner, Pedro Vargas David, has “financial relationships,” he is “100% certain that its financial projects will never interfere with Euronews”.

“I have every guarantee of editorial independence,” said Peters.

Peters’ comments were supported by several Euronews employees, who told POLITICO they were confident the new owner would not infringe on editorial independence once the deal is finalized next year.

However, as part of the change in ownership, Euronews’ independent editorial board will now include three people handpicked by Alpac, Peters confirmed.

Orban connections

A member of the broadcaster’s staff, once touted as Europe’s response to CNN, told POLITICO that Pedro Vargas David recently spoke to employees at the Lyon-based company in a meeting coordinated by the representative body of French personnel, the Social and Economic Committee (CSE), where he assured that “there was no intention to interfere on the editorial level”.

POLITICO was unable to reach David directly.

A spokesperson for Alpac said in an emailed statement that “any concerns about a possible impact on Euronews editorial freedom are unfounded” and that during his meeting with employees, David “said its commitment to Europe and to the fundamental principles of the union such as democracy and freedom. There will be no confusion of roles between the boss and the editorial staff. ”

“We decided to invest in Euronews because we believe in its enormous potential and consider it to be an undervalued asset,” said the spokesperson.

But despite assurances from Alpac, there is currently an “internal debate” among employees about the impact of the acquisition, a Euronews staff member said.

This internal debate stems from a long history of interactions between Alpac Capital and Hungary.

The company has an office in Budapest and has received funding in the past from the Hungarian official export credit agency, EXIM, the Hungarian energy company MOL and the Hungarian bank OTP.

The three Hungarian companies said they were not involved in Euronews’ investment. They did, however, finance Alpac’s “East West” venture capital fund, which, according to the company’s website, “invests in SMEs in Hungary, Portugal and neighboring countries with development potential. “

Hungarian Foreign Minister Szijjártó himself attended a 2017 an event alongside Alpac CEO David where the investments were announced.

Alpac Capital has also collaborated with 4iG, a Hungarian technology company. The company is closely associated with the ruling Fidesz party: LÅ‘rinc Mészáros, a close childhood friend of Orbán, had a stake and the company received most of his income of the Hungarian state last year. David d’Alpac is a member of the 4iG card.

“Our collaboration with Alpac Capital is essential to 4iG’s growth strategy,” said Gellért Jászai, CEO of 4iG, who previously worked for other Mészáros holdings, noted earlier this year.

The CEO also has a family connection with Hungarian decision-makers.

Even as Hungarian state-owned companies invested in Alpac, David’s father, Mário David, served as advisor to Orbán.

A former member of the European Parliament of the Portuguese Social Democratic Party, the eldest David befriended Orbán in the early 1990s and, in the 2010s, was a staunch supporter of Hungarian Fidesz within the Party. popular center-right European.

In 2016, Orbán personally present David with a state award “as a true friend” of the country and the former Portuguese MEP traveled abroad alongside the Hungarian leader. For example, in 2018 he accompanied Orbán to Austria and in 2019 he was part of the official Hungarian delegation during the Hungarian leader’s visit to Cape Verde.

In a 2018 interview with the Portuguese Expresso, the ex-MEP said his work for the Hungarian leader was “pro bono”.

Despite high-level denials of any interference, Alpac Capital’s ties to Hungarian leaders drew more skeptical comments from a number of observers in Brussels and Budapest.

Ágnes Urbán, director of think-tank Mertek Media Monitor, said that under the new owner Euronews could be operated as a “pseudo-independent” media outpost of the Hungarian government, where it maintains a semblance of independence, but takes a less critical ”towards Hungary and other so-called illiberal democracies.

“There is no case justification for this acquisition, ”added Urbán, comparing the acquisition to the rationale for creating the Hungarian Foundation for Press and Media in Central Europe (KESMA), a pro-Orbán entity that controls around 500 media organizations.

Like KESMA, the planned takeover of Euronews “is a political investment,” Urbán said.

While in Hungary the ruling Fidesz party indirectly controls large swathes of the media landscape, in recent years businessmen linked to the Hungarian government have started to invest in the media outside the country’s borders.

In Slovenia, individuals and companies linked to Fidesz have invested in the media favorable to Orbán’s ally, Janez JanÅ¡a, the country’s Prime Minister. Hungarian investors also bought several media outlets in North Macedonia.

Meanwhile, Orbán’s devotees have made forays into the English-language news with an internet portal called V4NA, which features far-right anti-migration content. In addition, a Hungarian foundation which receives significant public funding also provides funds for Remix news, an English-language website that often promotes Orbán’s political messages.

“Viktor Orbán is used to acquiring media and then influencing their editorial agenda,” said German Green MEP Daniel Freund.. “The acquisition of Euronews by a [company] with direct links to the Hungarian Prime Minister’s office is worrying. This should in no way have an impact on reporting on developments in Hungary, ”he added.

Commission oversight

For the European Commission in Brussels, which has long adopted an antagonistic position vis-à-vis Orbán’s media operations, the takeover of Euronews is not without risks.

The EU executive, which also plays a role in funding Euronews, said this week that it is closely following developments, “to ensure that any changes in company management or workflows editorials do not affect our contractual provisions “.

The Commission has a three-year framework partnership agreement with the Lyon-based broadcaster, which runs until the end of 2023. The agreement does not contain any direct funding obligations but allows the Commission to sign specific financing contracts.

In November, 16 million euros of these contracts were signed. As part of the deal, Euronews was to provide information on its editorial omissions and programming priorities, among other measures, a Commission spokesperson said.

However, the Commission has also said that relations with Euronews can be “severed” on the basis of certain conditions, including evidence of a lack of editorial independence.

“But at the moment, we believe that there is no reason to believe that Euronews is in breach of our contract. The last performance audit was reassuring, ”said the spokesperson.

Asked a press conference Tuesday while the acquisition of Euronews constitutes a form of Fidesz influence on the media, Orbán admitted that he had known Mário David well from their time as vice-presidents of the European People’s Party and noted that they occupied both currently hold leadership positions with Centriste Democrat International, a Christian Democrat organization.

“It’s all and nothing more,” he said.

Paul Ames contributed reporting.

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