Editorial: The central bank censor

History

Gradually settling into its new role as overseer of the financial markets, the central bank tried its jurisdiction in a different field and clamped down on the media: The Napi Gazdaság business paper and its website were fined a combined a HUF 6 million for an article laying out the possibility that the Norwegian oil fund is contemplating the sale of its shares in Hungarian energy group MOL in response to the ongoing controversy around company boss Zsolt Hernádi and allegations he made bribes to acquire a controlling stake in MOL’s Croatian peer INA.

Understandably, market participants reacted adversely to the prospect and MOL’s share prices took a hit. György Matolcsy’s central bank deemed that the media outlet was to blame, because the piece took facts, combined them with the state of present affairs and made a grounded projection for the future.

The MNB’s ruling itself says that “the factual statements are genuine, the central bank found no evidence about the falsehood of the information contained”. So far, so good. But then it goes on to say that “the article mostly focused on the most extreme scenario that could affect MOL’s share market”, thus warranting the fine.

What this boils down to is the fact that the market regulator penalized a media outlet for doing its job, which is providing its readers with information for their needs and investments and yes, analysis on possible outcomes they may have to prepare for.

The editor-in-chief’s perhaps all too muted response rightfully asks whether a government official comparing Hungary to Greece and sending asset tumbling should also have his words withheld from the public, because they are too troubling.

But let’s take this line of thought further. Shouldn’t the regulator also penalize government officials who constantly caused major forint devaluations by floating the idea of getting a safety net from international lenders, even though they clearly had no intention of actually doing so?

Shouldn’t the finance market regulator also protect the interests of Hungarians who saw their foreign currency debts increase because of market tampering? Shouldn’t citizens who will have to pay for the 11% government bond yields that came from the same statements receive some gratification? The list can be as long and as arbitrary as it suits one’s taste.

This is the second recent drive in the Orbán establishment to limit the liberties of the press, the first being a law that could potentially bring prison sentences for individuals and outlets found to make slanderous contents public.

This interpretation of the central bank’s role as having arbitrary jurisdiction for tossing out fines for pieces that are made and should be made every day is deeply concerning for the media in general. Especially so for the segment where the Budapest Business Journal and its peers operate, since by the very nature of what we do and what our readers expect and rightfully demand of us, we have to look behind facades, read between the lines and analyze what we see rather than just follow the prompter.

We can only hope that the fine was an unfortunate misjudgment of a regulator’s role and that the state isn’t actually trying to take away the reporting freedom of business journalists.

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