Ugly side of corruption still sensitive
Investigative journalist Irén Kármán needed emergency surgery to stem potentially fatal internal bleeding after being found beaten up on the banks of the
The incident is not only grounds for serious concern over press freedom in
About 100 journalists held a silent protest outside Szent János hospital on 25 June, and OSCE representative on freedom of the media Miklós Haraszti called for a serious investigation into the case. The case raises questions about the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in
Kármán said that the two men who attacked her did not give any reasons for the attack. She told MTI last Tuesday that she would not be voicing any suspicions about possible attackers until she has recovered fully. “I am a mother, a filmmaker, and a journalist. Now my only job is to get better, and after that continue my work.” Others, however, have begun to speculate.
Ferenc Labancz, a former police officer and one-time captain in the “Cattani Squadron”, a “crack” investigative police unit formed in 1991 and disbanded after eight months, did however identify a potential culprit. He appeared on commercial television channel TV2 last week claiming that the attack on Kármán had all the hallmarks of a police beating. The rebuttal was swift, with a statement appearing on the police website: “The police force denies this accusation. Neither the victim’s statement, nor any information gathered in the course of the investigation so far would indicate that any active or former member of the police force was involved in the planning or execution of this crime.”
Labancz has become something of a rent-a-quote in recent years, and his vague accusations of wrongdoing were widely quoted following the “Zsanett” police rape case. On 23 June he was in the media claiming to know who was behind the 1998 shooting in a
Another former cop with direct links to the oil mafia case is István “Papa” Sándor. The former head of the investigation into oil mafia crime figured prominently in Kármán’s documentary film about the oil scam Facing the Mafia. Sándor has been a vocal commentator over the years on the Hungarian justice system and police force. He told Népszabadság that the beating might have been a message to Tamás Portik, the erstwhile CEO and owner of Energol, a company deeply involved in the “oil bleaching” scandal in the nineties. In an interview that index.hu published last week, Kármán admitted that she had had a relationship with Portik. Portik himself was under suspicion, but proceedings against him ended when a statute of limitation expired in 2003.
Numerous friends and collaborators of Kármán have said in interviews since the attack that they had warned her of the danger she was putting herself in. Sándor said he could reveal more information about the oil scam himself, but was afraid: “Tomorrow my car could be blown sky high if I talk.”
In an interview used in Kármán’s documentary, Sándor said: “The little men dare not talk because they would simply be physically destroyed. They [the oil mafia] come over, tear homes apart, set fire to cars, or smash windows… Fear is king.”
Bandwagon jumping & playground politics
It is difficult to imagine that a crime wave of such scale and duration could have gone on for so long without people at all levels of administration – from the police and border guards right up to government itself – either colluding or at least turning a blind eye. That is certainly what Kármán believes. She wants no sympathy from politicians.
Hungarian politicians of all stripes were quick to condemn the attack, with each party keen to cast itself in the role of crusader. On the Sunday following the attack, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány asked newly appointed Police Chief József Bencze to personally monitor the investigation. Bencze was head of the customs agency VPOP until his recent appointment as police chief.
At the same time, Fidesz called for an immediate and comprehensive investigation, and at a press conference on 25 June, spokesman Péter Szijjártó said the investigation must also look into the possible role of the National Security Office (NBH), which he said had closely followed Kármán’s activities. The NBH promptly denied that it had been keeping Kármán under surveillance. Leader of minority conservative opposition party the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), Ibolya Dávid, called for the documents relating to the 2000 Parliamentary Oil Committee investigation into the oil mafia’s crimes to be declassified.
Kármán’s reaction was a blog entry dictated from her hospital bed. Under the heading “hinta palinta politika” – “political swings and roundabouts” – she said that both the MDF and Fidesz played significant parts in making the work of László Pallag and the investigative Oil Committee impossible in 2000, when Fidesz was governing. “I do not want any of this hypocritical solidarity – that is just what I am fighting against,” she said.
She noted that her documentary film reveals that the MDF (in government from 1990 to 1994) had been warned that the differential pricing of heating oil and diesel was not a good idea.
It is the government’s responsibility, she added, “to rid us of those politicians whose names were revealed during the investigations into the oil bleaching crimes.”
The government moves
The government minister responsible for the secret services, György Szilvásy, announced last Wednesday morning that a government working group would meet the following day to review the classified documents – running to some 80,000 pages – relating to the oil mafia investigations. They are currently sealed for 85 years.
Szilvásy said it is not in the government’s interests to keep the files secret, and acknowledged that some of the documents should never have been classified. They were, he made a point of emphasising, suppressed during the Fidesz government headed by Viktor Orbán. The review could take weeks or months, and declassifying the documents, said Szilvásy, will not automatically lead to them being made public. This suggests that any possible review could, like the original hearings, take place behind closed doors.
The opposition retorts, accuses PM
This is precisely what centre-right opposition party Fidesz appears to believe is happening. MP Ervin Demeter tried to initiate an independent expert committee to review the classified Oil Committee documents. Parliamentary Speaker Katalin Szili said last Thursday – the day Szilvásy’s team got to work on the files – that it was outside her powers to set up such a committee. Demeter, who was secret services minister in the Fidesz government of 1998-2002, went further in suggesting that PM Gyurcsány might himself have something to hide. He said that a company in which Gyurcsány held a stake between 1995 and 1997 could have been involved in the oil bleaching scams of the 1990s.
At that time, Gyurcsány was a member of the supervisory board of Fortus, a company linked to oil company ETL. The customs office, VPOP, examined the activity of Fortus after proceedings were launched against ETL, said Demeter. A VPOP spokesman, Jen? Sípos, said that the inquiry had uncovered no evidence of illegal activity by Fortus. Spokeswoman for the MSZP, Bernadett Budai, dismissed the tactics of Fidesz as mere mudslinging.
How much things have changed
A couple of weeks ago, a different investigative journalist told this newspaper that, although
A few reporters are doing the work that independent institutions (the security services, financial watchdogs, etc.) should be doing – and doing it without the backing of those institutions, they are placing themselves, it now appears, in jeopardy. A series of recent high-profile cases of police corruption have greatly damaged public trust in the forces of law and order – which was low enough already. Petty corruption – despite what statistics and politicians might say – is still a fact of life to which most citizens in
The culprits in the Kármán attack probably believe themselves above the law. The HUF 5 million reward offered by the police for information leading to the capture of Kármán’s assailants can be seen as either blind optimism or simply PR – an effort to show that the case is being taken seriously. In a piece written immediately after he received the news of Kármán’s kidnapping and assault, journalist Pál Léderer described his first thoughts in Népszabadság: “This cannot be true! To take it out on a delicate lady who only ever fought with film and words. What kind of world is this? This is not a banana republic… Or is it?”