Where has all the joy gone? Drucken

Where has all the joy gone?

János Berényi,
Director of the Hungarian Press Union

Ladies and Gentleman,

In the name of the Hungarian Press Union I welcome the attendants of the conference. Our union, which mainly deals with the issues of the printed media regards the topics of the conference really important, as we have gone through what most journalist of the region have also experienced; we are over the times of illusionary expectations.

The privatization of the Hungarian media happened almost simultaneously with the change of the political regime. (It started in the late 80s. It is not by chance that our union, which was financially supported from only the membership fees, was founded on the 31st, May, 1989.)

In the first phase the 'political party' newspapers were privatized. In the past political structure there was one central party newspaper (Népszabadság), but local party comittees published daily newspapers in every county. The Axel Springer managed to get hold of 6 local newspapers within a week, the negotiations were lead (led) by the economists of the Hungarian Socialist Party. Naturally, it was much debated in the Hungarian media, because this was the very first privatization and many colleagues were involved in it.

The Union thought the main question was how the colleagues considered the new owners. Interestingly enough, the majority of the employees welcomed the privatization as they were expecting higher wages and thought that the well known professional capacity of Axel Springer would help the press to a higher level of professionalism. First they were surprised at seeing the Axel Springer had not changed the management of the newspapers, and the second surprise was when they realized that although the wages were risen with 30 percent, the requirements had risen with a lot more than that. Therefore it was not surprising that colleagues who were not really for the trade union of any kind, seeked help, and advice at the union.

At the 'party' newspapers the unionism was quite strong, the publisher contacted us, and together we made and signed the 'Collective Labor Contract' as a framework contract, which had to be amended and customized by each editorial office. The latter amendment contained the local regulation of the bonuses the overtime-payment and other compensations. Despite the stormy start, we had the best work-relationship with Axel Springer. We considered the relationship really important as we thought it could be a model for future owners and employees of the Hungarian media.

Being informed pays well

The privatization of the best selling Hungarian daily newspaper (Népszabadság), formerly owned by the Socialist Party, took a slightly different route. This was bought by the Gruner and Jahr, member of the Bertelsman. During the long negotiations the employees', and mainly the journalists' needs were in the foreground. From the HUF 340 million listed capital of the company, the editorial collective were given HUF 1 (point).4 million. This rather privileged situation of the Népszabadság-colleagues was the result of the things: firstly, being the best selling national newspaper was a value for the new owners, secondly with the help of the IFJ (The Hungarian Press Union were the first Hungarian member in this international trade union, based in Brussels) we managed to get a copy of the collective labor contract which were valid at the Bertelsman-Gruner und Jahn then, which helped the Hungarian employees to get prepared before the negotiations. All this promoted the most favourable collective contracts with the highest wages is still at Népszabadség, although it has changed the ownership( now it belongs to Ringier).

All the local newspapers were bought by foreign investors. French, English, and Austrian companies appeared on the scene with less capital but with a more aggressive attitude. Sometimes the employees' needs were not considered at all, and the new owners refused both the idea of the collective labor contract and the cooperation with the union. For example the WAZ group had ownership at many Western Hungarian papers (ex-'party' newspapers) and they neglected the employees' demand so much, they were close to go on strike. Bettina Peters, the former deputy secretary of IFJ visited the place. The strike did not succeed, as the editorials of the four big newspapers did not act upon agreement, and one of the four signed the amended contact and so the three followed them. The labor issue that almost ended up in a strike were the terms of the work contract.

Double employment with no protection of interests

The WAZ group considered the social insurance and other contributions too high and they made work-contract (entrepreneurial contract) with their own employees. The contribution to be paid after the wages were over 55 percent, but thus the employees founded companies through which invoicing could happen and which had to pay the contributions. The employee was given the lowest possible wage after which the WAZ paid the contributions. The remaining of his total wage was invoiced and received through his own company and he himself paid the contributions. This model, although quite advantageous for the employee in the short run caused the debate. Can it be forced on everybody? Or those who stick to their previous full employment could remain?

At this point we must note that this form of employment has become widespread in the Hungarian media. The major publishers followed the model as the excessive 55% of contributions had put the publisher in an unfavorable economic situation. But this damaged unionism very much. First of all, the membership fee of our union was 1 % of the wages, which were reduced to the minimum, approximately to 300 DM then, so Union could expect 3DM as membership fee.

The work contract which our colleagues signed with the employers were handled separately as the colleagues regarded it something not full-time for which they were not willing to pay membership fee. Moreover, being entrepreneur and owner of any company (Ltd., for example) he could not be protected by the union at all.

So we ended up in a nasty situation where we had to manage a national trade union on a 3DM- membership fee, pay for the lawyers, care about the social provision, holidays, and so on. The Hungarian Press Union became tied up into 'financial' knots, but the moral damage was not less, either.

There was one thing the employees and employers agreed on: they were both cheating with the tax and contributions, as the employer could refund some money to the employee in compensation of the minimum wages Probably, cheating together is a stronger tie that anything between the trade union and the employee.

We must emphasize that not the case of only one publisher, but most of the Hungarian media is characterized by the above described situation, and WAZ was only mentioned as the conflict was pretty acute there.

The Press and its Legal Environment

The major source of conflicts that the political parties, who took part in the regime -change and the Parliament could not reach consensus about the press law(s).

Most of the effective laws date back to the old regime. They have been working on these changes for years now, and the last draft, which the Press Union received in order to report on, offers 2 versions. Version No.1 should found a National Media Committee, where no politicians could be a board member, but honorable and respected professionals should be invited as members. (Interestingly enough according to this proposal none of the four bigger press unions could be delegated, but the National Union of Writers, and the National Opera Hall could be delegated both....) Version No. 2 tells that the Parliament should vote the members of the National Media Committee with 2/3 (two thirds) majority and with the recommendation of an ad hoc committee.

The problems seemed to be quite similar in case of other, smaller magazines, the only difference was that the smaller the magazine was, the lesser considered the employees' needs were.

Privatizations and Freedom of the Press

Mainly the ex 'party'-newspapers had great expectations about the freedom which should arrive with the new owners, and there really was a significant change. The foreign owners tried to remain neutral in the parties' political skirmish. (We know about an editor in chief who was dismissed due to his excessive political side-taking.)

The owners made it clear that their only concern was to raise the profits, especially as the costs of the privatization were covered by the profit the newspapers produced. Both the employee's rights and the freedom of the press are in worse condition at the smaller, Hungarian-owned newspapers. Out of the two Hungarian-owned national daily newspapers one is considered right-wing, whereas the other left-wing. Naturally, this cannot be read (red) in none of the headpieces, they both sell themselves as independent papers, but the Hungarian readers do distinguish them. At this point we must remark, that none of the two have operating unionism. But the local, small, autonomous papers suffer from the worst conditions. They are financially supported by the local or district municipalities, and their slightest criticism is enough to dismiss the editor-in-chief.

Despite all, we can say that privatization has helped the freedom of the press to a great extent. The never-ending conflict of the Hungarian media is originated in an inner crisis. The former regime clearly articulated that 'the journalist is the party's soldier', but then came the change of regime and political parties, but most journalist did not change but remained the party's soldiers, only he himself chose the party where he wanted to belong. It can a bit of exaggeration, but whereas the old regime recruited the soldiers, in the new regime journalists volunteered the service. The distorted attitude was formed by two factors. Firstly, the feeling of belonging is stronger in journalists that it should be, even some think that they could not survive without political background. Secondly, Hungarian journalism took a major part in the change of political regime. The fact has already been proved that negotiations between the goverment and the fresh maverick groups were published did have a mobilizing force. While reporting about the political facts, events, they promoted themselves to be maker of these events. Thus, the media-was was aggravated by the role-confusion of media employees.

Before we know where we are – in the EU

The next challenge for the Hungarian media society is the EU accession. On the one hand, we must recover the leeway that was caused by serious information insufficiency, on the other hand the wages must be leveled somehow. The foreign owners have impeded with all their force that Hungarian employees should have information how much is given to a French, German, Finnish, or English colleague with the same responsibilities.

Of course, only a corrected comparison can help, as the wages and economic conditions differ a lot in the developed and the developing countries of the EU. Nevertheless we must emphasize that there must be a leveling concerning these issues - as it has happened in some cases, Hungary has bankers, and top managers...- that the Hungarian wages must not fall behind their Western European colleagues'. This can be, of course, only a longer process which will naturally bring along some other changes: the employers' requirements will rise and some workplaces will close down.