“The fight is the same”: How “Unser Mitteleuropa” is building a network of right-wing media in Europe
They stir up hatred against migration or spread misinformation: Media outlets from eleven European countries are cooperating to increase their influence. They are close to parties like the FPÖ, the AfD or Fratelli d’Italia. At the heart of it all: the website “Unser Mitteleuropa” (Our Central Europe) and a dead Austrian man with contacts to the right-wing extremist scene.
When Peter H. passed away on the third of November 2021, journalists across Europe mourned his death. “Rest in peace”, tweeted Jože Biščak, who was until recently editor-in-chief of the Slovenian magazine Demokracija. As the founder of the multilingual website Unser Mitteleuropa, Peter H. made sure that the “truth about Slovenia” reached “millions” of people in Europe with the help of partner media.
Until his death, Peter H.’s name hardly ever surfaced in public. It was only after obituaries were published in several European media that it became clear how active the 67-year-old Austrian had been. Visegrád Post from Hungary praises Peter H. as an “Austrian patriot”: He was an “important pillar of the editorial staff of our partner Unser Mitteleuropa”, a discreet man who “worked a lot but in an unobtrusive way”. In an emotional article in El Correo de España, the Spanish journalist Álvaro Peñas says how much he owed to Peter H.: He was made part of a project called “European Media Cooperation”, thus allowing him to interview politicians from the AfD or the FPÖ and publish these interviews in several languages.
More than 25 conservative to right-wing extremist websites around Unser Mitteleuropa
Investigations conducted by CORRECTIV.Faktencheck show that the “European Media Cooperation” includes more than 25 websites – from conservative to far-right – and that it has links to several right-wing parties. Examples of partners mentioned there are Compact Magazin and the right-wing American think tank Gatestone Institute. Compact Magazine is under observation by the German domestic intelligence services and was classified as “demonstrably extremist”.
This media cooperation follows a simple principle: Unser Mitteleuropa reproduces and translates their reports and helps them – and itself – to have a larger, international outreach. The site also spreads false information and stirs up hate – and gets hold of exclusive interviews with well-known right-wing politicians, such as the Austrian FPÖ politician Herbert Kickl or the AfD Member of the Bundestag Petr Bystron.
It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, the fight is the same!
The Spanish journalist Álvaro Peñas feels enthusiastic about the idea of this media cooperation: “More and more media companies are working together in this way”, he says in an interview. “It doesn’t matter what country you are from; the fight is the same!”
The website Unser Mitteleuropa, known for publishing disinformation, is at the heart of this cooperation. Its slogan: “United forces for a Europe of homelands”. Peter H. seems to have created the website with friends from Hungary in 2016. The Austrian individual remained in the background all his life, but if you believe the long-time green politician Karl Öllinger, who runs the blog Stoppt die Rechten in Austria, Peter H had “both feet in the swamp of the right-wing extremist camp”. Apparently, he was in contact with several neo-Nazis. In early 2021 he was on trial in Vienna with four members of the neo-Nazi organisation Europäische Aktion. He was the only one who was acquitted of the charge of planning a violent coup – he had provided IT services. More on this later.
Peter H. died shortly thereafter. But the network he helped to build before his death continues to operate.
Since early 2021, Unser Mitteleuropa has reproduced more than 700 articles from other media
The role of Peter H. in the day-to-day business of the editorial department of Unser Mitteleuropa before his death remains unclear. The portal didn’t answer our questions. We found no obituary or even just the name of Peter H. on the website. Only the obituary shared by Demokracija’s Jože Biščak on Twitter, includes mentions by the editorial department. If what is stated by Álvaro Peñas in his obituary can be believed, Peter H. contacted him with the idea for the media cooperation in November 2020.
According to their own statement, the partners of the “European Media Cooperation” represent “patriotic values”. To the outside world, however, they appear to be very different: for example, there are conservative, pro-government newspapers in Hungary, such as Magyar Nemzet. According to our investigation, the first article mentioning the media cooperation was posted on the 14th February 2021 on Unser Mitteleuropa: it was a comment by the owner of the German-language Budapester Zeitung, Jan Mainka, in which he criticizes the consistently negative attitude of Western media towards the government of Viktor Orbán.
The right-wing extremist Compact Magazine regularly publishes texts from Unser Mitteleuropa. However, not all media outlets reproduce articles from other websites or mention the partnership on their own sites. We contacted those where we have no evidence of mutual cooperation on the 14th September. Of 16, only 3 answered. Of these, only the institute Ordo Iuris denies the cooperation, indicating that any medium is allowed to reproduce its “press releases”.
One thing is certain: Unser Mitteleuropa systematically reproduces reports published by the other media and describes these as partners. By means of a data analysis of the website, we found mentions of 27 media in Europe. In 2021, a total of 539 articles published by partner media were reproduced and published in German. In 2022, and until early September, the number was 231. Currently, Unser Mitteleuropa is still promoting joining the European Media Cooperation on its website, but only four new media have been added since the beginning of 2022.
As of September 2022, we counted mentions on Unser Mitteleuropa of three partners in each Germany, France and Slovenia; two in Italy and Poland each; and one in Spain, Croatia, Lithuania, Switzerland and Austria. The Gatestone Institute is the only alleged partner outside of Europe, but from the USA, it is however heavily involved with European issues. CORRECTIV.Faktencheck already reported extensively on the institute in 2019.
The Media Cooperation’s focus is clearly on Hungary: Unser Mitteleuropa states that it has seven partners there. Our data analysis of the articles on Unser Mitteleuropa also shows that Hungary is a dominant subject.
Unser Mitteleuropa was first registered in Hungary – in the name of a right-wing politician
This fits the picture, because the origin of Unser Mitteleuropa is in Hungary. The website was registered in 2016 in the name of the Hungarian politician János Bencsik and a foundation that was headed by him at the time. Until 2020, before he founded his own party, Bencsik was a member of the Jobbik party, originally classified as being far-right. When asked if he co-founded the website and is still involved in it today, Bencsik did not answer.
In the years after 2016, the official ownership of Unser Mitteleuropa changed. For a long time, the legal information on the website indicated an address in Hungary. Briefly, starting in November 2019, the website went silent; articles were only published again as of March 2020. From then on, the legal notice mentioned the name of a Polish association, shortly after joined by a letterbox company in London called News Network Communications Ltd. Its owners – Cornelius R. and Eric Weinhandl – are Austrian, and according to an investigation conducted by Netzpolitik.org, they have links to the FPÖ and the AfD.
Interviews with high-ranking politicians – and their proximity to right-wing parties
The translation of the articles into different languages and their publication in several countries provides partners of the European Media Cooperation with a wider reach. Giving an interview to get more attention can therefore be worthwhile for politicians. According to our investigations, those primarily interviewed are people from the right-wing conservative spectrum.
In June 2022, Unser Mitteleuropa interviewed the AfD member of the Bundestag Petr Bystron. He did not respond to our enquiry as to whether he knew the origins and background of Unser Mitteleuropa.
There is also an interview with Marine Le Pen from the right-wing Rassemblement National (formerly Front National) party in France, taken by Unser Mitteleuropa from its partner Boulevard Voltaire. Boulevard Voltaire is one of the most important right-wing media in France. The website was founded in 2012 by Robert Ménard, former director of Reporters Without Borders. Ménard is currently a right-wing politician and mayor of the city of Béziers. He was reportedly backed by the Front National in the municipal election.
A conversation between the Spanish journalist Álvaro Peñas and Marcin Romanowski, State Secretary at the Ministry of Justice of Poland, distributed in five countries – Spain, Germany, France, Slovenia and Hungary – is also worth mentioning. Peñas also interviewed the then Prime Minister of Slovenia, Janez Janša, for El Correo de España in May 2021. The interview was quoted by the Hungarian newspaper Magyar Hírlap, also supposed to be a partner medium. Later, the politician Janša even shared the obituary of the death of Peter H. on Twitter.
Unser Mitteleuropa reproduces most of the articles from Austrian weekly ZurZeit: more than 100 texts from February 2021 to early September 2022. Here too there is a close link to politics: ZurZeit is published by – among others – the FPÖ politician and former member of the European Parliament Andreas Mölzer. Upon our enquiry, its editorial office informed us via email that the cooperation only existed with Unser Mitteleuropa, but not with the other media. It came about through the personal contact between Mr. Mölzer and Cornelius R. The reason for the cooperation is “to expand the target audience”. Peter H. is not known to them.
Another alleged partner, La Voce del Patriota from Italy, is close to the post-fascist party Fratelli d’Italia. The website has repeatedly defended the party and its leader, Giorgia Meloni, against fact checks conducted by Pagella Politica.
How close is actually the collaboration of the European Media Cooperation?
Only ZurZeit, Ordo Iuris from Poland and 2022 Plus from Hungary answered our enquiries. The operator of the German blog Philosophia Perennis, David Berger, wrote that he does not answer any questions posed by CORRECTIV, out of principle. CORRECTIV has already reported several times about Philosophia Perennis and the misinformation spread there (here and here). Just a few days after our email, Unser Mitteleuropa published an article insinuating that CORRECTIV is conducting a “leftist smear campaign”, quoting Berger’s response. He is a close friend of an employee of Unser Mitteleuropa, it is said therein.
How close the cooperation actually is, tends to vary from medium to medium. The institute Ordo Iuris merely wrote to us: “The portal distributes some of our press releases, just like dozens of other media”. The political orientation of these media is not scrutinized.
The website 2022 Plusz described the cooperation with Unser Mitteleuropa to us as a “one-off event”. Several articles about the “History of the Hungarian Holy Crown” were translated to German, but no texts were reproduced by it. “We are not aware of any recent reproduction of our writings”. Actually, and according to our analysis of the website in 2021, Unser Mitteleuropa reproduced eight reports from 2022 Plusz. Only one of them was about the Holy Crown; the others were, for example, about an initiative in Great Britain to send back illegal immigrants, or a Christian counterdemonstration to “Pride” in Budapest. Another text, reproduced in May 2022, deals with Ukraine’s criticism of Hungary.
Joint exclusive interview with Herbert Kickl
How far the cooperation of some media partners can go is shown by a joint interview in 2021: “FPÖ leader Kickl in an interview with partners in European Media Cooperation”, was the headline in Unser Mitteleuropa.
Journalists from El Correo de España, Vokativ from Croatia, Breizh-Info from France, Centro Machiavelli from Italy, Respublika from Lithuania, Magyar Hírlap from Hungary, Demokracija from Slovenia and ZurZeit from Austria, appear to have submitted joint questions then answered by Herbert Kickl. Upon our enquiry, the editorial office of ZurZeit said that questions had been formulated in writing and then selected by Unser Mitteleuropa.
We asked Kickl how this interview came about and who asked him the questions. We received no answer.
Trial against the Europäische Aktion in Vienna: Peter H. appeared before a court with neo-Nazis in 2021
The investigation conducted by Netzpolitik.org in early 2021 showed that Unser Mitteleuropa is close to the FPÖ. Our analysis of the activities of the European Media Cooperation supports this.
But the role apparently played by Peter H. is new. Peter H. was part of the right-wing extremist scene in Austria. He was charged in the trial of the Europäische Aktion (EA), a neo-Nazi organisation active in Switzerland, Austria and Germany. According to the federal government, it had been watched by the German domestic intelligence services since it was founded in 2010, because several Holocaust deniers were part of it. In 2017, raids were carried out against the EA in Germany. Among other things, it was suspected of having organised paramilitary camps.
The trial took place in Vienna, in February 2021. In addition to Peter H., four other people were accused of violating the National Socialism Prohibition Act and preparing to commit high treason. Supposedly, the goal of the EA was a violent coup d’état in Austria and the murdering of politicians. To this end, they also met with members of the right-wing extremist organisation Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal in Hungary, holding joint events.
The IT expert Peter H. is acquitted
Peter H. was the only one of the people on trial who was acquitted by the jury on both counts. According to a report by the Standard, he said in his plea that his IT skills were not used to support the Europäische Aktion. There is no elaboration on the judgment; a spokeswoman for Vienna’s regional court for criminal matters told us via email that jury members do not have to submit one.
Karl Öllinger, who runs the blog Stoppt die Rechten, followed the 2021 proceedings. He tells us that during the trial, Peter H. was described by his defence barrister as a kind of “hermit”. He had followed law, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic studies without obtaining a degree. Öllinger, the Standard and the Initiative Prozess-Report coincide that Peter H. is considered to have set up websites for Europäische Aktion and the Austrian neo-Nazi Gerd Honsik. He also worked for Stefan Magnet, the operator of the right-wing websites Info-Direkt und Auf1. According to Prozess-Report, Peter H. was also accused of having translated to German parts of the novel “The Brigade” by the American neo-Nazi Harold Covington.
The trial reports also consistently mention Peter H.’s activity for the Freiheitliches Bildungsinstitut (Liberal Education Institute) of the FPÖ party. This was denied by a spokeswoman for the Bildungsinstitut via an email sent to us.
According to Öllinger’s report, Peter H. said that he had founded Unser Mitteleuropa with Hungarian friends. This matches the numerous obituaries published after his death.
Inflaming reports about migration, LGBT or the coronavirus pandemic
In the summer of 2021, the Croatian website Vokativ joined the European Media Cooperation. It announced in an article that it would “work to increase the visibility of Croatian authors and its cultural heritage at the European level” and introduce “new European cultural and political practices” to Croatian readers. An analysis of the reports that were reproduced as part of the cooperation with Unser Mitteleuropa however shows that this work does not always revolve around harmles cultural exchanges.
An analysis of the subject categories that Unser Mitteleuropa has used for the texts reproduced since February 2021 shows that they often deal with topics such as “Coronavirus”, “LGBT” or “Islam”. A text reproduced from Compact Magazine, for example, is entitled “Excitement for gender lunatics: biologist knows only two genders”. In another article from the Austrian medium ZurZeit it is said that a possible ban on “LGBTQ advertising” in Russia is “not wrongly” seen by the country as a “fight against so-called Western values, in which Moscow also includes the glorification of non-traditional sexual relationships”.
Texts on the subject of “Islam” have titles such as “France 2022: Renewed debate about burkinis and civil war on the doorstep” (from Boulevard Voltaire). Several reports reproduced by French media deal with the “Great Exchange” – a conspiracy theory according to which migration is supposed to serve primarily to replace the white population in Europe.
Unser Mitteleuropa spreads conspiracy myths and preconceptions
Unser Mitteleuropa has spread various viral misinformation, especially about the coronavirus vaccinations (see our fact checks here and here). The image of billionaire George Soros as an enemy, with serious anti-Semitic characteristics, is also readily reinforced there. It is also particularly widespread in Hungary. On Unser Mitteleuropa, Soros is accused, among other things, of manipulating the U.S. Secretary of State, funding “aggressive LGBTQ children propaganda” or interfering in elections.
With such conspiracy myths and sometimes radical language, Unser Mitteleuropa plays on the range of topics of the right wing. Its network of European Media Cooperation encourages prejudices and divisions.
Until a year and a half ago, Unser Mitteleuropa was an online medium with dubious people behind it, whose articles only occasionally achieved greater outreach in the German-speaking world. The actual significance of the influence of the network is difficult to judge. If what it says is to be believed, it reaches “millions”. Maybe it is more illusion than reality. But one thing is certain: Since early 2021, a parallel cosmos of media has been built up around this website – with the aim of bringing their political messages to as large a part of the European population as possible.
Data analysis and interactive graphics: Max Donheiser, Kajsa Rosenblad
Editing: Uschi Jonas, Matthias Bau
This article was originally published in German on September 21st, 2022.
Transparency note: Alice Echtermann did an internship abroad at the Budapester Zeitung as part of her studies from September to December 2013.