25th Oct 2016

Journalists furious as Hungary's largest newspaper closes

Hungary's largest daily newspaper was unexpectedly shut down on Saturday (8 October), fuelling concerns over a government crackdown on critical media.

Nepszabadsag was not printed on Monday and the website was replaced on Saturday by a statement from the owner, Mediaworks, saying it needed to "reshape the business model".

The paper has lost 74 percent of its sold circulation in the past 10 years, and according to the statement it "has generated a considerable net loss".

But employees, civil rights groups and opposition parties suspect pressure from the government and say it is an another attempt by prime minister Viktor Orban to silence critical voices and fully dominate the media landscape.

Hungary's leading left-leaning newspaper has recently uncovered corruption cases in the heart of Orban's circle, regarding the central bank chief and lavish trips by a top MP from Orban's Fidesz party.

Nepszabadsag journalists called the move a "coup". They found out from other media sources on Saturday morning that their newspaper was shut down.

Several of them told EUobserver that they received a letter from the owner, delivered later in the day, that informed them about the move.

No market forces

"This is not an economic decision, every print newspaper is struggling, this is a worldwide problem. I am still in shock," Anita Komuves, a journalist at the paper told this website.

Journalists argue that the media landscape in Hungary is not based on market forces, but political decisions.

"Mediaworks argues that the paper has been making losses since 2007, so why did they invest in it in 2014, they must have seen some potential in it," Marton Gergely, deputy editor-in-chief, told this website, contesting the owner's reasoning for closure.

"The stories we have uncovered recently have made headlines everywhere, except the Fidesz-friendly media. They couldn't silence us, so they closed us down."

Another journalist, who did not want to be named, said: "The goal of the government is to deprive the public of the information that they cannot control."

According to Nepszabadsag journalists, Mediaworks management rebuffed in early September industry gossip that they were about to sell the newspaper.

Mediaworks, which is owned by an Austrian investor, Vienna Capital Partners (VCP), said it was in talks with the newspaper's editors, and asked them to present a viable business plan for the paper.

"This is nonsense, how are journalists are expected to draw up a business plan, as we don't even know the real financial numbers," a journalist told this website.

Mediaworks bought Nepszabadsag shares in 2014 and took full control in 2015.

Nepszabadsag was founded in 1956 as the ruling Communist Party's mouthpiece. After the transition in 1989, it was owned by an subsidiary of Germany's Bertelsmann, and later the Swiss Ringier publishing company.

The Hungarian Socialist Party’s press foundation sold its 27.6 percent share in the paper to Mediaworks in 2015, making the new company's ownership share total.

Nepszabadsag has been in dire financial situation for years, and underwent several cuts in staff and salaries.

Ever since the Mediaworks took over, Hungary's media industry has been ripe with speculation that the company's real purpose was to sell the paper to a government-friendly investor, gutting the critical tone and investigations of the paper.

The suspension of Nepszabadsag comes as Hungary's media landscape undergoes massive reorganisation, that has already sparked concern over press freedom.

Hungary is ranked by Freedom House among the lowest for press freedom in the EU.

High time

The far-right Jobbik opposition party blamed Orban for the closure, saying the ruling Fidesz wanted to control the entire Hungarian media. The Socialist Party also condemned the decision and said that "Hungary cannot continue on this path".

Fidesz also put out a statement saying it was a "reasonable economic decision" to suspend the publication of Nepszabadsag.

"The breach of media freedom would be if we would interfere with the decision of a publisher," the party said.

One of its vice-presidents, Szilard Nemeth, told HirTV television, "it was high time for Nepszabadsag to close down".

A Hungarian government spokesperson told the MTI news agency that the cabinet treated this as a financial decision, and that it did not want to interfere with the decision of Mediaworks.

A few thousand people gathered on Saturday evening in front of the parliament in Budapest to protest the apparent death of the 60-year old newspaper and support freedom of the press.

On Sunday afternoon, journalists showed up at their offices to attempt to work. The doors to the offices were locked, but the senior editors were allowed in for discussions with the publisher, local media reported.

Discussions failed and on Sunday evening, the staff said in a statement that they were disappointed that the owner would not publish the paper or the online edition.

"It would have been in the basic economic interest of the owner of the publisher and its newsroom as well," they said, adding that they were open to further negotiations.

"The newsroom is united and wants to continue working together. Our aim is to maintain press freedom in Hungary, which is essential for democracy. We will resist any economic or political pressure that undermines it," the statement said.

Several opinion articles published in both left and right-leaning Hungarian media publications expressed solidarity with Nepszabadsag, as did Poland's daily Gazety Wyborcza and Slovakia's Dennik N.

Dunja Mijatovic, media freedom representative for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told AP that she did not think economics was the real reason behind the closure.

"It's hard to believe this is just a simple business move. All this to me looks like something that's definitely further damaging media freedom in Hungary," she said.

No official reaction has come from the EU.

Only Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, posted a message on his personal Twitter account: "Sudden closure of Napszabadsag sets a worrying precedent. I stand in solidarity with Hungarians protesting today."

Our reporter was a journalist at Nepszabadsag between 2004 and 2014.

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