25th Oct 2016

EU hesitant on Hungary newspaper closure

The EU can do little to safeguard media pluralism in member states, even as Hungary's largest newspaper remains shut down for a second day.

Hungary's largest daily newspaper, Nepszabadsag, unexpectedly halted its print and online editions on Saturday (8 October).

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Its owner, Mediaworks, cited economic losses as reason for the move, but journalists, civil rights groups and opposition parties suspect interference by prime minister Viktor Orban's government, whose Fidesz party had been the target of Nepszabadsag investigations.

The European Commission said on Monday (10 October) it was "concerned about the suspension” and that it was “following the issue closely”.

But a spokesperson said that even if it found foul play, there was little it could do.

"Our role has to be within our competencies," the spokesperson said, highlighting that the EU had no legislation on print media.

"It is mainly up for member states to protect media freedom and pluralism within their country," the spokesperson said.

According to one commission source familiar with the issue, the EU executive is trying to establish what happened at Nepszabadsag.

However, the source said, there was little chance for action without political will from the European Commission, especially from Gunther Oettinger, the German commissioner responsible for media.

First reactions from the European Parliament also sounded hesitant.

The Socialist group put out a strong statement on Saturday condemning the closure of Nepszabadsag, while liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt tweeted: "With its current policies, Hungary would not have been allowed to join EU in 2004. This has to stop."

A source close to the Socialist group told this website that they would "surely do something" about Nepszabadsag, but did not know which method to use.

Another Socialist source said: “It would surprising if anything concrete would come up."

The source said that several previous EP resolutions on rule of law and media pluralism have not prompted any changes in the policies of the Hungarian government, but have in fact boosted Orban's popularity.

Sources from the centre-right EPP group said the suspension of Nepszabadsag publication was clearly an economic issue and had nothing to do with Orban.

They also rebuked the idea that the EPP should re-examine Orban's membership in the group.

But Pedro Lopez de Pablo, a spokesperson of the group, told this website, "it is regrettable" that Nepszabadsag closed, "no matter if they were against or for Orban".

"One newspaper less means one less opportunity for freedom of speech," he said.

Work still stalled

Nepszabadsag journalists attempted for a second time to access their offices on Monday, but in vain.

The management of Mediaworks postponed the agreed negotiations with the paper's editor-in-chief citing illnesses.

Nepszabadsag journalists continued work, posting some stories on Facebook, and symbolically offering to buy the brand for €1.

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