Opimus Group has bought Mediaworks, publisher of the recently suspended left-wing Hungarian daily Nepszabadsag, the listed purchaser announced in a market filing on the Budapest Stock Exchange's website on October 25. The buyer appears to have close ties to Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
There had been speculation since the start of the year that Mediaworks could be sold to figures close to the government. Although the Austrian-owner of the company claimed economic issues drove the decision to suspend Nepszabadsag, the deal now struck appears to support claims that Orban demanded the newspaper - which has run several investigations into corruption in senior government and central bank circles - be closed in order for the deal to go ahead.
The closure of Hungary's main opposition newspaper sparked concern that spread internationally. European headlines reported that the move was part of a push by Orban to extend the ruling Fidesz party's influence over the Hungarian media. The head of Opimus holds leading positions in various business ventures owned by oligarch Lorinc Meszaros, who is a close ally of Orban and mayor of the PM’s home town.
Seller Vienna Capital Partners said in a statement that Opimus made an offer to acquire the publisher following the suspension of Nepszabadsag. While the sale hands the Hungarian buyer a list of national niche titles and regional papers, Opimus is ready to "seriously look into the possibility of re-launching” the daily, the Austrian company claims.
Critics fear, however, that even if the paper is re-launched, it will take a government-friendly turn. The same u-turn has been seen at several other outlets that have changed hands since the ruling Fidesz party came to power in 2010.
Opimus did not disclose information on what will happen to the 70 or so employees of Nepszabadsad. The journalists were suspended and locked out of the office containing personal effects and computers after the paper broke various stories highlighting suspicions of corruption involving a senior Fidesz official and the governor of the Magyar Nemzeti Bank (MNB), who is extremely close to Orban.
The Mediaworks portfolio acquired by Opimus also includes the Vilaggazdasag business daily, Nemzeti Sport daily and tabloid magazines. The company also recently bought Pannon Lapok Tarsasaga, publisher of regional papers in 12 of Hungary’s 19 counties. The purchase price has not been disclosed.
While seller VCP claimed that Opimus made an offer to acquire the publisher only after the suspension of Nepszabadsag earlier this month, there had been speculation since the start of the year that Mediaworks was set to be sold to figures close to the government. Critics note VCP's claim suggests it took just a couple of weeks to agree and organize a deal for a company with annual turnover of HUF25bn. The country’s competition watchdog then apparently needed just a matter of days to approve the takeover.
The announcement of the sale has also brought international concern out into the open. “The suspension and sale of Nepszabadsag show the government’s growing influence over Hungary’s media,” US government-funded NGO Freedom House said in a statement late on October 25.
“Hungary’s government uses ownership as a political tool to silence critical coverage. The EU and the United States should forcefully condemn this attack on the press,” Robert Herman, vice president for international programs at the think tank said.
While Freedom House has often raised concern over the media landscape in Hungary it rarely comments so forcefully on specific cases. In the most recent Freedom of the Press report, the NGO warned that the country’s media is only “party free”. Hungary’s overall press freedom score dropped three points in this year’s report.
Washington officials were also outspoken on the announcement of the deal. Mocking Budapest’s claims that complaints over Hungary’s press freedom are “baseless,” Tom Malinowski, US assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor tweeted: “Clue: "base" = sale of #Mediaworks / #Nepszabadsag to gov't-aligned oligarch.”
The government, however, is sticking by its story. "Opimus is an open, exchange-traded company. It has several owners and invests extensively. The government does not wish to comment on any Hungarian company's investments," Orban's spokesman told Reuters.
Lorinc Meszaros - a quickly risen gas repairman - has not commented on the deal. Just a few days earlier, however, he had failed to deny an interest in acquiring Mediaworks.
“I don’t know, nothing is impossible”, he told 24.hu on October 21 when asked about such a deal. He added that a couple of years ago he also would not have imagined buying hotels, so he could not exclude buying a paper one day.
Meanwhile, Magyar Narancs reported on October 26 that unnamed allies of Orban plan to further expand the pro-government media empire. Negotiations about the purchase of Bors – the largest tabloid in Hungary – and media company Lapcom, which owns various regional papers, have been launched, it claims. It has not been revealed whether Meszaros has shown interest in those publications.