Hungarian media diversity to narrow further with closure of opposition newspaper

Hungarian media diversity to narrow further with closure of opposition newspaper
Nemesis of PM Viktor Orban to shut down opposition newspaper
By bne IntelliNews April 11, 2018

Magyar Nemzet, the opposition conservative political daily published since 1938 will be closed down on April 11 due to financing problems, staff were told at the editorial meeting on April 10. Peter Ungar, an opposition MP from the green LMP party, said he was in talks on buying the media outlet from its owner Lajos Simicska, who is no longer willing to finance his media empire after the landslide victory of Fidesz in Sunday's general election.

Before the election, there were rumours of Simicska divesting his media empire, which consists of a radio station, a television news channel and a political weekly in addition to its crown jewel, Magyar Nemzet, a respected daily of the conservative middle class which was suspended and banned during the Nazi occupation of Hungary in March 1944.

Simicska served as treasurer for the ruling Fidesz party, being the mastermind behind the finances of the party from the start and was one of the closest allies and a friend of Prime Minister Viktor Orban until he broke with the government in a salty outburst in 2015. 

His media empire has faced financial problems since then as state ads dried up suddenly and private advertisers held back for fear of losing state contracts. In 2016 revenues halved and came in at slightly over HUF1bn, while operating losses reached HUF984mn. Local governments with a Fidesz majority were told to cancel subscriptions to the newspaper, which was also hit by the general decline of the print market.

Orban has long sought to squeeze out Simicska, who amassed huge wealth  from state tenders through his construction company Kozgep. The prime minister feared that he was gaining great political influence, and gradually more state contracts were awarded to other oligarchs. Simicska was also upset by Orban's autocratic shift, his apparent admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his plans to silence critical media.  

The oligarch recalled that Orban told him before the 2014 elections about his plans to have the Hungarian unit of German broadcaster RTL bought up by Russia's Rosatom, the company involved in the €12.5bn expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant. RTL, with the highest rating among broadcasters, remains critical of the government. 

Dramatically changed landscape 

After the public row with Simicska, Orban quickly built up a media portfolio via his allies, with film commissioner Andy Vajna buying commercial broadcaster Tv2, Lorinc Meszaros (seen as the prime minister’s proxy) taking control of a media portfolio with 192 newspapers including all but two of Hungary’s 19 county papers with massive readership, and businessmen close to Fidesz acquiring tabloids and freebies. Fidesz-friendly also businessmen took control of key online media products, but this segment is still dominated by the independent and critical press.

The 2018 elections showed that dominating the print and electronic media in rural outlets could be decisive, as Fidesz won all of the small rural districts by a huge margin.

Meanwhile, since 2015 Magyar Nemzet, Lanchid Radio, and HírTv have been the voices of the opposition. The media outlets released a string of corruption stories during the election campaign. Opposition parties and Hungarian intellectuals critical of Fidesz had pinned their hopes on Simicska releasing an explosive story they referred to as the "atomic bomb", which could deal a shocking blow to Orban's government and the system he had built, as Simicska knows more about Fidesz finances than anybody else.

The announcement on Tuesday came out of the blue and one journalist wrote on his social media site that "we have survived the Nazis, the Communists but not Viktor Orban's supermajority". 

Fall of a media giant 

For the last two years, Simicska has actively helped the opposition Jobbik party with its billboard companies and media. The radical party since has toned down its far-right and anti-EU rhetoric. The 2018 elections, however, failed to bring a breakthrough for the right-wing opposition party and Simicska's selling his media business may be related to that, one analyst said. 

In addition to the closure of Magyar Nemzet, changes are also afoot at broadcaster HírTV, which was the first news channel in Hungary. It began broadcasting in January 2003, nine months after Fidesz lost the election against the Socialists. The aim of Simicska and Fidesz was to offset the dominance of the left-liberal dominance of the press at that time. There will now be streamlining of operations and cost cuts coming at HírTv. 

Hungarian media learned that the fate of conservative weekly Heti Valasz is also hanging in the balance, as Simicska relayed a message to the paper that it can start to look for a new investor. If it does, he will sell the paper, allowing it to remain in existence.

However, it might not all be over for Magyar Nemzet, as Ungar confirmed reports that he is in talks on buying the paper as well as Lanchid Radio and Heti Valasz. Ungar is the son of Maria Schmidt, a historian and a well-known right-wing conservative intellectual close to the government, and the head of the Terror Museum in Budapest, The family's wealth comes from Andras Ungar, who headed Budapest Stock Exchange-listed property manager company BIF until his death in 2016.