Hungary’s leading left-wing newspaper Nepszabadsag unexpectedly suspended its print and online publication on October 8. Following the surprise decision of the publisher, and suspecting political pressure, thousands protested in front of the Hungarian parliament, claiming the government continues to try to smother the freedom of the press.
While the publisher said that the reason for the shutdown is that the 60-year old newspaper has piled up significant losses, journalists at Nepszabadsag and opposition parties allege government pressure. They suggest the shutdown is yet another move from the ruling Fidesz party’s aimed at extending the government’s huge influence over the Hungarian media.
Nepszabadsag publisher Mediaworks - owned by Austria's Vienna Capital Partners (VCP) – publishes several other newspapers in Hungary, including 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. Mediaworks said it seeks to restructure its portfolio and to work on a new business model due to the declining sales of Nepszabadsag.
“Nepszabadsag has a negative impact on group results,” Mediaworks said on the paper's website nol.hu on October 8. “The management will focus on finding a business model for the newspaper that better matches industry trends (…) In order to concentrate fully on this priority task, all operations of Nepszabadsag will be suspended as of today, until the creation and implementation of a new concept," Mediaworks said.
Nepszabadsag produced HUF5bn (€16.4mn) in losses since 2007, the publisher said. At the same time, 444.hu notes that the Mediaworks portfolio remains profitable, and that in the past two years there has been no drastic decline in the sales of Nepszabadsag.
The paper has been present on the market since 1956, and represents an important brand. Its online platform has gone through extensive developments in the past few months, employing several new, high-profile journalists. Thus, the shutdown appears to have come out of the blue. That leaves many doubting that it was purely economic decisions behind the move.
Journalists at the paper, who were informed in letters about the publisher’s the decision on the morning of October 8, expressed shock at the sudden closure. Employees were immediately cut off from their e-mail accounts and the servers of the paper.
“The first thought that comes to our mind is that this is a coup,” one journalist said in a post on Nepszabadsag’s Facebook page.
Since the beginning of the year, there had been speculation that Mediaworks could be sold to allies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. “It seems that Fidesz made a deal with Mediaworks, which includes that Nepszabadsag has to be closed down before the acquisition,” 444.hu suggests.
It has been widely noted that the decision came after the paper broke various stories highlighting suspicion of corruption involving a senior Fidesz official and the governor of the Magyar Nemzeti Bank (MNB), a close Orban ally.
Although a vice-chairman of Fidesz, Szilard Nemeth, said in an interview that “it was high time for Nepszabadsag to close down,” the party claims the move was “a reasonable business decision rather than a political one”.
“It would be in violation of the freedom of the press if we interfered with a decision of a media owner,” Fidesz said in a statement.
Others, however, are less than convinced. Huge crowds, including journalists from Nepszabadsag, protested in front of the Hungarian parliament on the evening of October 8, some of them burning copies of pro-government newspaper Magyar Idok. The demonstration organisers invited “those who do not want to live in a country where critical voices are shut down”.
“This is about the freedom of press in Hungary and not just about one newspaper,” they wrote on Facebook.
Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament and a well known critic of Orban, sent a message in Hungarian to the demonstrators. "Sudden closure of Nepszabadsag sets a worrying precedent. I stand in solidarity with Hungarians protesting today," he wrote on Twitter.
The criticism spread far and wide amongst the Hungarian opposition also. Left-leaning MSZP claimed that the closure of Nepszabadsag was a “black day for the press:; a spokesman for the far-right Jobbik said the "undermining of Nepszabadsag is the latest example of Viktor Orban’s megalomania,” adding that Fidesz wants to have "100% control over Hungarian media or to obstruct it," according to MTI.
In recent years, several print and online publications, and also radio and television stations have come under the influence of allies of Orban. Publishers have become increasingly reliant on government advertisements, and studies suggest such contracts are far from spread evenly.
In 2014, the chief editor of one of the best read Hungarian platforms, Origo was dismissed, reportedly due to the publication of stories critical of influential official Janos Lazar. Last year, an ally of Orban purchased the country’s second largest commercial broadcaster TV2. Lokal, a free daily paper launched this year by Orban’s top advisor, replaced Metropol - owned by mogul Lajos Simicska, who fell out with Orban last year - on the shelves at major state owned outlets.
Most recently, a dozen Hungarian journalists resigned from news portal vs.hu after it was revealed that foundations owned by the MNB had handed HUF501.4mn (€1.6mn) to the newspaper's publisher.
Washington-based human rights and media watchdog Freedom House said in its "Freedom of the Press 2016" report that Hungary’s media is only “party free”, with its press freedom score decreasing three points compared to the previous year.