The Demise of People’s Freedom
On October 8, 2016, Mediaworks Hungary, the owner of the influential opposition print and online newspaper Népszabadság (People[‘s] Freedom), announced unexpectedly that it had suspended publication of the newspaper effective immediately.
The Vienna Capital Partners-owned Mediaworks Hungary attributed the decision to discontinue publication of the newspaper to the fact that “The circulation of Népszabadság has fallen 74 percent over the past ten years, that is, by over 100,000 copies [per day]. As a consequence, the newspaper has generated losses of more than five billion forints since 2007 and has likewise accrued significant losses this year” (source in Hungarian).
However, referring to the previously rumored attempt of pro-government business interests close to oligarch Lőrinc Mészáros (source in Hungarian) to acquire Mediaworks Hungary, the editors of Népszabadság published the following post on the newspaper’s Facebook page after receiving notification via motorcycle courier that they had been “exempted from their obligation to perform work” for the newspaper (source in Hungarian):
Dear Followers! The editors of Népszabadság learned at the same time as the general public that the newspaper has been shut down with immediate effect. Our first thought is that this is a putsch. We will be in contact soon.
The employees of Népszabadság had already taken their personal belongings home after having been told that they would move back to the newspaper’s former headquarters in Budapest on October 10. The editors of Népszabadság stated on the newspaper’s Facebook page: “As you know, over the weekend Népszabadság would have moved. Instead they shut us out of our workplace.”
Several thousand people participated in a demonstration in front of the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest on the evening of October 8 to protest the presumed pro-government acquisition of Mediaworks Hungary, while officials from all of the opposition parties—including radical nationalist Jobbik—have condemned the termination of Népszabadság as a further blow to media plurality in Hungary (source in Hungarian).
Opposition websites speculate that the Austrian-owned Mediaworks Hungary discontinued publication of Népszabadság in order to eliminate the 60-year-old former daily of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party from its portfolio in preparation for the company’s sale to either Duna Aszfalt or Opimus Press, the owners of which maintain close links to the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (source in Hungarian).
According to this hypothesis, the primary purpose of this acquisition would be to transform the 13 regional dailies that operate under the ownership of Mediaworks Hungary—newspapers that had daily circulation of more than one million copies in the second quarter of 2016—into vehicles for the dissemination of pro-government news and propaganda (sources A and B in Hungarian)
The disappearance of Népszabadság and its online edition nol.hu leaves Hungary with no major liberal daily newspapers and just three significant liberal news websites—index.hu, hvg.hu and 444.hu.
Update: On October 25, 2016, Opimus Press—an offshore-owned company over which Lőrinc Mészáros reportedly exercises either indirect or direct influence—purchased Mediaworks Hungary from Vienna Capital Partners for an undisclosed price (sources A and B in Hungarian). According to opposition websites, Opimus Press appointed Gábor Liszkay—the owner of the pro-government daily Magyar Idők—to serve on the board of directors of Mediaworks Hungary (source in Hungarian).
Last updated: October 10, 2016.