The largest Hungarian daily broadsheet paper, Népszabadság – one of the last remaining independent media organs in the country – has been closed down without prior notice by the owner.
Journalists were surprised early Saturday when they were shut out of the office and their online accounts. They say it was a prepared “coup” against them, while the owner maintains that it was a long-overdue business decision against the badly performing paper. The owner officially only suspended the paper and said it would enter into negotiations with the editorial. However, there is no business rationale behind a decision that ruins business if intentions are to sell the paper and continue running it seamlessly.
“Closing down Nepszabadság in this way is an attack against freedom of the press in Hungary. Former Népszabadság employees shared new pieces of investigative journalism about corruption in the government and in the Hungarian National Bank that that might directly have lead to the shut down” Liberties freedom of speech expert Éva Simon said.
The closure of the daily and its website www.nol.hu means that all the archives of the 60-year-old paper have gone offline – a big added value for the government.
Assault on media freedom
Mediaworks bought Népszabadság in 2014, a step widely seen as a foretoken for a political takeover by pro-government investors hyperactive on the Hungarian media market.
Critics claim that the Austrian investor acted on political pressure, and the final decision to close came after Népszabadság recently broke a series of stories on government corruption and strongly critical stories on the migrant quotas referendum.
Opposition parties and organizations in Hungary say the move brings clear evidence of the Orbán government's repeated attempts to suppress media freedom and gain total control of the press. The government has already succeeded in making the public broadcaster MTVA a one-sided mouthpiece of the government.
NGOs and media freedom activists agree that Népszabadság is a victim of political maneuvering.
How did Népszabadság end up here?
The Hungarian Socialist Party’s Free Press Foundation owned 28 percent of the paper until 2015. Since 1990, the paper has had two majority owners – first German Bertelsmann, then Swiss Ringier. As a consequence of the Ringier-Axel Springer merger, Swiss Ringier was obliged to sell Népszabadság by the Fidesz-created Media Council. In 2014, therefore, Austrian company Mediaworks, owned by Heinrich Pecina, bought the paper.
For months there have been rumors that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was personally negotiating with Pecina and that the ownership of the paper could find its way to his favorite strongman, the mayor of his hometown of Felcsut. Official news, however, has not yet surfaced about the ownership.
To give an example of the cynicism of the Hungarian government – which refused to give an official statement about the closure – one of the Fidesz party’s vice presidents, Szilárd Németh, said in a statement, “It was the time for Népszabadság to suddenly close down, this is my opinion.”