On Saturday, Hungarians were shocked to discover that the publication of Népszabadság–the country’s largest circulation political daily newspaper–was suspended indefinitely. The paper, with a paid daily circulation of 38,000 copies, no longer appeared in print, it’s rich online archive of articles and its dynamic website are all gone, journalists and workers have all been locked out of their offices, their work email addresses have been terminated and the future now looks especially grim for what little remains of Hungary’s independent media. The editors and journalists of Népszabadság–suddenly finding themselves unemployed–are calling what happened ” a putsch,” and with good reason.
Early this morning, Népszabadság’s workers were informed by courier-delivered letter that they no longer have a job. That’s when they realized that their emails no longer work, that they no longer have access to their offices and that the venerable publication’s website is gone too. The paper’s editors now only have control of Népszabadság’s Facebook page, where they posted the following brief message:
“Dear followers, Népszabadság’s editors were informed at the same time as the broader public that the paper is closed effective immediately. Our first thought is that this is a putsch.”
Népszabadság, established on November 2nd, 1956–during the days of the Hungarian Revolution and as a successor to a daily entitled Szabad Nép–once served as the central organ of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. The publication became a critical, independent centre-left daily following the transition to democracy in 1989/90. A majority of its shares were transferred to private, foreign corporations and the Free Press Foundation, affiliated with the Hungarian Socialist Party, only retained a minority share in the publication until 2015, when even that was sold.
Népszabadság is currently owned by Austria’s Mediaworks, which claims that the firm is simply “restructuring” and is hoping to place a new Népszabadság on a profitable and sustainable footing, after years of losses. In a bilingual (Hungarian/English) press release, Austria’s Mediaworks writes:
“Despite revenue growth and management’s cost-cutting measures, Népszabadság has so far been unable to achieve economic success, and management’s priority must be to resolve this, finding the best future business model. Népszabadság has lost 74% of its sold circulation in the past 10 years, corresponding to more than 100,000 copies. Consequently, since 2007, it has produced more than HUF five billion in losses. So far this year, this business segment has again generated a considerable net loss. In order to preserve Népszabadság for the future, Mediaworks management will focus on finding the best business model for the paper, in line with the current trends in the industry, and will start consultations in order to best secure future development. In order to achieve and concentrate fully on this priority task, all operations of Népszabadság (including print and online) will as of today be suspended until the new form is decided and can be implemented.”
But there is potentially much more to Népszabadság’s demise than what meets the eye in the Mediaworks press release. The Hungarian press has been rife with speculation and reports for the past four months that business interests closely aligned with Hungary’s governing Fidesz party are seeking to buy Mediaworks’ publication holdings in Hungary. The mayor of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s hometown of Felcsút–Lőrinc Mészáros–who suddenly became a multi-million dollar businessman in the last six years, is reported to be associated with the Hungarian, pro-Fidesz business interests hoping to scoop up most of what is left of the independent media in Hungary. In fact, Fidesz Vice-President Gábor Kubator reportedly declared this past August: “Népszabadság is ours.”
But party interests were reportedly less interested in keeping Népszabadság, with its declining circulation, and were far more inclined to scoop up the more successful local and regional papers published by Mediaworks. The Austrian firm owns local and regional publications in 12 out of the 19 counties in Hungary. These not only offer the most revenue opportunities, but they are much more influential in reaching local, “everyday” Hungarians, while Népszabadság is primarily read by those who follow Hungarian politics most closely.
Fidesz knows that it can best reach the broader public through tabloids and lighter entertainment. This is why it was so critical for the party’s business interests to buy out the commercial TV2 network.
As the liberal 444.hu wrote this morning in a scathing response to Népszabadság’s demise:
“Népszabadság’s shuttering was not a rational economic decision. It was instead the latest move of a vengeful, fearful, primitive and increasingly authoritarian regime (…) On paper, Mediaworks is owned by Heinrich Pecina. There are all kinds of theories floating around about who controls him, but all of these theories point in one direction–Pecina receives orders by he, who pays the most. In today’s Hungary, there can be no question about who can pay the most. It is the tight, political-economic circle, commanded by Viktor Orbán, which does not yet have total political economic and intellectual power over an ever smaller piece of Hungary.”
Szilárd Németh, vice-president of Fidesz, was asked by journalists about his views on Népszabadság’s shuttering. “It was long overdue for Népszabadság to close without notice. This is my humble opinion,” declared Mr. Németh callously and rather oddly. It was long overdue for Népszabadság to close without notice?
Fidesz then quickly issued a statement and confirmed that it made economic sense for Népszabadság to close, since it was running a loss, but rejected that politics had anything to do with the move.
Absolutely nobody in Hungary who still has a head on his or her shoulders actually believes that.
Népszabadság’s employees, readers and Hungarian activists are planning a public protest in Budapest on Saturday evening.