Company with ties to Fidesz party buys Népszabadság’s publisher

On Tuesday, a company called OPIMUS PRESS Zrt announced that it has acquired Mediaworks, the Austrian-owned firm that published Hungary’s largest opposition daily, Népszabadság, which it shut down amidst international scandal just over two weeks ago. OPIMUS PRESS Zrt, part of the OPIMUS Group, is a firm affiliated with Lőrinc Mészáros, the billionare Fidesz mayor of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s hometown of Felcsút. In its press release, OPIMUS announced that it would “explore the possibility of relaunching Népszabadság as a matter of priority and will come to a decision as soon as possible.” There has been speculation in Hungary that Népszabadság, as a re-imagined pro-government paper, would become home to some of the journalists currently employed by the pro-Fidesz daily Magyar Idők, which has a dismally small readership estimated at around 5,000 and which is being kept on life support only through hefty government and public services ads. Magyar Idők may be scaled back, while Népszabadság is re-launched as a flagship, pro-government publication.


Were this to happen, it would hardly be the first time that a major Hungarian publication undergoes a complete political makeover. In November 2006, the Magyar Hírlap print daily, once the country’s flagship liberal publication, was transformed first into a conservative-leaning daily and then into a hard right newspaper, under the ownership of Fidesz businessman and media magnate Gábor Széles. By November 2007–so within one year–almost the entire journalistic staff and editorial team at Magyar Hírlap had been replaced, in order to expedite the publication’s political transformation.

More recently, Hungary’s largest news website, Origo, was bought by business interests associated with the ruling party. In 2014, the site’s editor, Gergő Sáling, was replaced and the online publication went from a strong, critical voice to a servile, pro-government publication, which posts dubious material. For instance, on October 23rd, as Fidesz supporters were physically assaulting opposition activists in Kossuth Square, during the sixtieth anniversary commemoration of the 1956 Revolution, Origo concocted a blatantly false story about non-existent violence and a “scandal” at a Jobbik commemoration that same day, in order to deflect attention from what was happening in Kossuth Square.

Other media organs are still critical of the Orbán government, but are also believed to be extremely vulnerable to political interference. For instance, a previous editor of the Index news site — Péter Uj–recounted how a journalist in 2011 was reprimanded, punished by having his pay reduced and was told that he had no future at the publication after he wrote a critical piece about Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his troubled, ineffective relationship with the European Union. At different times, Mr. Uj was also asked by political operatives to delete certain critical articles from Index’s website.

Whether Népszabadság is relaunched by its new owner remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: OPIMUS PRESS Zrt’s purchase of Mediaworks and its portfolio means that a company widely believed to be aligned with Fidesz now controls revenue-generating regional newspapers in 12 out of Hungary’s 19 counties.

The shuttered Népszabadság’s editorial team, which communicates with the public using a Facebook page, published a scathing post about the sale of Mediaworks and its Austrian owner and businessman, Heinrich Pecina.

“Pecina has flat out sold Mediaworks Hungary Zrt to Opimus Press, which is connected to Lőrinc Mészáros,” writes Népszabadság’s editorial team. They note that the direction of a potentially relaunched Népszabadság is clear, considering that pro-Orbán journalist and editor Gábor Liszkay is one of the newly appointed directors of Opimus Press, as is Gábor Mátrai, the former deputy chair of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s widely criticized media regulatory authority, namely the National Media and Infocommunications Authority.

The future of Népszabadság as an independent, critical voice, and the future of the paper’s editorial team, looks darker than ever.

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