© AFP/File / by Peter Murphy | Journalists of Hungary’s biggest opposition newspaper Nepszabadsag and their supporters protest in front of the parliament building in Budapest, on October 8, 2016
BUDAPEST (AFP) – Hungarian journalist Gabor Bordas thought he had seen it all. Over the past two years he had walked away from two top online news sites in protest over political interference.But with no advance warning given to its staff of 90, Bordas called the sudden shutdown last week of Hungary’s top-selling political daily Nepszabadsag the most “brutal” of all his experiences.
“It was humiliating and aggressive,” he told AFP in a Budapest cafe, still shaken by the closure.
It treated “the readers and the public as if they were stupid,” he added.
His travails in three different news outlets reflect the upheaval in Hungarian media since Prime Minister Viktor Orban began a strongarm realignment of the sector since taking power in 2010.
Nepszabadsag’s publisher since 2014 Mediaworks, owned by Austrian magnate Heinrich Pecina, has said the paper’s financial losses over the last decade were behind the drastic move.
And in extracts of an interview published online on Saturday Pecina defended the decision saying it had been governed by economics not politics.
“There is a mutual respect between me and Viktor Orban, but no form of dependence,” he told the Austrian weekly Profil.
But for Borbas and others the explanation doesn’t fit.
“If you want to improve a newspaper why shut it down, damage the brand, delete the online archive, and lose your subscribers,” he told AFP.
On October 8, the 38-year-old editor in charge of the paper’s website, noticed that the site was down but presumed it was a technical fault.
Answering the doorbell minutes later, he was handed a letter from Mediaworks informing him of the paper’s suspension. It also stated that all email accounts had been blocked and that staff were not permitted to enter the premises.
Bordas only joined Nepszabadsag in July after quitting up-and-coming news site VS.hu when it emerged that it was financed by a foundation close to a key Orban ally.
“How could I send journalists to press conferences to hold a minister to account knowing how we were funded,” he said.
In 2014, at the leading news portal Origo.hu, Bordas had joined a staff walkout when their editor was sacked soon after it published articles investigating a senior minister’s travel expenses.
– ‘Political challenge’ to Orban –
Orban’s ruling right-wing Fidesz party called the Mediaworks move “a rational economic decision”, but many were unconvinced.
“Nepszabadsag is a political challenge to the power of Orban and everyone knows that,” its deputy editor-in-chief Marton Gergely told foreign reporters last week.
As the leading opposition paper, Nepszabadsag had several news scoops that embarrassed officials before the recent referendum that Orban called to “send a No message” to the European Union over its mandatory migrant relocation plan.
The 53-year-old premier’s crusade to restrict critical voices in the media began soon after he won a supermajority at the 2010 election.
A media regulator was set up to monitor the “balance” of the reporting, while state television and radio were overhauled and exhibit a pro-government bias, for example 95 percent of their airtime on the recent referendum endorsed the government’s position according to the research group Democracy Reporting International.
Advertising by state-owned companies has been syphoned from outlets not toeing the government line like Nepszabadsag and the broadcaster Klubradio.
Then in 2015, Orban was forced, partly due to EU criticism, to withdraw a tough tax on advertisements seen as targeting German media giant Bertelsmann’s RTL television channel whose popular news programmes were often critical of the Hungarian leader.
– ‘Constant fear in newsrooms’ –
As independent media have gradually been bought by government-friendly oligarchs, a fate widely expected for Nepszabadsag too, American journalist and longtime Budapest resident Tom Popper calls the internet “the last free frontier”.
“But the government has more and more control there too, look at Origo now,” Popper told AFP, citing the portal which now strictly follows a pro-Orban editorial line.
Until last month Popper was editor-in-chief at the English-language Budapest Business Journal but resigned after he said he was “ordered” by the publishers to avoid politics.
“Fidesz can now expect criticism of its government to drop by about 1,200 words a month,” Popper wrote afterwards on a media watchdog website, accusing the party of “bullying tactics and intimidation”.
“There is a constant fear in newsrooms that if you tick someone off there will be trouble,” he told AFP.
Although Nepszabadsag — meaning “Freedom of the People” — was set up by the Communist Party in the aftermath of Hungary’s failed anti-Soviet uprising in 1956, in recent years it had gained a reputation for quality reporting.
Expressions of solidarity for the paper even came from moderate rightwing media outlets, rare non-partisan gestures in Hungary’s bitterly divided political landscape.
While its staff frantically seek ways to continue publishing, even visiting Vienna on Friday to demand answers at the headquarters of Pecina’s firm, there’s a press release still on the Mediaworks website.
Dated July 5 it announces the arrival of Gabor Bordas as part of Nepszabadsag’s “innovation strategy leading up to 2020”.
By now though Bordas says he has learned a hard lesson: “You cannot plan for the long-term in Hungarian media, anything can happen at anytime”.
On The Listening Post this week: The main opposition newspaper folds in Hungary. We examine the government’s tightening grip on the press. Plus, journalism in a post-fact world.
Low sales vs Viktor Orban’s media crackdown
It’s the latest chapter in the story of a media landscape transformed. When Nepszabadsag, Hungary’s most influential opposition paper was suspended, owners cited low sales – but journalists say it is part of a wider media suppression.
On our radar:
- The number of Palestinian journalists in Israeli jails is on the rise – none have been charged, none have been put on trial.
- Wikileaks made public a trove of emails that shed light on the inner workings of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and its relationship with the American media.
- A Serbian cartoonist fired from his paper for supposedly criticising the country’s prime minister has been given his job back – apparently, he had the same prime minister to thank.
Journalism in a post-factual world
Against a never-ebbing tide of false claims stands a small but growing army of specialised fact-checking journalists and news outlets. But do they really make a difference? Are people not happier to live in worlds built out of their own facts?
The publishing company of Hungarian political daily Népszabadság said on Saturday it has suspended the publication of both the print and online editions until it comes up with a new business model.
Demonstrators showed their solidarity with the left-leaning daily on the square in front of Parliament later in the day. In the meantime the editors of the paper began negotiations on the possible sale of Népszabadság.
Népszabadság’s circulation has shrunk by 74 percent, or about 100,000 copies, over the past ten years and the daily has as a consequence accumulated over HUF 5 billion in losses since 2007 and faces significant losses this year, too, publisher Mediaworks said.
Operating under its current business model, Népszabadság “is adversely affecting the performance” of the publishing group, Mediaworks said, adding that “the long-term future of the group and of more than 1000 employees, as well as the group’s publications will depend on the editorial offices, readership and the publications’ economic success”.
The publisher said it will focus on finding the best business model for the paper in order to preserve it in future. Parallel with its decision to suspend the paper’s operation, Mediaworks said it is relieving Népszabadság’s staff and temporarily suspending services with contracted partners. Subscribers will be offered different publications and partly reimbursed.
The opposition Socialists said the suspension of Népszabadság’s operation marks a “black day” in the history of the Hungarian press and press freedom since the democratic transition. Népszabadság, which has served as one of the leading organs of the opposition press over the past 25 years, has been “practically turned off” in a move which “cannot be explained by financial losses,” Ágnes Kunhalmi, the leader of the party’s Budapest chapter, told a press conference.
She noted that Népszabadság had recently published reports on “scandals surrounding the National Bank of Hungary and György Matolcsy”, its governor, as well as the “helicopter affair” of cabinet office chief Antal Rogán, and asked whether the paper’s suspension could be related to these stories.
She added that business circles close to governing Fidesz had earlier ruined news portals Origo and Vs.hu, commercial broadcaster TV2 and the Pannon Lapok group of newspapers, while turning state media into a “party propaganda mouthpiece”. “What is happening in Hungary evokes Putin’s Russia,” said Kunhalmi, adding that her party is organising a demonstration to express solidarity with Népszabadság and for press freedom.
The leftist opposition Democratic Coalition (DK) said Saturday’s decision was “one of the most vile attacks against Hungarian democracy and press freedom”. “We have no doubt that silencing the largest political daily, one of the most prominent representatives of democratic Hungary, has been one of the most despicable decisions of the Orbán government,” the party’s spokesman said.
DK deems the measure “a new chapter in the construction of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s dictatorship”, Zsolt Gréczy said, adding that the party will appeal to the leaders of the EU, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) “to condemn the Orbán government’s step”.
The small green LMP party said that what happened to Népszabadság was unacceptable in a democracy and called on ruling Fidesz to prove that it is not responsible for the paper’s suspension. The suspension of the newspaper “goes too far”, Bernadett Szél, the party’s co-leader said during a party congress, adding that “what is at stake now is whether the Hungarian press can remain free and the government can be held accountable for its acts”.
Szél said the party congress unanimously voiced its solidarity with Népszabadság, adding that she will participate at a demonstration outside Parliament.
The radical nationalist Jobbik party said the “undermining” of Népszabadság was another example of the “uninhibited megalomania of Viktor Orbán”, not market logic. The state of Hungary’s left is clearly reflected in their inability to defend even their own media, the party added.
Governing Fidesz said it views Népszabadság’s suspension as a business decision, not a political one, considering its sizable losses. “A violation of press freedom would be interfering with a media owner’s decisions,” the party added. Fidesz noted that the paper had earlier been owned by the opposition Socialists but they had parted with their stake in 2015.
Austria’s Vienna Capital Partners (VCP) acquired the local media portfolio of Ringier and Axel Springer in January 2014. The papers included the national dailies Népszabadság, Nemzeti Sport and Vilaggazdasag, as well as eight regional newspapers. In the same year, VCP announced the establishment of Mediaworks and said it wanted to keep and develop its broad media portfolio.
The closure of Hungary’s main opposition newspaper is a “huge blow” to the country’s media diversity and press freedoms, the OSCE said. The organisation’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said that it was “hard to believe” the closure of Népszabadság was solely a business decision.
Mijatovic said the deterioration of media diversity in Hungary was a bad example for countries aspiring to join the European Union. The Associated Press reported that Mijatovic told the news agency in a phone interview from Vienna that the European Commission “should pay greater attention to the issues related to press freedom in Hungary”.
Commenting on a call of the OSCE media advocate to monitor press freedom more closely in Hungary, the European Commission’s spokesperson said the body was “aware of and concerned about” the suspension.
Margaritis Schinas said the commission stood for the values of press freedom and pluralism as the basic values of a free and democratic society. “Questions have been raised on the suspension and we are, of course, following the situation closely,” he said.
Spokesperson Nathalie Vandystadt added that the commission’s scope was limited in this area but the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom in Florence was reporting regularly to the commission on the situation of press freedom in every member state, including Hungary.
The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, reacted to the decision on the daily in a twitter message saying that the “sudden closure of Népszabadság sets a worrying precedent. I stand in solidarity with Hungarians protesting today.”
Schulz was referring to the some 1000 demonstrators, who gathered in front of Parliament to show their solidarity with the daily on Saturday afternoon.The demonstrators, who included a number of the newspaper’s staff, other journalists and politicians from the opposition, filled the centre of Kossuth Square.
Many chanted “Népszabadság”, “Democracy”, “We will not allow it”, “Orbán must go” and “Free country, free media”. Népszabadság journalist Miklós Hargitai told the demonstrators that staff scheduled to work on Saturday had not been allowed into the paper’s offices. “That shows exactly how much of a business decision this was,” he added.
Hargitai said Népszabadság’s staff had not received a pay rise since 2008, though their salaries had been cut twice since 2010. It is the job of a newspaper to keep power in check, he said. “That’s why there won’t be a Népszabadság from Monday, because the paper did its job too well,” he added.
On Sunday talks began between Mediaworks and the staff of Népszabadság about the possible sale of the paper, editor-in-chief András Murányi told a few hundred sympathisers and journalists outside of the publisher’s headquarters in Budapest.
The newspaper’s editors made an offer, and the publisher, Mediaworks, agreed with the general concept but wished to put the agreement in legal terms, until which time the paper will not operate, Murányi said. “I interpreted this to mean that the decision taken was not a financial one, rather some other type,” he added.
The following day Murányi told reporters that in light of Népszabadság’s losses, the editorial team had offered to buy the paper for 1 euro. Mediaworks said it is committed to “candid” negotiations about a possible sale.
Socialists want media committee
Opposition Socialist leader Gyula Molnár on Monday called for a committee to be set up to screen the ownership structures of Hungary’s media.Commenting on the suspension of daily Népszabadság, he said “a dark era of democracy and press freedom has begun in Hungary.” Molnár said a department within the public prosecutor’s office should be set up to focus on cases that involve politicians. The Socialist leader condemned President János Áder for his “sinful silence” over the government’s “brutal” referendum campaign as well as the closure of Népszabadság.
DK boycotts Parliament
The leftist Democratic Coalition (DK) has announced it would stay away from Parliament in future, but deputies would not return their mandate. DK leader Ferenc Gyurcsány said on Monday that his party had “no other choice” in light of recent developments. Among the latter, Gyurcsány mentioned “lies” about the outcome of the recent referendum and the “politically motivated” closure of left-leaning daily Népszabadság. He mentioned press reports revealing the prime minister’s role in earlier harassment of civil groups.
DK’s deputies, however, will attend votes requiring a two-thirds majority, so as not to support the government with their absence, Gyurcsány said. He said they were aware that their boycott would entail losing their remuneration, but added that deputies would participate in a “technical vote” once a year so that they can keep their mandate.
Ruling Fidesz said DK had “turned its back on voters”. Gyurcsány and his party “refuse to face the fact that, unlike Brussels and themselves, Hungarian people do not want migrants to be forcefully settled in Hungary”, the party said. Fidesz said DK had opted to “boycott legislation aimed at encoding the will of Hungarian people in the constitution”. “Just like Brussels, Ferenc Gyurcsány is seeking to force his own will on Hungarian people,” Fidesz said.
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