Politics and the downfall of Népszabadság
On October 8th journalists at Népszabadság, Hungary’s main opposition newspaper, arrived to find that their offices were closed. The parent company, Mediaworks, had shut down the paper without giving notice. The ostensible reason was economic. As with most print media in Hungary, sales of the paper had declined over the past decade. Still, Népszabadság (People’s Freedom) remained the country’s largest broadsheet. The 60-year-old paper provided a staunch leftist voice, reporting on scandals related to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the ruling Fidesz party. Its closure has prompted claims of political interference and fears for the future of Hungary’s independent press.
András Dési was a senior editor and reporter at Népszabadság, working at the paper for more than 26 years. What does he make of Mediawork’s claim that the paper was shut down for financial reasons? “I don't believe any word of that,” he tells me and explains that if that was the case, the staff would have been consulted beforehand. He continues: “if you have economic problems, and we suppose that the owner is a good business man, why close down this enterprise? Why does he not try to sell it?"
Since the initial shutdown, the company and owner have stated that they would like to revive the paper. If this was really the case, says András, it’s another piece of evidence that economics had nothing to do with the paper closing. “The worst thing [the owner] can do is to suspend the edition of the newspaper because to restart it… would cost him a lot of money." Does he think the closure will be permanent? "Unfortunately so. We have to accept the sad reality that this newspaper, after 60 years of existence, has shut down."
What provoked the paper’s sudden closure remains uncertain. “I think that maybe they prepared for a long time,” András tells me. However, there are hints that events may have suddenly come to a head. “It's more than obvious that something unexpected occurred because the General Manager of the company resigned on October seventh,” he says. “But we learned that he had resigned only on the day of the suspensions. It's a very shady and unclear situation. " Since the paper’s closure, Mediaworks has been acquired by the holding company Opimus, which is friendly to the Fidesz government.
To understand Népszabadság’s closure, András tells me, “you have to see the whole political context here in Hungary. First, we launched a series of investigative journalism stories about the corruption affairs and other affairs of people who are close to the prime minister.” The decision may also have been influenced by the country’s recent referendum on refugees. The Fidesz-backed initiative asked voters to reject the EU’s mandatory refugee quotas. The government motion was approved by an overwhelming majority of voters. However, with less than 50% voter turnout, the result was invalid. This somewhat tenuous show of support, says András, encouraged a sense of strength within the ruling party.
There is also the matter of Fidesz’s relationship with the media. “The government and the ruling party, they want control over the whole media landscape," András tells me. Since coming to power, Fidesz have been criticised for their treatment of the press. One particularly controversial decision was the creation of a Media Council to enforce press legislation. Critics of the council argue that because appointments are made by the government, state-financed media is less able to function independently.
András situates Népszabadság’s closure in this milieu of political control and manipulation. "I think it was absolutely a politically motivated decision. We don't have any proof or evidence of that. But all signs indicate that there is purely politics behind it." He continues: “they are transforming the whole media landscape in Hungary and Népszabadság doesn't fit in.”
The government has echoed Mediaworks’ financial justification for the paper’s closure. However, the party’s Vice President Szilard Nemeth told Hir TV that: “It was about time for this newspaper to be closed unexpectedly.” ”First [the government] took control over the public media,” András says. “They appointed people who are their own people.” He tells me businessmen who are close to Fidesz are buying Hungary’s media companies. “Basically,” he says, “they use economic tools, ownership, to control the media.”
András argues that closing Népszabadság is also an intimidation technique. “What is the message of the suspension of closing of Népszabadság? This is a sort of message, a threatening message, to the critical journalists: be aware of the current situation, you could be the next one.” Will this work? "Only time will tell,” he says. “As I see how these small islands of critical voices are still working, they are still very critical towards the ruling party and the government, especially the Prime Minister.” There has also been push-back from the Hungarian press. The overwhelming majority of news sources have expressed solidarity with the paper, András tells me.
However, that support has not been unanimous. “There were some media outlets who were very happy and joyful about what happened to us," András says. This was particularly common among media outlets owned by government supporters. “They reported about the closure of Népszabadság but they repeated what the owner and the parent company are claiming, that there are only economic reasons behind the decision. But other newspapers who are, I would say, absolutely not left-liberal newspapers or left-liberal media outlets, they expressed their solidarity and support to us."
The public has responded strongly to the paper’s closure. “We had a quite large demonstration in Budapest city centre, about 6,000-8,000 people gathered and expressed their solidarity with Népszabadság. And demonstrated against this decision.” He continues: “they demonstrated against the whole system established by Fidesz and by the Prime Minister. And they demonstrated against the overwhelming corruption in this country." András argues that this criticism is coming from people who would not otherwise sympathise with the paper. "What is interesting is that people who are not left-liberal, who are rather Fidesz voters, they expressed their solidarity with us. The so-called middle class in Hungary is revolting against this system."
For now András and his colleagues are fighting back against the decision. They are still technically employees of Mediaworks. A situation, he says, akin to being held hostage. The journalists would be interested in restarting Népszabadság under different ownership. However, all signs indicate that the paper is unlikely to be revived. What will be the effects of the shut down? “I think there would be less freedom of press, there will be a major critical voice less,” András says. “Népszabadság is considered as an institution here in Hungary. It's part of the cultural heritage and it's part of an intellectual and critical platform. If you shut down such a platform, the question is who will be next?"
Image: European People's Party, https://flic.kr/p/9XeUkK