The ongoing saga of Hungary’s main opposition newspaper
Donald Trump recently extended an invitation to Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s controversial prime minister. It’s a rare moment of welcome for Orbán, whose nationalist programme is often greeted with suspicion in the West. For Orbán, it’s a sign that his brand of politics has a receptive ear in the White House. With the prospect of closer ties between Budapest and Washington, it’s worth asking what made Orbán a self-described “black sheep” during the Obama administration. The answer partially lies with Trump’s own personal gadfly, the media. In Hungary, critics on both the left and the right have accused Orbán and his Fidesz party of undermining the free press. This came to a head earlier this year when the leftist newspaper Népszabadság was shut down by its owner Mediaworks.
The ostensible reason for the decision was financial. As with most of Hungary’s old media, the paper was operating at a loss. But the closure of the 60-year-old paper on 8 October has intensified accusations of political interference in Hungary’s media. Since its shutdown, the saga of the newspaper’s closure has continued. I spoke to Népszabadság editor and journalist András Dési about how events have unfolded. In November Mediaworks sold Népszabadság to Opimus Press, a subsidiary of Opimus Group. “Opimus is a relatively new company,” Dési tells me. “The ownership is very unclear. You find off-shore companies registered in the Seychelle Islands, in Nigeria.” He describes it as “a very shadowy company, which is a stock market company here in Budapest.”
For Dési, one of the biggest questions is the group’s potential links to the government. Within Opimus he says, “there is a group of Hungarian businessmen, or Hungarian businesses. In this Hungarian part in Opimus you find people close to Lőrinc Mészáros, mayor of Felcsút…We don't have any evidence but we think that Mészáros and Orbán and the whole of Fidesz is behind the scenes.” Why does he believe that Orbán is linked to the mayor? “We don't have any proof, any evidence that he [Mészáros] is behind [Opimus] but we suggest that there is a link. And the reason is that Fidesz and Viktor Orbán are transforming the Hungarian media landscape. They are pushing out the foreigners. And they call for the help of businessmen close to Fidesz to build up media companies." Why does he link Opimus to Mészáros and not someone else? “Because Mészáros is the closest person to Orbán,” he tells me. “He's not 100 percent but 200 or 300 percent loyal.”
Hungary’s opposition media has frequently raised questions about Mészáros’ rapid accumulation of wealth. “[Mészáros] started his career back in the early 90s,” Dési tells me. “He started with a building company as I understand. This building company, especially after 2010, got government and state assignments to build roads and public buildings but especially roads. And what is more interesting is that these infrastructure tenders are partly funded by the European Union.” The consequence, Dési says, is that: “he became one the oligarchs here and he had really a very sudden rise…He's believed to possess a fortune more than 30 billion Hungarian Forints - so a lot of money. He's among the 40 richest people here in Hungary.” In 2010 Mészáros was elected mayor in Felcsút, Viktor Orbán’s hometown.
However, in the absence of hard evidence about the murky world of business and politics, much that remains is speculative. While still operational, Népszabadság covered stories about these connections. “We had a series about Mészáros, about his rise, about his fortune, and about the way he got this government tenders,” Dési says. He links the paper’s muck-racking tendencies to its eventual shutdown. “I think that the target number one, the aim number one was to eliminate Népszabadság. Because Népszabadság, with its reporting several corruption affairs, disturbed too much. And did not fit in this new media empire built by Fidesz.”
Dési believes the paper’s shutdown was part of a long-term plan which he ties to changes in its ownership. The head of Mediaworks was Heinrich Pecina, a private businessman from Austria. Pecina became the partial owner of Népszabadság in 2014 and assumed complete control the following year. Prior to the sale, the paper was owned by the Swiss media company Ringier. Mediaworks marked a change in the paper’s history. “Since 1990, since the political changes here in Hungary…it was the first time that we had an owner who came not from the media business,” Dési tells me. He speculates that, “this Mr. Pecina, he had a deal with Fidesz and with Orbán and part of the deal was that he was supposed to do something with Népszabadság…And I think that the best way was to suspend the newspaper. Because you know, it's like a capture, you take prisoners, you take hostages.”
The Hungarian news outlet 24.hu reported alleged meetings between Orbán and Pecina regarding Népszabadság. According to the paper, these meetings took place as early as June. Fidesz, however, has denied any involvement in the paper’s downfall. “The government has always stated that [they] have nothing to do with Népszabadság’s shutdown,” says Dési. “They said that this is a free market economy that we have here in Hungary. And there are economic and financial reasons and the government does not interfere in the private business.” There are, however, rumblings in the media about ministers celebrating the paper’s demise. “There was talk of Fidesz politicians who cheered, who publicly cheered the execution of Népszabadság,” Dési says.
He does not believe Népszabadság is likely to reopen. Pecina has not communicated with staff since the paper’s closure. “He's missing in action, absolutely. And I don't miss him,” Dési tells me. As of yet there are no signs that the new ownership plans to rescue Népszabadság. While alleged links between Opimus Group and politicians remain unproven, the situation speaks to the lack of public trust in Hungary. The shutdown of a popular opposition newspaper is to the country’s detriment, regardless of cause. With it goes the measure of transparency and faith in institutions that are at the heart of democracy. Given his own troubled relationship with the media, Trump may be wise to keep this in mind as he chooses his allies.
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