Hungary Opposition Daily Shuts Down on Surprise Revamp Plan

  • Mediaworks halts print, website operations of Nepszabadsag
  • Publicatioon was Hungary’s largest newspaper in first quarter

Nepszabadsag, Hungary’s most-widely circulated political newspaper, abruptly halted operations Saturday after the owner of the opposition publication said it was seeking to reorganize its portfolio of regional papers.

Mediaworks, a unit of private equity firm Vienna Capital Partners, suspended online and print editions and employees were to stop work “until the creation and implementation of a new concept,” according to a statement., the newspaper’s website, redirected readers to the statement. The company this week bought Pannon Lapok Tarsasaga, the publisher of regional papers in 12 of Hungary’s 19 counties.

The closing reflects tumult in the nation’s media industry, where ownership changes are more common in the past two years and publishers increasingly rely on government advertising to maintain operations. Allies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban have taken over the country’s second-largest commercial broadcaster and a key newspaper amid growing criticism of waning press freedom.

‘Negative Impact’

Vienna Capital acquired Nepszabadsag, with a first-quarter circulation of 38,000, by buying stakes from Ringier AG in 2014 and a foundation with ties to the opposition Socialist party last year, seeking to expand a portfolio that includes the country’s largest business and sport newspapers.

“Nepszabadsag has a negative impact on group results,” Mediaworks said in the statement, which noted 5 billion forint ($18 million) in losses since 2007. “The management will focus on finding a business model for the newspaper that better matches industry trends.”

The announcement surprised employees, who were preparing to move to a new office on Sunday, the Index news website reported, without citing anyone. Journalists were said to have been cut off from their e-mail accounts and the paper’s servers after receiving notification of the decision on Saturday.

“The first thought that comes to our mind is that this is a coup,” Nepszabadsag journalists said in a post on the newspaper’s Facebook page. “The whole country knew about the decision to close the paper with immediate effect before we did.”

Orban’s Chief

The newspaper’s weekend edition had articles on the lifestyle of Orban Chief of Staff Antal Rogan, who flew by helicopter last weekend to the wedding of a television celebrity in eastern Hungary, and on the relationship of National Bank of Hungary Governor Gyorgy Matolcsy with a former colleague, following up stories first published by the newspaper.

Opposition parties said winding down the paper is another sign of Orban’s tightening grip on Hungarian media. The closing wasn’t necessary either for business or ethical reasons, and shouldn’t be happening in a nation of laws, the Socialists said in a statement. The Media 2.0 civil society group announced a demonstration for Saturday evening in central Budapest.

“The suspension was a reasonable business decision rather than a political one,” the ruling Fidesz party said in an e-mail. “It would be in violation of the freedom of the press if we interfered with a decision of a media owner.”

Szilard Nemeth, a vice president of Fidesz, said “it was about time” Nepszabadsag closed.

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