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27.10.2016

Hungary: Opposition newspaper closed, then sold

by Sami Mawed

Nepszabadsag, one of the main political opposition newspapers in Hungary, has been sold just two weeks after its publication was unexpectedly suspended. The actions have left Hungarians in fear for the future of press freedom in the country.

Nepszabadsag Nepszabadsag - front page of the first issue from 2 November 1956

The left-leaning, traditional Nepszabadsag is also one of the largest-selling newspapers in Hungary. Opimus Press, the buyer of its parent company, has been linked to Lorinc Meszaros - a close friend of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

On 7 October, employees at Nepszabadsag's headquarters had each been given a box and told to pack their belongings to move to a new location. They were also blocked from access to their company mailbox, and even the online edition was closed. They were later informed that Nepszabadsag was being shut down and was officially sold to Opimus Press on 25 October.

Many members of the public were certain that the move had been clearly political, although Orbán's Fidesz Party is denying it, stating that it is nothing but "a reasonable business decision". The newspaper's owners are also claiming it is just economically motivated, and that the paper was only temporarily suspended, not shut down.

Many in Hungary believe the reason for the suspension of the newspaper's publication was its exposition of some corruption in Orban's government; and also its cricisim of the government over a referendum that was held about a month ago over the refugee crisis.

According to media scholar Peter Bajomi-Lazar, a recent common phenomenon in some post-communist European countries has been the elimination of foreign capital, provoked by the economic crisis that took place in 2008. This is an issue that must be addressed, he says, since foreign ownership is viewed as more conducive to editorial independence than the current structure. Media in countries such as Hungary are now largely owned by domestic oligarchs who have an intimate relationship with political parties.

Hungarians view the latest incident involving Nepszabadsag as part of a bigger campaign to push free press away from mainstream media, in an attempt to keep the entire media landscape under government control. These outlets are poised to show an unquestioning, pro-government bent. Nepszabadsag is one of 13 newspapers and several other publications and radio and television stations to be coming under the control of Orbán's inner circle since the prime minister returned to power in 2010.

Nepszabadsag's shutdown and sale were referred to by Hungarians as "the last straw". It sparked protests in the streets of Budapest and outside parliament, where people raised their voices and concerns over press freedom after the closure of the 60-year-old newspaper.



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