Hungary's biggest opposition paper shut down

Hungary's biggest opposition newspaper Népszabadság was closed down in a surprise move at the start of October. The owner announced that the paper was losing too much money, but the employees claim the closure was a putsch. The liberal daily was unflagging in its critical reporting on the Orbán government. How is press freedom faring in today's Hungary?

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The Irish Times (IE) /

EU must not tolerate attacks on press freedom

The closure of Népszabadság, Hungary's largest opposition daily, is just one example of the increasing erosion of press freedom in eastern Europe, the Irish Times laments:

“The Népszabadság shutdown will concentrate media ownership in pro-government hands with fewer and fewer voices able to criticise Orban. The country is now ranked by Freedom House among the lowest for press freedom in the EU, while Poland is also under investigation by the EU for undermining media freedom. ... The erosion of media freedom is a dimension of a wider attack on human rights in these countries; a necessary prop in the armoury of autocrats to undermine discussion of and opposition to their rule. It is vital that the EU puts media rights centre stage in relations with such states which all claim to have a European 'vocation'.”

Mandiner (HU) /

Resistance must come from the people

The Hungarians must finally take to the streets and protest against the government's increasing authoritarianism, journalist Gábor Kardos demands on the Mandiner website:

“The authoritarian system has not bared its fangs overnight, but step by step. Month by month, all the positions of power in the media are being filled with government representatives. This means there is less chance of provoking a shock reaction across society that would prompt hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets. … But the only way out of this situation is for the citizens to become more proactive. … Instead of moaning about the end of press freedom, the shock provoked by the liquidation of Népszabadság should be seen as a motive, an inspiration and an opportunity. Only collective action by society as a whole can put an end to authoritarianism and bullying of the press.”

444.hu (HU) /

Hardly any more critical papers

In recent years Viktor Orbán's government has waged a campaign against critical media which has not even spared conservative papers, the online portal 444.hu complains:

“The business paper Napi Gazdaság was revamped as the pro-government Magyar Idők. Similarly, the news portal Origo was remodelled as a pro-government online portal, as was the private TV channel TV2. RTL was intimidated, while the free paper Metropol and the daily Népszabadság were simply shut down. On top of all that the sword of Damocles is hanging over the daily Népszava and news website Index [both critical of the government]. What's more, all of the state radio and television stations are controlled by the government with an iron fist. ... Critical Christian-conservative or modern republican papers simply don't exist due to the government's inability to stomach criticism.”

Neue Zürcher Zeitung (CH) /

Western financiers leave Eastern Europe in the lurch

Swiss publisher Ringier sold the Hungarian newspaper Népszabadság to a "dodgy Austrian investor" because it wanted to focus on "lighter political entertainment", the Swiss paper Neue Zürcher Zeitung reports. NZZ sees this as a sign of how West European media groups are less and less wiling to invest in the democratising role of media in Eastern Europe:

“Naturally this kind of externally financed media freedom is not a long-term guarantee for the democratic development of a country. But unfortunately the alternatives are often worse: the gaps are filled not by democratically minded citizens but state-run media and tycoons with political ambitions. … The increasingly authoritarian politicians of the eastern EU member states are slowly suffocating critical journalism and the democratic formation of public opinion. But when media are exploited for narrow political goals this is also bad news for the rest of Europe because it fuels polarisation and division.”

Magyar Hírlap (HU) /

Cogent economic reasons

The decision by Népszabadság's owner Mediaworks to close the paper down is perfectly understandable because its losses were damaging the company's regional papers, Magyar Hírlap comments:

“Mediaworks' regional titles all make a profit. ... Népszabadság was also in the black until 2007, but it's been registering huge losses for almost a decade now. Since 2007 the paper has been losing half a billion forint [roughly 1.6 million euros] per year, and it has now amassed debts of roughly five billion forint [roughly 16.4 million euros]. ... Needless to say these losses cut deeply into the profits of the regional papers. Which explains why the company's regional titles haven't developed in the least.”

Magyar Nemzet (HU) /

The government is behind the closure

The argument that Népszabadság was closed due to financial losses is flimsy, to say the least, Magyar Nemzet believes:

“The reason for the inexcusable closure is the hypersensitivity of the government, which is increasingly unable to tolerate criticism of its policies. ... In an interview in 2015 the authoritarian Orbán already indicated what he thinks of European governments confronted with influential media. As far as he's concerned they're 'controlled by the media', 'cringing', 'maudlin' and 'afraid of conflicts'. With a view to the media landscape in Hungary he said that political influence needed to be used more efficiently. ... Orbán's distrust of the freedom of expression in Hungary is simply incomprehensible.”

Blog Törökgáborelemez (HU) /

Talk of gagged media is nonsense

The talk of the death of press freedom and a dictatorship in Hungary after Népszabadság's closure is absurd, political scientist Gábor Török writes in his blog:

“Following this - clearly political - decision, how can people start comparing the country with dictatorships where journalists are put behind bars, newspapers are banned and media professionals are killed by explosions? How can they claim that this harks back to the communist era (= dictatorship) when dissenting views were only voiced in secret and it was impossible to read news other than that spread by the government's propaganda machine? … Today, not only can you buy opposition daily and weekly papers at every newsstand, you can also watch opposition channels on TV, not to mention the Internet, where absolute freedom of opinion prevails.”

Hospodářské noviny (CZ) /

Hungary drops out of civilisation

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has long been leading an onslaught against critical media and has turned his back on democratic values, Hospodářské noviny believes:

“First he got control of the public media by replacing their board members. Oligarchs close to him bought up much of the private media. And now comes the closure of the biggest opposition paper, whose title means 'free people', presumably brought about by a secret pact with the Austrian owner. This should serve as a warning that many of the freedoms and values which we have come to consider inviolable in the less than 30 years since the fall of communism are very shaky indeed. ... Hungary, a nearby country, is gradually dropping out of Western civilisation. That should not leave us indifferent.”

Dennik N (SK) /

Eastern Europe's critical media under pressure

The overnight closure of Népszabadság does not show press freedom in Central and Eastern Europe in a good light, complains Matúš Kostolný, editor-in-chief of Dennik N:

“Critical and independent media have a very hard time in this part of Europe. You could say that a couple of established papers don't make any difference one way or the other because there are dozens of private TV stations, and above all because the Internet offers everyone unlimited access to information. But only the traditional papers continually work in a journalistic way and make life difficult for politicians. Ever since they passed into the hands of the country's most influential politician Andrej Babiš there can be no more talk of the two biggest quality papers in the Czech Republic, Mladá fronta dnes and Lidové noviny, being independent. In Poland the legendary Gazeta Wyborcza - considered an enemy by government politicians - is having difficulties. In Slovakia the situation is less dramatic, but that's no guarantee that things will remain that way.”