Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is very concerned for pluralism in Hungary after the leading opposition daily Népszabadság was closed by its owners, who cited financial reasons. It is said that it could be sold to one of the country’s richest oligarchs, an ally of the prime minister.
Founded 60 years ago when the Soviet yoke was lifted, Népszabadság was on sale on newsstands as usual on the morning of 8 October. But when staff arrived at the newspaper the same morning to start preparing the Monday issue, they were denied entry to their offices, their phones were disconnected and access to the website was paralyzed.
The owners, the Austrian group Mediaworks, said it had to close the newspaper because sales have been falling steadily since it bought the daily in 2014 although it is still has the biggest print run of any Hungarian newspaper.
But its journalists insist that the financial situation is just a pretext and that its closure is above all politically motivated.
Some point out that the closure came just days after the newspaper covered corruption scandals allegedly implicating politicians close to the prime minister. And it had been planning to run a story yesterday on lavish spending by the communication minister.
Opposition parties and members of the newspaper’s staff accuse the ruling Fidesz party of trying to gag media outlets that do not support the government.
“We condemn the Hungarian government’s grip on many of the country’s media, which Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants to use to his benefit,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s European Union-Balkans desk.
“This newspaper’s acquisition by an oligarch who supports Orban, if it happens, would just confirm the prime minister’s growing domination of the Hungarian media. After seizing control of the state broadcaster and turning it into a propaganda tool since his return to power in 2010, Orban now has his sights on the privately-owned media, some of which have already been bought by pro-government oligarchs.”
Democracy has been in steady retreat since Fidesz won the 2010 election and Hungary is ranked 67th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index, after falling 48 places in just five years.