Employees learned of the closure when they arrived at the newspaper on 9 October to start preparing the next day’s issue and were denied entry. The owners, the Hungarian group Mediaworks, had decided in the space of a few hours and without any prior announcement to suspend operations because sales were plummeting.
Founded 60 years ago when the Soviet yoke was lifted, the independent and outspoken newspaper was much loved by Hungarians and its closure caused an outcry, with thousands taking to the streets in a show of support for media freedom.
A few weeks later, Mediaworks’ Austrian owner nonetheless sold Nepszabadsag to Opimus Press, a media group owned by an associate of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
It was the manner of the closure and the way the dismissal of the staff was initially disguised as temporary layoffs that led the court, in the ruling issued last week, to condemn Mediaworks for failing to respect the prescribed procedures and time frame for dismissals.
“This is a moral victory for the staff of Nepszabadsag, even if the ruling unfortunately has no criminal or financial consequences for the newspaper’s owner,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of the RSF’s European Union-Balkans desk.
“The judge’s ruling made it clear that, if the procedures had been respected, the newspaper would not have had to close and fire its 90 employees.”
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.