The editorial staff at Hungary’s leading oppositional daily, Nepszabadsag, got a rude awakening on October 8, when they suddenly realized that they were out of work.
At 9 a.m. that morning the Nepszabadsag website went offline. Instead, Mediaworks, the company that owns the daily, put an emergency press release on the site, stating that the paper was temporarily suspended, citing as reasons the need to find a “new business model” due to financial losses and plummeting circulation.
At the same time, the daily’s editorial staff were locked out of their email accounts and prevented entry to the paper’s office in Budapest. Nepszabadsag’s editorial staff on social media said they were the victims of a putsch. Later that evening thousands of people gathered in front of parliament protesting the closure of the paper.
The closure of Hungary’s biggest opposition daily, in operation since 1956, comes on the heels of several scathing stories it published lately exposing details of alleged government corruption involving some of Prime Minister Orban’s closest colleagues.
The closure of Nepszabadsag was praised in ruling party Fidesz circles. Party vice president Szilard Nemeth said “it was about time the paper closed down” and that he would “shed no crocodile [sic!] tears” as a result. The government has not commented yet.
States have a responsibility to protect media freedom and plurality, including by ensuring transparency of media outlet ownership, to combat risks of undue pressure on journalists and editors.
Sadly the Hungarian government has a well-documented history of contempt for media freedom. Soon after being elected in 2010, the Fidesz administration amended media laws to ensure it controlled appointments to the main media regulator and introduced vague content restrictions with the possibility of high fines, all of which have had a chilling effect on press freedom and triggered self-censorship.
Between 2010 and today, in five waves of dismissals, the head of the state broadcaster, closely linked to the government, fired over 1,600 employees, some of them journalists who were unwilling to toe the government line in what they described as editorial interference. From 2011 to 2013, the main media regulator stubbornly refused to renew the frequency of a critical independent radio station, Klubradio, despite six court rulings in its favor. In 2014, the editor-in-chief of a major online independent daily, Origo, was fired following the publication of a story on the alleged misuse of public funds by a government official. Concerns that the sacking was linked to the story were heightened by media reports pointing to the close links between Magyar Telekom, the owner of Origo, and the government.
Criticism and recommendations from the EU and the Venice Commission, an expert advisory body of the Council of Europe, have done little to improve the situation of media freedom. Unless the EU gets serious about addressing grave concerns of media freedom in Hungary, chances are that more oppositional outlets risk facing Nepszabadsag’s fate.