Media advocate: Hungary paper closure blow to press freedoms

BUDAPEST, Hungary – The closure of Hungary’s main opposition newspaper is a “huge blow” to the country’s media diversity and press freedoms, a European advocate for media said Sunday.

The left-leaning Nepszabadsag newspaper’s sudden apparent end pointed to reasons beyond the accumulation of losses noted by publisher Mediaworks, said Dunja Mijatovic, media freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

“The way it was done raises reasons for concerns — without transparency, without due process,” Mijatovic told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Vienna.

“It’s hard to believe this is just a simple business move. All this to me looks like something that’s definitely further damaging media freedom in Hungary.”

Mijatovic said that the shutting of the paper’s online edition was also strange, since that is an option chosen by many publications which abandon print editions.

Journalists at Nepszabadsag, a paper with roots in the communist era but which went through many changes since free elections in 1990, said that they had packed up their computers and other equipment on Friday for a weekend move back to their old newsroom which had been shut for renovations.

Managers promised pizza and a celebration for Sunday’s reopening and instead employees received notices of suspension early Saturday from motorcycle couriers.

“The deal is that the publication is suspended and we are free from having to work, but in theory we are still employees,” Nepszabadsag journalist Jozsef Spirk said. “No one inside knew anything.”

Negotiations between editorial staff and the publisher on Sunday didn’t achieve any breakthrough and further editions of the paper were in doubt.

Mediaworks said Nepszabadsag had lost over 5 billion forints ($18.4 million) since 2007 and was generating “a considerable net loss” so far this year.

The move was also condemned by opposition parties, which accused Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government of trying to extend its dominance over the media.

In recent years, Orban allies have purchased, sometimes with loans from state banks, many print and online publications as well as radio and television stations, all of them adopting unquestioning pro-government positions.

Orban’s Fidesz party said it considered the newspaper suspension “a rational economic decision, not a political one,” but a leading party official said “it was high time” for the paper’s demise because of its communist-era past.

Mijatovic also called on the European Union to more closely monitor media developments in Hungary.

“The European Commission should pay greater attention to the issues related to press freedom in Hungary,” she said, because the government’s media policies in Hungary were setting a bad example for EU candidate countries and those striving for democracy.

“If you want to live in democracy you have to pay a price and you need to hear differing, critical voices,” Mijatovic said. “At the moment, those voices are disappearing in Hungary and I think this is extremely dangerous.”