Hungary’s biggest opposition newspaper suspended activities yesterday, heightening concerns about press freedom under right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Since sweeping to power in 2010, critics say that Orban, as well as undermining key democratic institutions, has muzzled the media in the former communist EU member state.
Citing substantial losses, Nepszabadsag’s Austrian-controlled owners Mediaworks said that the decision to halt the left-leaning paper’s online and print operations was purely commercial.
Mediaworks said in a statement to the MTI news agency that the printing presses would not roll again until “the formulation and realisation of a new concept”.
But the opposition Socialists said that it was a “black day for the press” and called a demonstration outside the daily’s offices in Budapest.
In Brussels, the head of the main centre-left group in the European Parliament, Gianni Pittella of the S&D Group, said that the paper’s financial position was merely a “pretext”.
“The freedom of press is today in danger in Hungary,” Pittella said in a statement. “It is very common in undemocratic systems to shut down hostile newspapers that undermine the power of the government by uncovering – for example – clear cases of corruption. This is exactly what has happened at Nepszabadsag.”
Nepszabadsag, launched sixty years ago and whose name means “The Free People”, is Hungary’s biggest-selling broadsheet newspaper and has frequently criticised Orban.
Before last Sunday’s referendum on the EU’s refugee relocation scheme, Nepszabadsag published several stories about scandals involving politicians close to Orban, 53.
Critics say that Orban has turned public broadcasters into government mouthpieces and that large swathes of the private media have been bought by government-friendly oligarchs.
Yesterday there was speculation that Nepszabadsag might be sold in the same way, but Mediaworks, which bought Nepszabadsag and several other Hungarian titles in 2014, made no mention of any divestment.
Nepszabadsag appeared on newsstands yesterday as normal and staff at the paper were not informed in advance of the suspension.
“The country knew about (the suspension) before we did ... our first thought was that it had been a coup,” said a message posted on the paper’s Facebook page by its editors.
A senior editor said that journalists, who had prepared stories for a Monday edition, were suddenly prevented from entering the workplace, and had received letters informing them of the suspension.
“We are in shock. Of course they will try and paint this as a business decision but it’s not the truth,” the journalist, who did not wish to be named, told AFP.
“It’s a huge blow to investigative journalism and freedom of the press. Nepszabadsag was the largest group of quality journalists in Hungary trying to defend basic freedoms, democracy, freedom of speech, and tolerance.”
Mediaworks said that Nepszabadsag’s circulation had tumbled 74% in the last 10 years, racking up losses of around 5bn forints (€16.4mn, $18.4mn).
Opposition party the Democratic Coalition Party said the suspension was a “major and fatal blow to democracy”.
Even Jobbik, the radical right-wing party came to the paper’s defence, saying that once it “replaced this profoundly corrupt” government, the party would “restore press freedom”.