People have been clamoring for more details about the demise of Népszabadság, Hungary’s leading independent paper. The story is complicated.
András Hont, in an opinion piece that appeared in HVG yesterday, said that “there is something grotesque in the fact that the burial of the former official daily paper of MDP and MSZMP has become the symbol of an attack on press freedom. But a fact remains a fact.” MDP or Magyar Dolgozók Pártja was the official name of Hungary’s communist party, which during the uprising of October 1956 changed its name to MSZMP or Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt. During the Rákosi regime the paper was called Szabad Nép (Free People), and this official organ was so intensely hated that its huge headquarters was practically demolished during the revolution. The new party paper was named Népszabadság (People’s Freedom). For a couple of years the party pretended that Népszabadság had nothing to do with Szabad Nép, but on February 1, 1958 the paper accepted the heritage of its predecessor and proudly displayed its 16 years of existence.
For me, who for years received Népszabadság thanks to my parents who thought I should know what’s going on in Hungary, the very name of the paper sent shivers down my spine. Therefore, after the third republic was declared and I discovered that Népszabadság hadn’t changed its name, I was upset. After a while, however, I was persuaded that Népszabadság was a brand name and a pretty good brand name at that. It had a large subscription base. People were accustomed to it. Although in the first few years a lot of papers came and went, the old well-established papers like Népszabadság, Népszava, Magyar Nemzet, and Magyar Hírlap remained. None of them changed their names, although all of them had to conform to the dictates of MSZMP before 1990.
On October 7, 1989 Népszabadság ceased being the official paper of MSZMP. Shortly afterwards it was sold to Bertelsmann AG and later, in 2003, to the Ringier Group. Throughout, a foundation of MSZP had a 27.65% stake in the paper; the association of the employees had a 1.42% stake. In 2014 Ringier sold Népszabadság to Vienna Capital Partners, which already owned several other newspapers and magazines in Hungary under the name Mediaworks Hungary Zrt, which was described as “the country’s right-wing media establishment.” A year later, in June, the financially strapped MSZP sold its shares to Mediaworks. With that move Népszabadság’s fate was sealed.
Shutting down Népszabadság’s operation doesn’t make the slightest sense in economic terms, especially in light of all the development efforts that had been initiated lately. Management was planning to strengthen the paper’s internet presence. In recent months, it hired many well-known journalists. Moreover, last year the paper actually made a 134 million forint (€440,568) profit, although it is true that in the two previous years it suffered substantial losses. But Mediaworks as a whole certainly wasn’t hurting. Only a month ago it purchased Pannon Lapok Társaság (PLT), which owned Fejér Megyei Hírlap, Napló, Vas Népe, Zalai Hírlap, Dunaújvárosi Hírlap, and several county online news sites.
So, what’s going on? 444.hu offered the most plausible explanation of this high-level maneuvering, most likely by Viktor Orbán himself, to get hold of a large chunk of the Hungarian print and internet media by buying Mediaworks. According to the information 444.hu received, Viktor Orbán had been eyeing the company as a target for some time, but he didn’t want Népszabadság to be part of the deal. Fidesz bigwigs thought that if Népszabadság ended up in the hands of an overtly pro-Fidesz oligarch it would cause too great a scandal. After all, Népszabadság is the emblematic independent paper of Hungary. Therefore, an agreement was reached that the sellers should simply stop the publication altogether before the actual sale of Mediaworks to the chosen Fidesz front man.
To complicate an already complicated story I have to say something about Vienna Capital Partners’ recent purchase of PLT. Isn’t it odd that a private equity company that is in the middle of negotiations to sell a company it owns decides to buy several newspapers to add to the company’s portfolio? Such a move makes sense only if the buyer made this enlargement of the portfolio a condition of the sale. It is common knowledge that Fidesz wants to have influence over regional papers, which are more widely read than the large national dailies. Since the German owner of PLT, Funke Mediengruppe, didn’t want to deal directly with overtly Fidesz companies, Mediaworks did the government a favor for what was undoubtedly good money.
Who is the buyer? There is a good possibility that it is Lőrinc Mészáros through a company established in April that raised €20 million from investors.
I don’t know why the Fidesz leadership thought that the sale of Népszabadság to one of the Fidesz oligarchs would cause a greater scandal than the paper’s liquidation. The international scandal was unavoidable in either case, but the choice of stopping publication and especially denying access to the paper’s internet archives was even more disastrous from the government’s point of view. It has further damaged the reputation of the Hungarian government just before Viktor Orbán, after the failed referendum, tries to convince Jean-Claude Juncker of the correctness of his position vis-à-vis the European Union.
Finally, a few words about the obvious sign of political motives in this case: closing Népszabadság‘s online archives. The government doesn’t want anyone to be able to read even past articles written by the staff of Népszabadság. Viktor Orbán wants to obliterate everything connected with that paper. He wants to change history. He wants to change the past, at least by omission. This calls to mind George Orwell’s memory hole in Nineteen Eighty-Four:
In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages; to the left, a larger one of newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.
A memory hole is described as “the alteration or outright disappearance of inconvenient or embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts, or other records, such as from a web site or other archive.” Or as another definition of ‘memory hole’ points out, it is “an attempt to give the impression that something never happened.” Viktor Orbán, if he was the one who came up with the idea to shut down Népszabadság and create a “memory hole,” made a very big mistake.
October 9, 2016