Today Vienna Capital Partners (VCP), the owner of Mediaworks Hungary Zrt., sold Népszabadság to a recently established company called Opimus Press Zrt., part of the Opimus Group, a holding company that is listed on the Budapest Stock Exchange (BÉT). The transaction is somewhat murky, so let’s begin with the two companies’ press releases, starting with that of the VCP Group.
Although VCP purchased “several regional papers” for Mediaworks at the end of September, less than a month later it was willing to part with its very successful business. Several companies had expressed an interest in the purchase of Mediaworks in the past, but VCP decided to sell it to Opimus Press because “its owners had declared their intention to publish the suspended Népszabadság.” VCP “decided on the earliest sale of Mediaworks Hungary Zrt. because of the misleading and malicious rumors that had surfaced.” The announcement emphasizes that the offer came after the October 8 suspension of the paper.
In their press release the new owners of Mediaworks explain that in March 2016 the Opimus Group (described by the Financial Times as active in the pharmaceutical preparations manufacturing sector and engaged in the manufacture and distribution of veterinary medicinal products), seeing great possibilities in the media market, established Opimus Press Zrt., “which has an adequate financial underpinning for the implementation of the necessary investments.” Opimus Group, like VCP, emphasizes that the offer to buy Mediaworks came after the suspension of Népszabadság. Even with the suspension of the paper, Opimus Press’s management, “after reviewing the situation of the company’s finances and its market position, decided that its already significant value could be further enhanced in the future.” VCP accepted Opimus’s offer on October 17, and today the Hungarian Competition Authority approved the sale.
In purchasing Mediaworks, Opimus is interested only in running the company in an economically efficient way. It “doesn’t want to influence their content in any way, especially as far as the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press are concerned.” The owners will take stock of the situation. They will, “first and foremost, attend to the possibility of the resumption of [Népszabadság’s] publication and will make a decision as soon as possible.” Opimus Press Zrt named Gábor Liszkay, János Lóczi, and Andrea Pintér to be members of the board of directors. Liszkay is the owner of Magyar Hírek and Lóczi is the CEO of its publisher. Andrea Pintér, according to LinkedIn, is a civil servant with a law degree.
The two statements were carefully crafted, perhaps by the same hand. The deal was certainly fast-tracked, if we are to believe the timeline of the statements. The whole multi-billion forint deal was closed in nine days, possibly fewer, and the owners convinced the Hungarian Competition Authority to give its blessing to the deal in another eight days. An amazing feat, especially if we consider that there were three weekends in the seventeen days between October 8 and October 25.
Instead of getting involved with the checkered history of the Opimus Group, let’s concentrate on what investigative journalists have managed to learn so far about the background of the sale of Mediaworks. I should say, for starters, that I have no doubt that the purchase of Mediaworks was orchestrated, most likely Viktor Orbán himself, quite some time ago but that it was only in March 2016 that there was sufficient assurance that the purchase of an expanded Mediaworks would be possible. It was at that time that Opimus moved and established Opimus Media Zrt.
My take on this sordid affair goes along the following lines. Viktor Orbán dearly wanted to acquire Nemzeti Sport, his favorite daily paper. He always has a copy of it in his Volkswagen mini-bus. Apparently, when he is not in Hungary, his office makes sure that he gets a copy of it. And to add Népszabadság to his media empire, or in the worst case to subtract it from the already dwindling media portfolio of his adversaries, must have been a deal clincher.
Mediaworks’ portfolio was impressive even before the addition of the seven regional papers, which are a real goldmine. At the time that Heinrich Pecina of VCP bought up several Hungarian newspapers and magazines in 2014, rumors circulated for weeks that his purchase may serve the interests of the Orbán government. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that turned out to be the case. Perhaps there was already an understanding between Orbán and Pecina two years ago that, after a suitable length of time, a deal could be struck between them. The deal most likely entailed the purchase of the additional papers that took place at the end of September. In support of this hypothesis, in March 2016 nyugat.hu, a liberal online news site, reported that Miklós Szabó, the managing director of Pannon Lapok Társasága (PLT), a company that owned five regional papers, had been fired because he negotiated about the possible sale of the company without the okay of its German owner. That is, he negotiated with someone other than Heinrich Pecina. Once Szabó was gone, negotiations about the sale of PLT to Mediaworks began and were, by the end of September, successfully concluded.
Now comes the big question mark: how could Opimus Group, which is “massively losing money” and lost five billion forints in 2015 alone, buy Mediaworks less than a year later? Apparently a few weeks after the establishment of Opimus Press, the company floated a three-year, 20 million euro bond offering. (The company’s market cap is only about 48 million euros.) According to hvg.hu, so far Opimus hasn’t managed to raise the full amount, but because of rumors about the possible purchase of Mediaworks, the price of Opimus shares on the Budapest Stock Exchange has soared, rewarding stockholders with a gain of 707% in a year. But what, in absolute terms, “soaring” means tells us a lot about the company. Opimus shares currently sell for 46 forints (€0.14 or $0.16). This is the stock’s highest price in the last three years.
By all indications this company should have hit the dust a long time ago. But last December two mysterious investors appeared: Cariati Holding, registered in the Cayman Islands, and TAC from Nigeria. Bloomberg’s description of the former tersely says that the company “does not have any Key Executives recorded.” TAC is “a composite one stop professional and consulting firm providing Professional Services, Business Consulting & Financial Advisory Services to clients in various sectors of the economy.” A strange company to invest in the Hungarian media market. These two companies own 40% of the outstanding Opimus shares.
The suspicion is that behind Opimus is Viktor Orbán’s alter ego, the former gas-fitter now billionaire Lőrinc Mészáros, the ultimate stróman (front man). The Budapest Beacon reported that “Opimus’ new manager, Zoltán Csik, holds leading positions in a number of Mészáros’ business ventures.” Orbán’s dirty tricks are hard to unravel, but I’m sure that investigative journalists will do their best to do just that in the coming days.