Members of the editorial staff of Népszabadság held an international press conference in Vienna this morning about last Saturday’s lock-out in Budapest. Afterwards, they went to the headquarters of Vienna Capital Partners (VCP) to demand answers to various questions from the owner of the paper’s owner, Mediaworks Hungary Zrt., including whether the decision to close the independent print daily and take its website and digital archive offline had anything to do with the fact that VCP’s majority shareholder is currently on trial for fraud.
The 60-year-old left-wing paper was represented at the press conference by deputy editor Márton Gergely, G. Gábor Varga, and Áron Kovács.
Gergely told Austrian print daily Der Standard that there is a party interested in buying Népszabadság if the current owner is willing to sell the paper in a manner that would enable it to continue its activity. However, he said the signs do not indicate that the goal is for Népszabadság to remain, even though there is no economic rationality to the journalists continuing to receive their salary from a paper that has ceased to exist. In this way, Népszabadság journalists are being held hostage because they are not permitted to work elsewhere. The editorial staff would like to remain together and for the owner to make possible a change of ownership as soon as possible so that they can get back to work.
Gergely also spoke about how the Hungarian government’s strategy changed after Brussels forced it to change its media law, by substituting economic means for legal ones. The government had assessed a special tax on advertising revenues, driven international media groups out of the country, and deliberately placed government advertisements in media outlets that it controlled. He speculated that by purchasing Mediaworks in 2014, VCP founder Heinrich Pecina was able to serve as a kind of middle-man so that the group of publications would not pass directly into the hands of Hungarian oligarchs.
Mediaworks reacted to the interview with the following statement:
“Népszabadság did not close. Its publication was merely suspended temporarily because of serious losses. Our goal is to develop a sustainable business model together with the editorial staff.”
(And if you believe that, we’ve got a bridge or two to sell you in Budapest-ed.)
The Népszabadság editorial staff announced Friday afternoon via their Facebook page that they had managed to enter the headquarters of Vienna Capital Partners and deliver a letter demanding immediate answers to the following questions.
- Why did it close Hungary’s leading political daily despite a successful reorganization, reduction in losses, and the fulfillment of the owner’s economic expectations?
- Why and to whose benefit was the digital edition turned off, and what savings did they hope to achieve by locking their colleagues out of their email accounts?
- What is it planning to do with their colleagues who are currently condemned to inaction, and when does Mediaworks intend to fulfill its obligations as an employer?
- Is there a connection between closing Népszabadság and the criminal trial of Heinrich Pecina and legal assistance requested of the Hungarian authorities by Austrian prosecutors, or with VCP’s shares in the FHB bank?
In addition to immediate answers to these questions, Népszabadság employees are demanding VCP issue a legal declaration that it neither opened their colleagues’ electronic correspondence, nor violated the publisher’s obligation to protect journalistic sources.