Hungary’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper, the self-described social democratic Népszava, has narrowly averted absorption by a Fidesz-connected media interest, and instead been sold to a company owned by former Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) politician and treasurer László Puch and his business associate Dénes Simon, according to a statement released Tuesday by Vasárnapi Hirek.
Puch and Simon’s Vienna-based Horizont Handels und Industrie AG bought the paper, along with Vasárnapi Hirek and popular agricultural weekly Szabad Föld, from previous publisher Geomédia Kiadói Kft. The publisher reportedly agreed in October to sell the three publications to Liechtenstein-based company 21st Century Invest AG but did not go through with the deal, allegedly due to the latter’s failure to fulfill conditions of the contract, according to mno.hu.
However, contractual issues were not the only factor motivating Geomédia to break the contract with 21st Century. The investigative journalism site atlatszo.hu discovered that 21st Century’s lawyer in Hungary is also the lawyer to András Tombor, a businessman, viniculturalist, and so-called adviser to the prime minister on security matters. Tombor also advises the man tasked by the prime minister with building a new pro-government media empire in Hungary, Árpád Habony. Tombor, who has been implicated in the misappropriation of billions of forints in EU Jeremie start-up funds, reportedly lent Habony the money with which to launch his Modern Media Group, which publishes pro-government online daily 888.hu, online and print weekly Lokál, and online and print tabloid Ripost. Suspecting Habony was attempting to get his hands on the three papers, Geomédia broke its contract with 21st Century.
“The unpredictable events following the signing of the contract in October do not only make the stable financing of the papers difficult, but have called into question the commitment of the foreign owners-to-be to the preservation of the papers’ intellectual, public and political orientation,” Geomédia wrote of 21st Century. “In recent months, in light of the events following the closure of Népszabadság, the businesspeople who value independent and critical media, as well as the preservation of left-wing, democratic European values, have created the necessary resources for the long-term financing of the papers.”
Puch, who was a Socialist MP from 1994-2014, informed the papers’ staffs of the change in ownership on Tuesday, and announced that management of the papers will continue to be overseen by Geomédia. According to Puch, ownership by his company will not interfere with the editorial content of the papers, and the company will ensure the full freedom of the editorial offices from political interference.
Geomédia announced in a statement that it will continue to work on the integration of Népszava and Vasárnapi Hirek editorial staffs with the goal of preserving Népszava’s liberal-democratic traditions and values, and of filling the gap left by Népszabadság and reaching out to its former readers.