“In the entire history of the free press there is no precedent for what happened here that night, from the packing things up in boxes to locking us out of the email system. The editorial staff is united, but there is no progress in terms of the owner or Mediaworks dealing fairly with the employees. I am astonished that it was possible to do this in the middle of Budapest with one of the pillars of open society. The situation in this country is somewhat worse than we thought. This story about the taking of hostages in which we find ourselves is bigger than our story alone. It’s clear now that no segment of the Hungarian media can be called free from any point of view. The imbalance is intractable. Essentially only one story gets to the citizens: what Fidesz tells them.”
Translation of interview with Népszabadság deputy editors Péter Pető and Márton Gergely appearing in kreativ.hu on October 20th, 2016.
After a number of attempts I managed to sit down with Népszabadság’s two deputy editors, Péter Pető and Márton Gergely. The former has appeared on three university panels and television shows since the paper was suspended, and on that day he was appearing on ZDF and AFP programs. “In the halcyon days my telephone didn’t look like this,” he says showing the incoming calls during our discussion.
You are still sitting here as Mediaworks employees, aren’t you?
Péter Pető: Yes.
Are you getting paid?
PP: We have to receive that on the last workday of October, so we’ll see next Friday whether we get our basic wages as the company promised. Until then, we have been suspended from working.
Márton Gergely: They did this with a non-official letter, the letter is not signed. Our lawyers think that for this reason it is invalid. But apart from the fact that our company phones still work, since October 8th there has been no sign that we are employed. Apart from the letter, the owner has not been in contact with us.
Okay, the final pay day comes. After that, what motivation will you have to remain in this situation? Has the possibility of unilaterally terminating your employment and finding a new way not come up?
PP: This is a collective, with an exceptional number of interests and life situations. Obviously, many could leave immediately, but haven’t. For this reason the editors are united. In this way we have strength to fight for everyone, the proof readers, the picture editors, as well. On the editorial staff there is a pregnant woman, an employee in his trial period who gave notice at his previous workplace in order to contract with Népszabadság. If my memory is correct there are those who signed their work contract on September 29th. Until the situation of each employee is resolved, my hope and plan is that we stay together as a group.
MG: This is why we are extremely angry. They are punishing those along with us who had nothing to do with the stories about (minister for propaganda-tran.) Antal Rogán’s use of a helicopter or (Central Bank governor-tran.) György Matolcsy’s lover. We think we can contract about two things: solidarity towards one another and the maintenance of Népszabadság’s legacy. We’re fighting for the return of our photographs, notes, and documents so that one day historians can conduct research. The project of the future can come after that.
Beyond its historical significance, much of the legacy of Népszabadság originates from the period of the party state. Why is it important that you continue to work under the name of Népszabadság in the future?
PP: There is a part of the name to which much sticks which I personally detest. I was born in 1984. I have nothing to do with the construction of a party state, as opposed to those who disparage the brand by referring to its name. At the same time, this name pertains to the political daily paper with the highest paid circulation in Hungary. For us the brand is monstrously strong, obviously for this reason we cannot give it up. I also believe that our last front page will be indispensable to understanding the media and political history of Hungary. If somebody later looks at the stories on the front page about Antal Rogán’s use of a helicopter and György Matolcsy’s Zita Varga, knowing the newspaper was closed the next day, then it will help them understand everything that has been happening in this country in the 2010s. Despite this, I think there is a zero percent chance of retaining it.
MG: We ourselves did not believe that the brand name was so strong, and apparently neither did those who planned against us.
Did you deal with (Vienna Capital Partners majority owner-tran.) Heinrich Pecina before October?
PP: No, because he is our owner. But I think it is the same in much of the world. Obviously, if you ask later whether this was appropriate, then probably they will answer no. This company was the co-owner of FHB (Ground Credit Bank-tran.), and we always reported what was happening at the bank, but only as news. Obviously, we were not the ones to develop these stories. It was a professional lesson, for us as well as for index, that the paper’s editors need to clarify this at the outset and with the readers as well. An explanation for this was created after the fact at Index in a wonderful article written by Gergely Dudás.
Are you dealing wih Pecina now? We don’t mean things you said about him, but journalism, fact-finding work.
PP: We have neither a place to publish nor the right to do so. At this time we are not writing a newspaper.
Then what are you doing all day? Many of you have given interviews, but those of you who haven’t?
PP: The situation is much more complicated than it appears to outsiders. When they announce, say, that the parties are meeting, it does not reveal how many hours of negotiation and discussion are devoted to who is the lawyer and what happens afterwards. A Facebook page is operating, and maintaining that takes up not a little energy.
Who does that?
MG: All of us.
PP: We should note that many of these types of activities are not performed by our work colleagues, but by supporters and helpers.
Are there professional communication specialists among them?
MG: I think we ourselves are passing the test in this regard,
What possible outcome could there be to collective action with regard to the colleagues you mentioned? Do you not have a collective contract?
PP: We do not have a collective contract. We want to create the framework conditions.
What have you got in your hands?
PP: Our strength, however pathetic that may sound. Legal means, too, owing to the method used to paralyze us. In the entire history of the free press there is no precedent for what happened here that night, from the packing things up in boxes to locking us out of the email system.
What progress have you made over the past week?
PP: The editorial staff is united, but there is no progress in terms of the owner or Mediaworks dealing fairly with the employees at the end of the story, having closed it in a despicable manner.
MG: We decided yesterday how many want to continue this employment law fight. Everyone signed this agreement yesterday. That is important to us.
PP: I am astonished that it was possible to do this in the middle of Budapest with one of the pillars of open society. If it is possible to throw employees into the street here, then what happens in Szabolcs county when they close a factory? The situation in this country is somewhat worse than we thought.
Are there any other lessons to this story?
PP: I think we can take another step towards others understanding that there will not be content if we do not pay for it. That is, such content that contributes to the maintenance of democracy.
MG: We had a readership that spent its money on us. You can ridicule them, dismiss them as pensioners, and perhaps the 444 format is a lot sexier and relevant in terms of advertising, but most of their readers have never paid for political content in their lives. Every day 40,000 did for us.
Is it time for the paywall?
PP: If we look at the media market, then it is pointless to contemplate this because, on the one hand, there is no such thing as a Hungarian media market. On the other hand, the very moment they introduce “pay for content” we redirect every reader to media products maintained and indirectly paid for by the government. I think Hungarian media and publicity is in a trap from which I do not see a way out. This taking of hostages story in which we find ourselves is bigger than just our story.
We haven’t spoken about economic matters, even though in theory this is why they closed us. More copies of Népszabadság were sold on any given day than all the other political dailies combined, some of which is not audited. Look at how many copies the government authorities ordered of (pro-government) Magyar Hírlap and Népszabadság: 10:1, according to our information. If we add that we received 1 percent of state advertisements, then we see that we can speak about the market and about economic causes, but that it is totally irrelevant, because they do not exist. We can pretend. Internet Hungary and Media Hungary are good for that. There you can pretend that a media market exists.
How many copies of Fedél Nélkül are appearing today?
MG: Fedél Nélkül usually comes out in 8,000 copies of 12 pages each. Outside Budapest, it is distributed in 11 cities in the countryside. 12,000 copies appear. For us it was important not to push Fedél Nélkül aside, but to produce a 12-page supplement to the traditional content. In this way tomorrow’s edition will consist of 24 pages. Our association paid the additional cost of that issue.
What will be in it?
MG: This will largely be an opportunity to mourn. Here are 40,000 people who picked the paper up in their hands because they wanted to read it. Now this falls out of their daily routine. The physical connection is lost. We will help to replace this somewhat.
PP: Articles written by authors close in spirit to Népszabadság will appear in the paper, as will articles from outside contributors including Gusztáv Megyesi, Ervin Tamás, Gáspár Miklós Tamás, Péter Uj and many more.
Many things are known which contributed to the passing of Népszabadság, with which you have also dealt. Apart from the understandable outrage we also see a surprise that is surprising for us. Obviously, it was not possible to prepare for this manner of treatment, but it is strange that there were not different scenarios if something happens.
PP: The reason there aren’t any is because such things cannot happen. What can happen is that an owner says to us one summer that the paper is not making enough money, work out a business plan, and decide whether you are able to operate a print paper or only an online paper. And then they decide whether or not it’s okay. Or he says that he does not wish to fund this from October 1st, and that if we don’t find a buyer by then, then I’m closing the paper. That is also a way of going about it. On the other hand, I do not think it is possible to prepare for what happened. If that amounts to naïvité, then I confess to it.
What we mean is that for a long time rumors have been circulating in the industry that somebody, perhaps Lőrinc Mészáros, would purchase or influence Mediaworks. It was possible to know that it was neither in his interest to fund Népszabadság, nor to dispose of it in any way. Bringing him over to your side is not an option, because the subscribers would not accept this anyway.
PP: I was also naïve in this. Obviously, it was irrational for us to believe that Népszabadság could not be closed. We could imagine a number of scenarios, brutal cost cutting, the kinds of decisions to which the directors would not agree. We were occupied over the past months with renewing the online version: we hired eight people since summer, even as we continued to do the daily paper. It would have been difficult to rid ourselves of the thought that, if this ends, what do we do. Obviously, today I expect something different from Hungary at the corner store than before.
How would you interpret the earlier signs now? Because obviously a lot of rumors made their way to you.
PP: Of course. We had a lot of top journalists and we often heard news. I joined the paper on December 1st, 2008 as an apprentice. Since then they have whispered to me 177 times that Népszabadság was sold. And we’ve been through a lot over the past weeks. We’ve been all over the news, and we even went with the flow. I edited the Friday paper, the last one, at 11 pm I left, and I even stuck a label on my bean bag that this is mine.
MG: I heard from a colleague on Friday that this might happen. But I had heard this so many times before that I didn’t even tell Péter and the others. When I got up the next day, one of the writers wrote that he could not access his email. I couldn’t access it either, but I told him that obviously they were moving the server. Even when it visibly started happening, it did not occur to me.
Are you worried that they packed into Mediaworks the PTL daily papers whose readership is many times that of Népszabadság, but in the shadow of the scandal there is hardly any mention of this?
PP: Obviously, it is difficult for us to see beyond ourselves. It’s not that I’m worried, but that we’ll soon be coming to the end of the story. Now we see no segment of the Hungarian media can be called free from any point of view. The imbalance is intractable. Essentially only one story gets to the citizens: what Fidesz tells them. Of course there are subcultures such as Kreatív or 444.hu which reach their own subculture. But essentially Index and RTL Klub remain the only two independent mass media in Hungary today. As for how long this will last, there are rumors about this as well. The chances of the one are minimal. I wouldn’t even bet a cent that they won’t close everything that comes in their way.
How many investors have you spoken with recently?
PP: We are speaking with everyone. We are trying to call back everyone, even if it is only about a game stew so as not to miss winning the lottery. For now there is no realistic option or anybody who would have said here’s a billion forints, and you can still continue the Népszabadság name, and if you cannot free the name, then call the paper “Hóhányó.” It’s just that it costs many hundreds of millions of forints to pay the editorial staff, the printers, and to obtain the paper. For now there is no person who said that it’s his wish to take over and continue the paper as it is. There’s no reason to be surprised by this.
Only if they print Népszabadság can the 80 people continue together. But I don’t think Népszabadság will be printed any more. From this point on there are alternative ways. But what form they will take, obviously we cannot say at this time. But it should be said that the field is much narrower than I would have thought in the days following the (paper’s) suspension.