Opposition paper Népszava to run government ads, critics fear manipulation

January 27, 2017

The editor-in-chief of print weekly Vasárnapi Hirek, J. Zoltán Gál, suddenly resigned his post Tuesday, citing an “unacceptable political environment” at the paper. Gál was the presumptive editor-in-chief of Hungary’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper Népszava (Voice of the People), of which he would have assumed control after the planned merger of the paper with Vasárnapi Hirek. After Gál’s resignation, Népszava announced it would begin printing paid government advertisements in its pages, raising alarms that the last remaining opposition daily in Hungary might have fallen under government influence.

According to research by investigative journalism NGO atlatszo.hu, both Fidesz and the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) may have had an interest in Gál’s departure, and an agreement between the parties might have led to Gál, who will step down in mid February, leaving as a condition for the self-described social democratic Népszava benefiting from government advertising.

“MSZP was averse to J. Zoltán Gál leading the merged paper because he was an undersecretary in the [socialist] Ferenc Gyurcsány government which broke the party in two,” Átlátszó writes. “Fidesz, on the other hand, would not gladly see a strikingly opposition paper, similar to Népszabadság which was devoured last October. Some kind of publication with the least impact possible would be fantastic.”

Átlátzsó writes that Fidesz and MSZP may have colluded to keep Népszava’s longtime editor-in-chief Péter Németh in his position and preside over the publication after the merger, in return for the promise of government ads, currently the only means by which print dailies in Hungary can remain profitable. Népszava’s managing director Elza Láposi said in an interview last year: “Not a single daily paper in Hungary today can function economically without receiving substantial state advertising. To clarify, there is also a need for ads from big businesses that are close to the government. Today in Hungary the advertising market is political, the left-wing media receive practically no government advertising.”

Much was made of the financial difficulties of leftist paper Népszabadság, which was controversially closed down in October. But an examination of the government advertising budget showed that the paper indeed received nearly no money from the government in advertising revenues, where pro-government papers such as Magyar Idők and Magyar Hirlap took substantial portions of their operating budgets from government-placed ads. Thus the government was able to financially support its chosen media through such advertisements, and put pressure on its opponents.

The voice of whose people? 

In addition to plying paid government ads, some fear Népszava’s content will become more government friendly, as occurred after changes in ownership at popular news site origo.hu and print daily Magyar Hirlap. Átlátszó reports that the paper’s new publisher would like Népszava to publish “opinions and analysis, and fewer investigative materials.”

HVG reports on rumors that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán knew as early as December that Péter Németh would ultimately control Népszava. The online daily writes that Orbán, in a closed discussion, made mysterious references to everything being “in Péter Németh’s hands now,” and, commenting on the paper’s difficult financial situation, said “they just have to write good stories and the advertisers will come.”

The prime minister’s comments came at a time when information available to the public indicated that J. Zoltán Gál would head up Népszava after its merger with Vasárnapi Hirek. At that time, the publisher of both papers, Geomédia Kft., planned to sell them to a Liechtenstein-based publisher, but later learned that the company might have had Fidesz money men in the background, which prompted Geomédia to break its contract and sell to a Vienna-based company owned by former MSZP treasurer László Puch instead.

The introduction of government ads and Orbán’s prophetic statements raised questions in the media over whether Népszava too had been compromised. However, Péter Németh has insisted that under his leadership, Népszava will remain critical of the government and will not become “a friend of Fidesz.”

“Journalists at internet portals are trying to walk around the idea…that there is something wrong at the 144-year-old left-wing paper,” Németh wrote in Népszava Thursday. “Mostly, they say, because according to certain allegations, state ads will move into its pages. Anyone should come forward with anything, the rumors should come out about background deals between MSZP and Fidesz, and Népszava still won’t be a friend to Fidesz, even if state advertisements should appear on some of its pages.”