County newspapers in Borsod, Hajdú-Bihar and Szabolcs counties may join the growing list of media to come under the control of interests close to the Hungarian government, 444.hu reports. The current publisher of the three papers, Austria-based media company Russmedia CEE, could sell publishing rights to Vienna Capital Partners, an investment firm with connections to ruling party Fidesz which presided over the suspension by Mediaworks of Hungary’s largest national print daily Népszabadság last October before selling the media holding company to Opimus Press Zrt., a company listed on the Budapest stock exchange linked to Lőrinc Mészáros.
Russmedia is Eastern Hungary’s most important publisher, and its Debrecen-based Hungarian branch maintains a circulation of some 105,000 daily copies in the country’s three eastern counties alone: 35,000 copies of Észak-Magyarország, 31,000 of Napló and 38,000 of Kelet-Magyarország. By contrast, before its suspension and subsequent closure, Népszabadság published 37,000 daily copies. Russmedia also maintains each of those papers’ online editions, and produces several other free weekly publications and periodicals.
Regional papers are reportedly the only print media in Hungary that make any money, and are far more popular and influential in the countryside and smaller cities than national publications. The Hungarian branch of Russmedia, for example, made profits of HUF 106 million (USD 360,000), HUF 100 million (USD 340,000) and HUF 532 million (USD 1.8 million) in the last three years. Both Russmedia and Vienna Capital Partners declined to comment on 444’s questions about the possible acquisition.
Russmedia’s current hold on Hungary’s east pales in comparison to the near monopoly on county media in the country’s center, south and west. The former publisher of Népszabadság, Mediaworks, was recently sold to Opimus Press Zrt., a company owned by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s friend and presumed strawman Lőrinc Mészáros. Mediaworks currently publishes regional papers in 12 of Hungary’s 19 counties with a combined daily circulation of 260,000 copies. Papers in Győr-Moson-Sopron and Csongrád counties are also rumored to be at risk of falling into the hands of businessmen close to Fidesz. If they do, and if the eastern county papers are indeed sold to Vienna Capital Partners, then the Nógrád County Hirlap with a daily circulation of 6,000 would be the only remaining independent regional paper in Hungary.