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Owner insists Népszabadság shut for business reasons

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The decision to suspend publication of Hungary’s biggest left-leaning daily broadsheet, which came out of the blue ten days ago without the knowledge of staff, was made purely for business reasons, Heinrich Pecina, head of Vienna Capital Partners, which owns the paper’s publisher, repeated in an interview with Austrian weekly Profil appearing online Saturday.

Pecina explained the decision by claiming that the paper has been making losses for more than ten years, with circulation dropping as interest in the product has gradually declined, the Austrian weekly reported. Pecina added that Népszabadság accounted for approximately 10% of the revenues of publisher Mediaworks, while the paperʼs related costs hurt overall profit by approximately 40%. 

Pecina was reported criticizing the Hungarian management for their “poor communication,” as well as for underestimating the reaction the suspension would receive. He dismissed speculation about political motives for the suspension of the paper.

ʼNobody wantsʼ Népszabadság

According to the Austrian paper, Pecina was ready to hand Népszabadság over as a “gift” to then co-owner the Hungarian Socialist Party in 2015, but the party “did not have the courage to accept this suddenly so important newspaper as a present,” Hungarian news agency MTI quoted Pecina as saying. “The truth is that none of those now making a noise want this newspaper. Nobody wants this newspaper,” Pecina said.

As reported earlier, the staff of Népszabadság declared willingness to buy or find another owner for the paper in order to ensure continued publication. Staff members turned up in Vienna to protest the suspension and discuss terms with the owners, to no avail. Meanwhile, articles by former Népszabadság journalists are set to be published in the forthcoming edition of Hungarian homeless paper Fedél Nélkül.

Népszabadság journos respond

Reacting to the Pecina interview on the "Népszabi Szerkesztőség" Facebook page, Népszabadság staff wrote that "if the reasons for the ʼsuspensionʼ of Népszabadság were truly economic, then Mediaworks management should first and foremost have indicated that adjustments needed to be made, or a new plan drawn up, to ensure economical operation."

The Facebook post also questioned Pecinaʼs assertion that Népszabadság no longer attracts the interest of readers, noting that up until the paperʼs suspension on October 8, it remained the highest-circulation political daily in Hungary.

The Népszabadság staff expressed the view that "the owner and management would have made a responsible decision about the paperʼs future if they had told the editors in advance how they imagined the paper might continue to function and how much time they would give to work out the new structure. This did not happen: instead, colleagues at the newspaper only learned that there might be a problem with operations on the day of ʼsuspensionʼ last Saturday."

Népszabadság staff also firmly rejected Pecinaʼs suggestion that they were "more worried about their pay than the newspaperʼs future" during negotiations over the weekend of the closure, noting that staff had offered to forego a "significant portion" of their October pay in order to keep the newspaper on the market and to elaborate a new plan for operation by the end of October. This offer, however, received no response, the Facebook post added.

Freedom of press or freedom to fail?

The publication of Népszabadság was abruptly halted from one day to the next, without staff being warned that the paper they were currently working on would not hit newsstands. While the publisher attributed the halt to losses the paper accumulated and cited a portfolio transformation, staff have suggested that the silencing of Népszabadság is a blow against freedom of the press in Hungary, noting that the paper had been carrying various reports that were uncomfortable for Hungary’s governing elite.

The governing Fidesz party was reported as saying that the suspension of the paper was a business decision and not a political one, adding that interfering with a media owner’s decision would itself count as a violation of press freedom, Hungarian news agency MTI reported.

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