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Mészáros adds media to vast pro-government conglomerate

Talentis Group Zrt., owned by key government ally Lőrinc Mészáros, has completed significant acquisitions on the local media market, which will be among a vast swath of media interests donated to Közép-Európai Sajtó és Média Alapítvány (Central European Press and Media Foundation), the centralized pro-government media conglomerate.

The owners of a vast majority of Hungaryʼs pro-government media outlets said Wednesday they are donating their companies to the foundation, creating a huge right-wing centralized media conglomerate, according to reports by the Associated Press (AP) and Hungarian online news portal index.hu.

The foundationʼs assets will include cable news channels, internet news portals, tabloid and sports newspapers, and all of Hungaryʼs county newspapers, several radio stations and numerous magazines, among others.

Among the brands to fall under its control are Hír TV, Echo TV, Origo.hu, Nemzeti Sport, Bors, Magyar Idők and Figyelő. Most of the publications donated to the foundation were acquired or founded by allies of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the past few years, AP noted. Some of them have turned from relatively independent outlets into "unabashed supporters of the government, with copious state and government advertising," it added.

Mészáros announced that he has bought the publisher of pro-government daily Magyar Idők, while indirectly assuming ownership of Lapcom, Inform Média, and Mezőgazda Lap- és Könyvkiadó. According to a press release sent to the Budapest Business Journal, Mészáros intends to donate his combined media outlets under the aegis of Talentis Group to the Central European Press and Media Foundation.

Talentis claims that with the donation, Mészárosʼs aim is to ensure the protection of "national values and traditions," strengthening the opinion-shaping role of the conservative written and electronic press, and providing widespread information for local communities.

Several of the owners of the aforementioned companies are nevertheless turning to the Hungarian Competition Authority (GVH) to object against the procedure. The change of ownership does not take place in practice until the end of the GVHʼs procedure.

After the acquisition of Echo TV, MediaWorks, and Printimus, the current deal means Mészáros will have control over Magyar Idők and radio station Karc FM. Talentis Groupʼs subsidiary MediaWorks will control more regional papers, assuming control over Kisalföld, Délmagyarország, Bors, Észak-Magyarország, Kelet-Magyarország, and Hajdú Bihari Napló. The company also bought agricultural publisher Mezőgazda Lap- ás Könyvkiadó Kft., bringing papers like Szabadföld, Vidék Íze, and Diéta & Fitnesz magazine into the fold.

Press freedom under threat

Since Orbánʼs return to power in 2010, international studies consider media freedoms to have steadily declined in Hungary, according to the report by AP.

The report cited Ágnes Urbán, a media analyst at Budapestʼs Mérték Média Monitor, as saying that after the "unprecedented" move, "it makes little sense to speak about freedom of the press in Hungary" because of the power the conglomerate will have.

"From now on, there will be total control over the right-wing media close to the government," Urbán said. "These companies were competing with each other for state advertising, but now the system will be much more centralized and it will be much cheaper to operate. The few remaining independent media companies will also find it much, much harder to operate, since they will be up against a single, huge competitor."

The foundationʼs media operations will be led by Gábor Liszkay, a newspaper publisher known for his loyalty to Orbán.

The AP report quotes surveys on media freedom published annually by Freedom House, a Washington-based think tank, which has described Hungaryʼs media status as only "partly free."

AP noted that the 10 companies which have joined the foundation donated their media outlets and publications for free, even though their joint estimated value is possibly USD 100 million or more.

"The fact that such valuable firms were practically gifted to the foundation at the same time and in such an obviously coordinated way shows very well how the Orbán system works," said Pál Dániel Rényi, a journalist specializing in media matters at Hungaryʼs 444.hu news portal. "This demonstrates that the owners did not have real ownership rights, but were carrying out political tasks ... and ultimately itʼs the political will that gets its way."