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Népszabadság staff continue work, plan legal steps

After negotiations on selling Népszabadság were called off yesterday after the owners cited illness, the silenced journalists of the left-leaning daily newspaper continued working in a co-working office space in Budapest and say they plan legal action against the paperʼs closure, according to reports.

The editorial staff of Népszabadság in front of their former editorial building, where access is denied (photo: Facebook page of editorial staff).

Journalists of left-leaning daily Népszabadság yesterday said in a Facebook post on their “Népszabi” editorial page, which is run by the journalists themselves and has already garnered more than 46,000 followers, that legal steps will be taken against the publisher today, due to “continuous legal breaches” that the journalists have faced. They added in the post that they are currently working on stories that would have been published if the paper had not been shut down.

After the hastily silenced journalists were prevented from entering their editorial offices, editor-in-chief András Murányi said on Sunday that the staff is committed to keep working and would like to find a new owner for Népszabadság. Later, owner Mediaworks said in a statement that it is willing to sell the paper, and negotiations were scheduled for Monday, but postponed by the publisher citing illness.

Publisherʼs acting CEO quits

Online news portal index.hu reported today that the acting CEO of the publisher resigned Monday, only two days after he was appointed. Mediaworks, which is owned by an Austrian investor, Vienna Capital Partners (VCP), put out a statement Monday evening that Viktor Katona had resigned due to health issues.

“Viktor Katona, the finance and operations director and acting CEO of Mediaworks Zrt., requested his employment be terminated today for health reasons, and has also resigned from the board of directors,” said a press release from the Népszabadság owners.

Editor András Murányi announced this morning that despite the postponed negotiations on selling the paper, the editorial staff has offered a purchase price of EUR 1 for the paper, which he described as “an especially fair trade if news about the HUF 5 billion losses that the paper has accumulated is true,” according to index.hu.

Népszabadság was closed down on Saturday with no prior notice and its editorial staff have not been allowed to enter their editorial offices ever since, not even to collect their personal belongings. Their e-mail and server access were denied immediately that day.

Conflicting interpretations

While the owners of the paper said the move to shut down Népszabadság was made purely for economic reasons, claiming that the paper has dramatically lost readership and has accumulated losses in recent years, journalists have called the move a “coup,” and pointed to political pressure. Rumors reported in the media in the past few months suggest that the publisher could have been purchased by governing Fidesz-friendly circles, and that the paper has thus been silenced for political reasons. Reports also note a number of scandals linked to government figures that have been reported by Népszabadság in recent weeks.

Apparently commenting on the latest revelations around the paper, government spokesman Zoltán Kovács said press freedom is “doing well” in Hungary, Reuters reported yesterday. The Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has said it regards the closure as a “reasonable business decision,” with one party vice chairman saying it was “high time” the paper shut, Reuters noted.

At the same time, the European Commission, which has clashed several times with Orbán over reforms affecting the media, the judiciary and the central bank, expressed alarm about the latest development and said media freedom and pluralism were at risk in Hungary, Reuters added in its report. However, no official reaction has come from the European Union for the time being, according to reports.

“Sudden closure of Népszabadság sets a worrying precedent. I stand in solidarity with Hungarians protesting today,” Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, tweeted on his personal Twitter account.

MKB Bank connection raised

Index.hu also reported today that Népszabadság journalists have revealed documents suggesting Mediaworks used the name of the paper and other names associated with the brand as collateral to get a loan from MKB Bank in August. In practice, the online news source noted, this means the sale of the newspaper cannot be completed without the consent of the bank, and makes it impossible for journalists to restart the paper under the same name, or a similarly sounding name.

MKB Bank came under the control of Hungaryʼs central bank in December 2014. The state-owned bank was later sold to a consortium of investors in March, but the actual owners remain unknown, independent online news source EUobserver reported.