BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A company linked to an ally of Hungary's prime minister said Tuesday it had acquired the publisher of the main opposition newspaper, which suspended publication 2 ½ weeks ago.
The Opimus Group said it bought 100 percent of the shares of Mediaworks Hungary through its fully-owned Opimus Press subsidiary at an undisclosed price. Mediaworks was owned by Vienna Capital Partners, belonging to Austrian businessman Heinrich Pecina.
Opimus has been linked to Lorinc Meszaros, a former gas fitter whose businesses greatly expanded with the help of large state contracts. He has attributed his success partly to his friendship with Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The deal, announced on the website of the Budapest Stock Exchange, seemed to confirm concerns that the sale of Mediaworks, publisher of the leftist Nepszabadsag and many other newspapers and magazines, would further diminish press diversity and increase the influence of Orban's government over Hungarian media.
"A huge media company has just gotten closer to (Orban's) Fidesz party," Gabor Polyak, a lawyer who leads the Hungarian watchdog group Mertek Media Monitor, said.
Polyak noted that the 12 county papers in the Mediaworks portfolio, which also includes sports daily Nemzeti Sport and business daily Vilaggazdasag, reached an audience that does not usually rely on independent, online news sources.
"With the local newspapers, they are acquiring a very important group of readers," Polyak said.
Nepszabadsag is unlikely to be revived, even as a right-leaning paper as some observers have assumed, since two other pro-government daily newspapers already are on the market, Polyak said.
In the last few years, several other publications and radio and television stations have been set up by Orban's inner circle or have come under its control, and now show an unquestioning, pro-government bent.
Vienna Capital Partners said the permanent closure of Nepszabadsag "was at no time an option" and that it sold Mediaworks to Opimus because "it declared an interest and preparedness to seriously review the re-launch, as always planned by us, of the temporarily suspended Nepszabadsag."
"We hope that the new owner will be successful ... in solving the current issues at Nepszabadsag," VCP said in a statement on its website.
The last issue of Nepszabadsag for now appeared on Oct. 8, when Mediaworks surprisingly suspended publication because of the paper's falling readership and losses of over 5 billion forints ($17.6 million) since 2007.
U.S.-based media watchdog Freedom House, whose 2016 report categorizes media in Hungary as "partly free," said the deal reflected the government's growing influence over media matters.
"Hungary's government uses ownership as a political tool to silence critical coverage," Robert Herman, Freedom House's vice president for international programs, said. "The EU and the United States should forcefully condemn this attack on the press."
Egyutt (Together), a small opposition party, said that as a result of the purchase of Mediaworks, Hungary's "freedom of the press is being eliminated at a (Vladimir) Putin- and (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan-like tempo," in reference to the presidents of Russia and Turkey.
Since returning to power in 2010, Orban has exerted strong state influence over practically all aspects of Hungarian life. The government has extended its business activities, from textbook publishing to energy supplies, and state media, always under political control to some degree, has been turned wholeheartedly into a government propaganda machine.
In the midst of the migrant crisis, Orban has also taken to emphasizing the Christian values of Hungary and Europe in contrast with the many Muslims reaching the continent.