BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A close ally of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has acquired an ownership stake in a major print and online media company, adding weight to suspicions that the company's closure of the largest opposition newspaper last year was politically motivated.
The Opimus Group said Friday in a statement that Lorinc Meszaros has acquired a 16.9 percent stake in the company. In October, Opimus bought Mediaworks Hungary, which owns over 40 print and online publications, including several county daily newspapers and the country's main sports and business newspapers.
Shortly before its acquisition by Opimus, Mediaworks suspended the publication of Nepszabadsag, a decades-old left-wing newspaper which had published a series of stories detailing shady dealings of some government officials. Mediaworks claimed that the closing of Nepszabadsag was due to losses of over 5 billion forints ($17 million) since 2007.
The opposition Socialist Party, which once owned a stake in Nepszabadsag through a foundation, said it would restore press freedoms if it wins the 2018 elections.
"It's disgusting that Viktor Orban stuffs his friends with succulent state contracts and then eliminates the free Hungarian press with those stolen public funds," the party said in a press statement. "Until now, such things were done only by dictators who later wound up on the garbage pile of history."
Investigative journalists already connected Opimus to Meszaros last year, though he publicly denied any links. Opimus also revealed that Konzum Management, another company partly owned by Meszaros, bought another 14 percent of its shares.
"Even till now, the Mediaworks management was selected from the most important people in the Fidesz media empire," said Gabor Polyak, a lawyer who heads the Mertek Media Monitor watchdog group. "Now, however, everyone can see that the end of Nepszabadsag was a political act. We know this because it has become clear that Orban's media czar was behind the move."
Fidesz is the governing party led by Orban.
Meszaros, a village mayor and former gas fitter enriched mainly through lucrative state contracts, has attributed his huge business success partly to his friendship with Orban.
In December, Meszaros also bought Echo TV, a cable news and talk channel, further boosting the dominance of pro-government media in Hungary.
Polyak said that by officially acquiring the Opimus stake only after his purchase of the cable TV station, Meszaros was able to skirt the scrutiny of media authorities.
The Mediaworks portfolio and Echo TV are part an ever-expanding group of publications and broadcasters faithfully promoting Orban's policies without much, if any, questioning. In return, the privately owned, uncritical media is the overwhelming destination for public advertising expenditures.