It took less than 24 hours after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s landslide victory in this month’s parliamentary elections for a fresh earthquake to hit Hungary’s already battered media landscape.
On Sunday, April 8, Orbán’s Fidesz party won a comfortable two-thirds majority to lead the country for a third four-year term. By Monday afternoon, it was an open secret that Lajos Simicska, one of the country’s richest oligarchs and owner of several media outlets, would quickly dispense of his media empire.
On Tuesday, it all became public. Journalists at Magyar Nemzet, the last political daily with no formal or informal financial ties to the government, were informed that the 80-year-old newspaper would go to press for the last time on Wednesday, April 11. Lánchíd rádió, a radio station also owned by Simicska, stopped broadcasting on the same day at midnight. The following week, dozens of journalists and other employees were laid off at Hír TV, the only Hungarian news channel, which was founded by the oligarch himself in 2003. The editor-in-chief of Heti Válasz, a political weekly owned by Simicska, has been told to look for investors willing to buy the paper.
“I was as surprised by the sudden and radical downsizing as most Hungarians were by Orbán’s two-thirds majority”, Zsombor György, Magyar Nemzet’s former deputy editor-in-chief, who has emerged as the reluctant spokesman for the almost 200 people terminated from Simicska’s empire, told the International Press Institute (IPI). “I was expecting a much slower process that wouldn’t end in total capitulation.”
It is certainly a surprising twist in the war pitting Simicska against Orbán that began in early 2015. The two had been close partners, even friends, for three decades, dating back the 1980s when they were part of the same group of university students that gave birth to Fidesz. The two even shared a dormitory room for some time and Orbán once famously referred to Simicska as “the smartest among all of us”.
After the fall of communism in 1989, Orbán went into politics, while Simicska, who served as the treasurer of Fidesz for a period of time and at one point headed the Hungarian Tax Authority, was considered his “money man”. Critics have accused Simicska of being the mastermind behind the peculiar form of corruption prevalent in Hungary, which has seen the channeling of EU funds towards government-friendly businessmen. Simicska and Orban fell out very publicly in 2015 for reasons still not entirely clear, and the two have been enemies ever since.
As the Financial Times noted in its pre-election profile of Orbán, “according to one study, Simicska’s companies in 2013 won 12 per cent of all public procurement contracts by value in Hungary. Since 2015, he has won only a handful of state contracts and been squeezed out of some of his former pro-Fidesz media assets”.
These media assets were still a thorn in the side of Orbán’s government. Before 2015, Magyar Nemzet toed the Fidesz party line, but in the past three years it had been, by Hungarian standards, a fairly independent and hard-hitting political daily. György, who had worked at Magyar Nemzet since 2002 and has never personally met Simicska, told IPI that the paper had never been freer than during this period.
“We’ve been accused of supporting Jobbik (the formerly openly racist, far-right party that has moved towards the center of the political spectrum and was widely seen as Simicska’s closest ally before finishing a distant second in the election), but this was not true at all”, he said. “The fact of the matter is that they are simply by far the largest of the parties that have never been in power and therefore can’t really be blamed for Hungary’s ills.”
According to György, the shuttering of Magyar Nemzet has not been as radical as that of Népszabadság, the political daily closed in October 2016 by its owner, an Austrian private equity known for safeguarding the Orbán goverment’s interests.
“We are all still allowed to freely wander the paper’s former premises and we will all receive our wages for another two months, just as Hungarian law dictates”, György noted. “We are not even angry at Simicska.”
It is much less clear what the future holds for Magyar Nemzet’s journalists and the other former employees of the oligarch’s rapidly shrinking media empire.
“There have been news reports about Hungarian billionaires wanting to buy the whole company, and we also tried to approach some rich Hungarians, but we haven’t received any encouraging responses”, György said. “Everybody is too afraid of crossing Orbán. And time is running out. I’m perfectly aware of the fact that in one or two weeks time my colleagues will start to look for new jobs.”
He thinks that the best way forward, and possibly the only way to hold at least some of the former Magyar Nemzet editorial room together, would be to build on its widely respected weekend magazine and, by adding some political reporting to its cultural and lifestyle coverage, transform it into a commercially viable magazine.
“The other option is to just give up on this entire country and go into gardening”, he added.
Media watchers before the elections predicted that a Fidesz victory would spell trouble for the still-functioning independent media in Hungary. The reinforced two-third majority is obviously an even bigger threat.
In Győr’s view, “everybody working at those outlets should prepare for the absolute worst-case scenario.”
“Since all the opposition parties are so weak, the government now sees the independent media as their enemy. This is why they are already talking about the press being losers and how losers eventually die”.