A Hungarian court has ruled that the sudden closure of leading opposition daily Népszabadság last October was illegal, because its owners should have consulted with the employee committee in a bid to keep publishing and avoid laying off all its staff.
The owners, the Austrian-owned group Mediaworks, closed down the newspaper on October 9, 2016, without any warning, citing low sales as the reason. That morning, they denied their surprised employees entry to the premises.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) hailed the court's decision as a “symbolic posthumous victory for Népszabadság journalists”. According to Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of the RSF’s European Union-Balkans desk:
“This is a moral victory for the staff of Nepszabadsag, even if the ruling unfortunately has no criminal or financial consequences for the newspaper’s owner. The judge’s ruling made it clear that, if the procedures had been respected, the newspaper would not have had to close and fire its 90 employees.”
The announcement about the court's decision did not include any publicly available information as to whether the journalists would receive any kind of compensation for the wrongdoing.
Anita Kőműves was a journalist at Népszabadság’s foreign affairs section for 11 years, and for five years — until the closure of the paper — she covered U.S. politics. She was also part of the paper’s investigative team: one of her stories revealed how much Hungary spent on lobbying in Washington.
She told Global Voices that journalists from other media outlets — from left to right (except for far right) — showed solidarity with Népszabadság employees. Kőműves said the massive solidarity rose from the fact that the government has been working on completely changing Hungary’s media landscape since their first term started in 2010. The government, among other things, changed the Hungarian media law, dismissed more than a 1,000 employees from the public broadcasting company, and popular news site Origo.hu's editor-in-chief was sacked after a story was published about a state secretary's travel expenses.
We never considered the court ruling to change anything, it’s rather a moral victory which states that we should have had a legal representative with us and there should have been direct communication about what was going on. We knew this wasn’t going to change anything because the story had already ended the morning of October 9, 2016.
Many Hungarians keep asking former Népszabadság journalists about their future. Anita Kőműves recently started working for Vasárnapi Hírek news magazine, but many of her colleagues are still looking for jobs:
As soon as the paper was closed we started to think about starting up a new outlet, either print or online. But we knew that we would need a lot of money to run a newsroom of 80 people. However, we started talking to potential investors both in Hungary and internationally but very recently, around the beginning of January, we had to realize that [we] would not be able to raise the money to start up even a much smaller operation.
Népszabadság, which means Liberty of the People, was a major, left-leaning Hungarian newspaper founded during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It was privatized during the 1990s and changed owners several times, until Mediaworks acquired it in 2015.
The newspaper's closure sparked massive demonstrations in Budapest. Two and a half weeks later, Mediaworks’ owner sold Népszabadság to Opimus Press, a media group owned by an associate of Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban.
Reuters reported that this take over is part of a strategy implemented by Orban allies to secure domination within the country's media landscape by securing “a friendly media network.” The new owner had not held a media portfolio before.
Months after the shocking news, the newspaper’s digital archive has been switched back on. Now, at least, the publication's last articles are accessible to the public, along with the 2008 article that the author of this post wrote about the Global Voices Summit in Budapest.