Inside the killing of Népszabadság, Hungary’s biggest opposition paper

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András Murányi felt that something was strange. He had been the editor-in-chief of Népszabadság for more than a year and he never had any problem with reaching the CEO of the publishing company. On 7 October, however, he could not get hold of him.

That evening the football teams of Hungary and Switzerland played a World Cup qualifier and Murányi wanted to postpone the deadline for sending the paper to print. This would have made it possible to include the match result in the early edition as well, but the decision had to be approved by the CEO, Balázs Rónai. When Rónai failed to return Murányi’s repeated calls, the editor-in-chief sent the CEO a text message at 2:43 PM. He explained his request and the CEO finally responded with a short “ok.” However, the approval for the postponement had not arrived so Murányi sent another text message a few minutes after 4 PM. Rónai did not respond to that and in the end the paper did not get the permission for going to press later.

Next morning, Murányi understood what had happened. It was Saturday and he was at home when he got the news that the publishing company unexpectedly suspended the publication of Népszabadság, Hungary’s largest opposition newspaper. Soon he also learned that Rónai was unavailable because he disagreed with the decision and handed in his resignation the day before.

Mediaworks, the publishing company, said that it suspended the 60-year-old paper because it had been generating losses for years. The paper’s staff argued that the decision was made because of political reasons. This version was supported by the fact that a few weeks later Mediaworks was purchased by a company with links to a businessman close to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Direkt36’s investigation also found signs that politics played a significant role in the suspension. Over the last five weeks we spoke with nearly 30 people: former and current Mediaworks employees and others involved in the media industry and politics with knowledge about what happened with the paper. The conversations, of which many were conducted on the condition of anonimity, showed that Népszabadság, a paper long suffering from the universal newspaper crisis and from some of its own management’s wrong decisions, has become a victim of power games of well-connected businessmen and the apparently politically orchestrated redrawing of Hungary’s media landscape.

Another sign of political involvement is that while Mediaworks’ previous owner had kept on denying any reports of the company’s upcoming takeover, Népszabadság’s political reporters had been hearing about this from their government sources for months. One source warned a journalist just a few days before the suspension that something significant would happen to the newspaper very soon. The staff, however, did not receive clear information on the suspension in advance.

What made them especially angry is that Mediaworks deceived them. They were told that the whole company would move to new headquarters on the weekend of October 8 and 9. Népszabadság’s staff was asked to pack up their belongings the day before but then next morning their access to the internal emails was cut off and they received a letter informing them about the paper’s immediate suspension. They were never allowed to enter the new headquarters and now it seems unlikely that Népszabadság will ever be published again. Its online archive is unavailable, too. As one journalist put it, they “took our head and banged it into shit.”

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The elegant Austrian

In the final phase of Népszabadság’s tragic story, Heinrich Pecina, a 66-year-old Austrian businessman with no previous involvement in the Hungarian media market, played an important role. Pecina has been conducting business in the Central European region for years. In Hungary, he was known for a long time only for his investments in the chemical and energy industries.

In 2014, however, he became the owner of Népszabadság and other papers as a result of a major deal in the Hungarian media sector. That year Ringier and Axel Springer, two big Western European media companies, finalized their merger, which was approved by the Hungarian authorities on the condition that they have to sell some of their publications. This was when Pecina’s company, Vienna Capital Partners, entered the scene and bought these papers, including Népszabadság.

At the beginning of 2014, after the announcement of the merger deal, the Austrian businessman personally introduced himself to the staff of the papers he had just bought. Pecina, his hair and mustache always well groomed, stepped on the stage of Corvin Cinema and tried to convince his audience that he would be a responsible owner. Speaking in German with the help of an interpreter, he highlighted Népszabadság, saying that he knows what an important role it is playing in the Hungarian media landscape, according to a participant.

The introduction, however, did not turn out to be very effecticve. “He was telling us with great empathy” that it had been his longtime wish to have a media company in Hungary but

“it was clear that in two weeks he would have been able to say the opposite of this with the same emphaty,”

said one participant. Another one said that one of Pecina’s phoniest remarks was that he is a strategic investor because every morning he reads all the newspapers that are delivered to him. “We laughed at this quite a lot in the following days,” recalled the journalist.

By the time Pecina took over Népszabadság, the paper had already left behind its heyday. Print newspapers are in crisis almost everywhere in the world but some of the problems of Népszabadság, formerly the official paper of the state party during the socialist era, were self-inflicted. Although since 1990 Western media companies owned the majority of its shares, the Socialist Party, the successor of the state party in the dictatorship, also remained among the shareholders. The paper’s staff owned some shares, too, and during the time of prosperity, they managed to acquire such a high level of autonomy that later, when the difficulties started, made it hard for the majority owners to change the way the news organization operated.

“They built a wall around themselves, which made it impossible to change the internal structure,” said a former senior employee of the Swiss publishing company Ringier, which was a majority owner of Népszabadság for years. According to the employee, Ringier tried to modernize the paper but

the leaders of the editorial team blocked all these efforts while they were unable to generate any change from the inside.

Népszabadság’s senior editors felt, however, that the editorial team’s autonomy in certain decisions and even the presence of the Socialist Party as a minority owner were important guarantees that “the paper cannot be pushed around.”

As a result of the prolonged internal struggles, by the time Pecina appeared as the new owner in 2014 the news organization had been weakened significantly. By then it had also become clear that the Socialist Party, suffering from its own political and financial problems, would not be able to help strengthen the paper either. Pecina, however, promised just that. “It was always his mantra that he wanted to make Mediaworks one of the most important media companies of Hungary,” said one former employee.

At the beginning, he appeared to follow through those promises. The first major change at Népszabadság was that Mediaworks’ management hired a new editor-in-chief, Marcell Murányi. He was coming from the most popular tabloid paper, Blikk, which made some staff members uneasy at Népszabadság, with its long history as a serious political newspaper.

Murányi, who looks strict with his shaved head but has a generally easygoing demeanour, made it clear that he did not plan to change the Népszabadság’s leftwing character. He also let the staff know, however, that he would like the paper to be better at digging up newsworthy stories.

Some unpopular decisions were also made with the arrival of Murányi. The budget was cut back substantially, the paper was reduced to 16 pages from 20, and, according to a senior staff member, everybody’s salary was decreased by 3 to 8 percent. “The bigger salary you had the higher the cut was,” said the journalist. He added that several people left because of the wage cuts.

Despite the cuts, it appeared that there would be room for developments, too. Murányi promoted some younger journalists and talks on developing the paper’s presence on the web also started. In addition to the progressive steps, however, the staff had to face some uncomfortable effects of having a new owner.

They learned that certain topics had to be treated specially in their news coverage.


Forbidden stories

The staff received suggestions from the management that the paper should not publish articles – apart from official statements or small news items – about subjects related to FHB Bank. The journalists, especially those on the business desk, were not really surprised at this because it was well known that Pecina was a shareholder at FHB. At first, they tried to resist and carried on writing about the subject but, according to a former journalist in the financial section, Murányi soon made it clear that

„FHB was a taboo.”

In the meantime, another development made some staff members suspicious. At the beginning of 2015, Attila Mihók, then-CEO of Mediaworks introduced Júlia Beer, a PR professional, to the management of Népszabadság and Világgazdaság (a business daily in the Mediaworks’ portfolio). According to one of the persons present at the meeting, Mihók said Beer was an advisor to the owner, and that she would occasionally meet the editors-in-chief to help „better coordinate between the owner and the papers.”

Although Mihók, known as a strong-willed manager, did not give voice to his dissatisfaction, his body language showed that he was unhappy with the arrival of Beer, according to one participant. (Mihók refused to comment for the article.) Some journalists had similar feelings because they saw Beer’s presence as a breach of the paper’s autonomy. “VCP [Vienna Capital Partners] just pushed the Trojan horse into the system, wanting to have a closer supervision over the content,” said a former senior employee at Mediaworks.

From then on, Beer, who was described by Mediaworks employees as having excellent communication skills, was a frequent guest in the newsroom. She regularly discussed ongoing stories with the editors-in-chief, and often made remarks on them. She was careful not to present these as direct intructions. As one former senior editor said, “Juli is a professional communications expert, and she used the most sophisticated tools. She was remarkably good at packaging her messages.” Instead of giving orders she just pointed out when an FHB press statement was about to be published and asked how the papers would write about it. This tactics is dangerous because her remarks could clearly lead to self-censorship, the former editor explained.

Another former Mediaworks-employee had a similar experience with Beer, who always “suggested” or “doubted” things, but never gave orders. „Why do you have to always write about these things?” she would ask when a story about FHB Bank was brought up.

Not only FHB was a taboo but practically everything in relation with its majority owner and CEO at the time, Zoltán Spéder. Spéder had been close to government figures, and even became an important business partner of the state during the government-orchestrated integration of the country’s savings banks. Pecina and Spéder were not only linked through FHB but they had had a close business partnership since the ‘90s. “Their relationship is somewhere in between business partner and friendship, yet they never socialized privately,” according to a source close to Spéder. “Spéder spends his days with work, anyway,” the source added, “he’s not very good at nurturing social relationships.”

A telling example of Spéder’s special treatment, is when it was revealed that his name also appeared in the Panama Papers, showing that he had connections to offshore companies. When the news broke in May this year, one of the online editors was asked by his superiours not to write about it. But the call was unnecessary anyway: self-censorship worked already. “I knew that writing a news story on it would surely cause troubles,” the editor said. So, he decided to ignore the story.

Some journalists also told Direkt36 about the special attention that Sándor Csányi, the leader of OTP, Hungary’s biggest bank and therefore a rival of Spéder, got at Népszabadság. Reporters said that they received instructions suggesting that the publishing company would not mind to see articles painting a negative picture about Csányi. A senior editor told Direkt36 that they could write anything about Csányi but it was true that “Pecina wanted to know about anything published about the banker.”

The staff usually followed the guidelines on not to write in-depth stories on Spéder and his interests. Except once, when one of the journalists made a professionally questionable decision on a story connected to the banker, and this triggered an internal conflict.

This happened not long after András Murányi’s appointment as the new editor-in-chief in August 2015. Marcell Murányi, the former editor-in-chief resigned after causing a lethal car accident. The two are brothers but András also had a long journalistic career behind him, of which he spent 14 years at Népszabadság.

András Murányi had only been in charge for a month, when the conflict burst out. On 9 September 2015, the government announced to build a network to distribute European Union funds and to hire partners for that. The distribution partner would be chosen in a public procurement process, the government’s statement said. When reading the statement, Balázs Horniák, editor of the financial desk, remembered that Sándor Csányi had made a remark a few months before: he had suspected that in the public procurement, FHB might be the winner.

Horniák decided to write an article on the subject, not only citing the statement, but also mentioning Csányi’s remark and also explaining Spéder’s increasingly favourable position with the government. The article was ready by the evening. Horniák did not even try to put it into the print version, knowing it would not survive the editing process. However, he had direct access to the website of Népszabadság. So he put the story there under the title „Csányi: A friend of the government is favoured.”

After a few hours, Horniák got an angry call from András Murányi. The editor-in-chief asked whether Horniák intended to „carry out a coup” against him. He also asked why Horniák had not briefed him about such a sensitive article before publication. They eventually agreed to discuss the matter the next day. Accordingly, Murányi invited Horniák to his office the next afternoon. He told him that even hot topics could be covered but it was important to be loyal to the owner, and the stories connected to his interests should not be pushed too far.

Horniák and Murányi had not personally liked or respected each other before, but after the incident, their relationship got even cooler. Finally, Horniák got an email on 30 September calling him to a meeting on the fifth floor to talk about his future at Népszabadság. Murányi, in the presence of an HR-employee, told him that he was going to be laid off. Officially, the cause was the unification of the political desk with the financial desk. The Csányi article was not mentioned. Six other staff members were fired alongside Horniák.

Besides Spéder’s business interests being taboo, some journalists were instructed to be careful with stories on János Lázár, the head of the Prime Minister’s office. Lázár is admittedly a friend of Spéder, and they also had a work relationship because of the cooperation between FHB and the government. However, in Lázár’s case, the instructions were even more vague than than in Spéder’s case.

“We were told to be careful with stories about him, for example when writing the headlines.

I did not understand the instruction fully, and I was not sure what to tell my colleagues,” an editor said. When asked, Murányi only told him not to “attack Lázár unnecessarily.”

Murányi and the editor had arguments over the matter several times. The source remembers Murányi repeatedly saying that “there are very few free media outlets, and there is no place where the owner has no interests at all.” Murányi thought this was an acceptable compromise, “because there were a lot of other things that we were free to write about.”

When asked about it, Murányi told Direkt36 that the publisher indeed wanted to be told about the articles involving Lázár, but this did not mean that Népszabadság was not allowed to write stories uncomfortable for the minister. Once, he recalled, there was an article about politicians’ fuel costs, and it turned out that Lázár spent the most. The title of the article originally emphasized Lázár being the top spender, but later it had to be changed, because the publisher asked to „go easier.” In the end, Lázár was left out of the story’s headline.

It was also very important to be careful about information regarding Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s family, several journalists said. This was at least partly due to ethical reasons, because it was indeed not always clear what was to be considered in the public interest when it came to family members, they explained.

But there was more to that. There was also a story circulating in the newsroom, according to which Orbán once asked two things from Pecina. One was that the Austrian businessman should let him know if he ever wants to sell Mediaworks, the other was a request to leave Orbán’s family alone. Several journalists heard this from András Murányi, who, according to two sources, learned about the request from a member of the management. (Orbán and Pecina did not respond to questions.)

Népszabadság, however, sometimes did write about Orbán Ráhel and her husband István Tiborcz and their business. In October 2015, for example, Népszabadság published an article about the couple buying expensive paintings at an auction. After publication, Murányi was called by one of Pecina’s close advisors, telling him that „Vienna was outraged,” which meant that Pecina was unhappy about the article. Murányi told the advisor that it was justified to write the story because the painting purchase raised questions of how the couple could afford it. He also said that this article was just like when the British press publishes stories about Prince William and Kate Middleton. Hearing that, the advisor sounded relieved, and said, „good, I’ll tell this to Pecina.”


The team

There might have been a few topics that were forbidden but in the meantime there were efforts efforts at the paper to build a strong team to cover other important stories. In this, Murányi, described by his colleages as brash but hard-working, relied mostly on younger staff members and new hirees.

In one of first steps, he promoted Péter Pető, who was only 31-year-old at the time, to be one of his three deputies and later put Dániel Bita of the same age in charge of the desk covering politics and business. In the fall of 2015, Népszabadság hired Ferenc László M., one of the country’s leading political reporters. In the middle of 2016, József Spirk, another well-connected political journalist, and Roland Baksa, a prominent business reporter, joined the paper as well. All three were coming from online news sites.

Murányi changed the news operations, too. He instructed his editors that instead of filling the paper with daily news they should plan stories in advance and do follow-ups on them.

During the last year, a team was put together to work on bigger projects. The group, led by Pető, held meetings almost every week – mostly on Thursdays – and in addition to Bita and the new hirees it included Gábor Varga G. and Anita Kőműves, who had been with the paper for years.

This team produced several of the stories with which Népszabadság managed to dominate the news cycle in its final months. It was one of the Thursday meetings where Roland Baksa told his colleagues that György Matolcsy, the governor of the central bank, has a lover. “We discussed it whether there is a public interest in this and how we should approach this information,” recalled Pető the first steps of their investigation, which eventually revealed that Matolcsy’s lover has held unusually high and well-paid positions at the bank.

The team members made efforts to help each other, with Spirk checking his colleagues’ tips with his well-placed sources, and Anita Kőműves, a reporter on the foreign desk, looking up information in international databases and sharing with others her data journalism skills she had acquired while studying in the United States.

Murányi was happy with the changes. He was glad to see that the newsroom started buzzing, with journalists gathering spontaneously and sharing information with each other about their ongoing stories. What made the editor-in-chief especially proud was when other news organizations picked up Népszabadság’s stories. Every night, he switched on the TV to watch the news program of RTL, the most popular channel in Hungary, and was cheering loudly whenever they credited Népszabadság.


Sinister signs

This professional drive kept growing, but at the same time members of the editorial team became more and more concerned about news regarding a potential ownership change at Mediaworks. The staff had been suspicious about the intentions of Pecina from the very beginning, but in the spring of 2016 the speculation about a politically orchestrated takeover got stronger.

The rumours reached the newsroom mainly through its journalists covering politics and media, who were briefed about the upcoming changes by their sources. For example, in the middle of May, Ferenc M. László wanted to write an article about the expected reorganizations of media market when in a background conversation one of his sources told him that “this is funny, then you would also have to write about yourself.” According to M. László, his source told him that the fate of Népszabadság is also uncertain because

it was already decided that Mediaworks would be purchased sometime in 2016 by a buyer close to the governing Fidesz party.

The source did not reveal who the buyer would be, but around this time similar information reached Murányi, too. The editor-in-chief received a call from a business player in April who said that according to their information a newly founded company called Opimus Press would be the buyer of Mediaworks.

This turned out to be true, a couple of weeks after the suspension of Népszabadság, on 25 October Pecina sold Mediaworks to Opimus Press, a company reportedly close to Lőrinc Mészáros, a friend of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Half a year ago, when rumors about Opimus’ takeover started, Heinrich Pecina fully denied them to the staff. In June, the Austrian businessman personally rejected these allegations during one of his regular visits to the office of Mediaworks.

By then, a few news reports – albeit still based only on information from unnamed sources – had been published about Mediaworks’ potential takeover. One June morning András Murányi even sent the links of these articles to the management, asking for explanation. A few hours later he received a phone call from Júlia Beer telling him to go to the sixth floor for an impromptu meeting with Pecina.

People who know Pecina describe him as a very disciplined negotiating partner who never chit-chats and says only as much as it is in his interest. “He keeps himself under control. He does not only have a poker face but keeps also his gestures under control. He does not grimace, does not smooth his hair,” Murányi said and added that this was exactly how Pecina behaved during the June meeting at Mediaworks.

The Austrian businessman greeted everyone, then asked them whether they spoke English, and after everyone nodded he continued in this language. He brushed the issue of news reports aside by saying that he did not want to comment on rumors. Then he tried to calm everyone by saying that the sale of the company is not on the agenda, but on the contrary, they are planning an expansion. “We bought something,” he announced, and even though he did not say what, many quickly guessed that this was probably the Pannon Newspapers company, which owned four regional papers. (At the beginning of July the company officially submitted its purchase intention to the Competition Authority.)

According to Murányi, Pecina was so convincing at the meeting that nobody asked any questions. “What he said fitted into the company communication of the past year that despite the rumors everybody should calm down,” the editor-in-chief recalled.

The news about the meeting and Pecina spread quickly amongst the staff of Népszabadság, but it still did not calm things down. Developments in June raised further concerns among the journalists. For example, a new employee, Andrea Pintér, appeared in the four-member legal unit of Mediaworks. Previously, the middle-aged woman held senior positions in the state sector, as director of the General Directorate of Public Procurement and Government Supply and legal and international director at the Hungarian National Recreation Foundation. Before joining the public sector in 2010, she had been working for international media companies, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Her background in the state sector and her activities in Mediaworks raised some eyebrows at Népszabadság. In July, the lawyers and the management moved down to the floor of the newsroom and after that the journalists could also see how she held long and frequent talks with the directors of the company. Many of them assumed that her job was to do internal preparations for the firm’s takeover.

This suspicion appeared to be corroborated months later when Pintér became one of the three directors of Mediaworks after Opimus Press purchased the company in October. The chairman of the board is Gábor Liszkay, who has long been a major figure in the media empire close to governing party Fidesz.

Pintér told Direkt36 that Pecina asked her to join Mediaworks because of her deep experience in international media law. She said that she had nothing to do with the closure of Népszabadság but she confirmed that she had known Liszkay for a long time.

While Pintér was settling into her job during the summer, Népszabadság’s journalists received more information about the upcoming takeover from their sources in the government. The topic started to dominate the water cooler conversations in the office. ”Several times I had seen getting together of the core group which had information about what was to be expected,” said a journalist about political reporters.

These rumors, however, did not include the possibility of the closure or suspension of Népszabadság.

Many hoped that their survival would be secured even if Mediaworks were purchased by an owner close to the government.

András Murányi told several journalists that Népszabadság would remain the current system’s Géza Hofi, the legendary comedian who was allowed to make critical jokes about leaders under the socialist dictatorship.

Murányi was made hopeful by the news one his reporters got from Orbán’s circles. The prime minsiter’s aides told the journalist that the renewed newspaper became “more modern and fair.” Allegedly, Orbán personally made a remark that the paper became more dynamic. In Murányi’s view, if the prime minister, who is an avid football fan, really said that then this should be interpreted as a favorable assessment because dynamism counts as a positive factor in football.

The editor-in-chief was nevertheless prepared for a more negative version but this still did not count with the suspension of the newspaper. When one member of the management asked him in the middle of the summer what he considered as the worst-case scenario, he said this would be the political re-orientation of the newspaper, which would lead to the loss of both staff members and subscribers. “Readers were sending letters about cancelling their subscriptions already because of the rumors about a takeover,” Murányi said.

Despite the growing speculation, some major developments were carried out at Népszabadság, giving hope to the frustrated staff. After years of hesitation it was finally decided that the online version of the newspaper would be upgraded and the publisher even approved several new hirings. Some candidates turned down the offer during negotiations due to the uncertain situation of Mediaworks, but the company still managed to hire several prominent journalists with serious online experience. The new website was also finished and its activation was scheduled for the end of 2016.

The enthusiasm for investigative reporting also continued to grow and as part of these efforts, the leading editors were even willing to take on the management. For example, this August the management tried to prevent the publication of an article about the spendings of the Budapest 2024 company, which is responsible for the Hungarian application for the Olympic games. Bita and Pető worked together on this article as they had been pursuing the story for some time. Previously, they broke stories by obtaining the feasibility study of a potential Olympics in Budapest.

The conflict with the management started after Pető had finally received the requested information as a result of long correspondence with Budapest 2024. Murányi then signaled to Pető that the even though he also wants to publish the story the management had concerns about it. CEO Balázs Rónai personally talked about this with Pető, and according to sources familiar with the conversation, Rónai said that the article would cause great damage to the publisher, because they would lose significant amount of advertisement money during the upcoming Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro. Pető told him that if the article could not be published he and Bita would both resign.

After the tense discussion Pető rushed to Murányi. The editor-in-chief told his deputy that if he and Bita resigned, then he would also leave. The dispute with the management continued the same day, at another meeting with the participation of members of the management and Murányi and Pető. The conflict was resolved here after they reached an agreement that the article would not be published during the Olympics but only afterwards. The story finally appeared on 2 September, on the front page of the newspaper.


The endgame

While the editors were facing increasing pressure, the general mood in the newsroom was deteriorating due to the growing speculation about the future of Mediaworks. “By the end of the summer the staff became very demoralized,” one of the journalists said. She recalled that around this time one of her collaegues was contacted by another company with an job offer saying that

“your company would die anyway, come work rather with us.”

News reaching Murányi were also becoming worse. At the end of August, Rónai told him that the staff should find a buyer for Népszabadság. “I asked him, are we in such deep shit? Rónai replied that it was not sure whether there would be a place for Népszabadság in the new structure,” Murányi recalled. Later he contacted “two big investors” to buy the newspaper, but neither of them were interested. They said that they could not believe that Népszabadság could really be shut down. They also said that they are afraid of the government and therefore they do not want to invest in the newspaper.

In September, the editor-in-chief received more concrete information about the fate of the newspaper. A source he described as close to the government told him that Magyar Idők, a newspaper openly symphatizing with the government, was to move in to the new headquarters of Mediaworks, and “you guys will be wiped out.” Murányi got even more concerned when later Rónai told him that he had heard that Gábor Liszkay, the publisher of Magyar Idők, would become the new CEO of Mediaworks.

Liszkay – who then indeed took over the management of Mediaworks after its October sale – has played a major role in the setup and leadership of the Fidesz-leaning media in the past twenty years. For a long time he was the editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, a rightwing newspaper, but after the paper’s owner, Lajos Simicska had a falling out with Viktor Orbán, he left Simicska and started to work on building a new media empire supporting Fidesz.

According to a source close to the government, who has been in contact with several people involved in the reorganization of the media landscape, Liszkay also played a substantial role in the takeover of Mediaworks.

According to the source, the process was accelerated by the fall of Zoltán Spéder, the manager of FHB Bank and the former ally of the government. Earlier this year, criminal investigations were launched in cases linked to the banker, the government-friendly media ran a smear campaign against him, and the parliament approved legislation hurting his businesses. The motivation behind these apparently orchestrated attacks is still not clear, but with Spéder’s weakening it became obvious that whatever influence he had over Mediaworks in the past, he would not be able to enforce it anymore.

The preparations for the takeover went quickly, and the Competition Authority approved the deal of Mediaworks’ purchasing Pannon Lapok Társasága unusually fast, only a month after it had been submitted. Liszkay, however, did not really know what to do with Népszabadság, according to the source close to the government and familiar with the decisions regarding Mediaworks’ takeover.

According to this source, Liszkay was considering three scenarios. One of them was to keep Népszabadság and to transform it into a “leftwing paper under control.” The problem with this solution was that this would have generated serious internal conflicts and Mediaworks still should have covered the costs of the paper. The second scenario was to sell Népszabadság to a leftwing investor, but someone who can still be controlled by the government. The weakness of this version was that Mediaworks would not have got a good price for the paper and Liszkay did not want to enter a deal like that.

The third option was to shut down the paper. According to the source, this was chosen in the final days because

even a week before the suspension it was not clear which scenario they would pick.

(Liszkay did not respond to questions sent to him through Mediaworks.)

The way Pecina told his plans with Népszabadság to Balázs Rónai, the CEO of Mediaworks, also suggests that it was an abrupt decision. During the two days before the suspension, Pecina and Rónai met at least twice, according to people close to them. On Thursday, 6 October, the two had dinner in Gresham Palace, a luxury hotel in Budapest. The following day they had a more formal meeting in the office of a law firm working for Mediaworks.

Rónai had been expecting for months that something would happen to Népszabadság and therefore he had prepared a letter of resignation. During his second talk with Pecina, it became clear that the Austrian businessman had made up his mind about a plan for Népszabadság that Rónai could not agree with. Rónai told Pecina that he was leaving the company. Even at that meeting, Pecina did not reveal all the details of his decision. He did not tell Rónai that the suspension would take place the very next day. (Rónai did not comment on the questions sent to him.)

In the meantime, Népszabadság’s staff had no idea about these developments. All of them were getting ready for moving to the new headquarters. Following the management’s instructions, they packed all of their belongings to boxes and put stickers on them with their ID number.

Murányi was in constant contact with the assistants who handled the logistics of the moving. He was still upset by not getting approval for postponing the printing deadline but otherwise it appeared to be a usual working day for the staff.

Pető, who was in charge of putting together next day’s paper, Bita and a few more political reporters went to have one final lunch at one of their favorite places in the area, Kompót Bisztró. Over their meals they were talking about what restaurants they would find in the new neighborhood.

Pető and Bita, who celebrated his birthday that Friday, were not in a hurry because for them as editors the work always got more intensive after 4 or 5 PM, when the stories from the reporters and the different desks started to arrive. Normally, by 9-10 PM the newsroom became silent but that day a few journalists decided to stay after they were done with their work. They gathered around the desk of the online section and opened a few bottles of wine. They were chatting, with the football match between Hungary and Switzerland in the background, while Pető and some of his colleagues were putting the finishing touches on next day’s paper.

The kitchen had been emptied days ago because of the moving so the journalists drank the wine, which was not of very good quality anyhow, from plastic cups. Even though the newsroom staff had been frustrated by the growing speculation about the future of the publishing company, that evening the conversation was about other matters. They discussed personal stories and recalled that at the time of their last moving they organized such a big a party that they were talking about it even days later.

This time there was no such party, and the drinking was over by 10:30. Pető left a little later and travelled to Hatvan, his hometown. His father and brother were in Budapest to see the World Cup qualifier and they picked him up after the match near the stadium. Next morning, Pető received a call from the sports editor, Iván Hegyi, who said that there was a problem. Pető’s first thought was that he must have made a mistake with the article about the match. But then Hegyi told him that he was calling because the paper had been suspended.

Pető immediately decided to go back to Budapest. He took a train and when he was not on the phone, he was thinking about what could have happened. In his deep frustration he even started to cry. Népszabadság was his first workplace, he started working there as an intern. “This was my life,” he said and mentioned that he kept a log on the articles he wrote. He had more than one thousand, but on the 8th of October, this list has come to an end, too.

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  • Bálint Fabók
  • András Pethő

    András is a co-founder, editor and executive director of Direkt36. Previously, he was a senior editor for leading Hungarian news site Origo before it had been transformed into the government’s propaganda outlet. He also worked for the BBC World Service in London and was a reporter at the investigative unit of The Washington Post. He has contributed to several international reporting projects, including The Panama Papers. He twice won the Soma Prize, the prestigious annual award dedicated to investigative journalism in Hungary. He was a World Press Institute fellow in 2008, a Humphrey fellow at the University of Maryland in 2012/13, and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University in 2019/20. András has taught journalism courses at Hungarian universities.

  • András Szabó

    András worked eight years as a journalist at Origo, a then prestigious online news site, but also spent several years at Index and news outlets. At Direkt36 he covers Russian-Hungarian relations, activities of business circles close to Fidesz, and political decision making processes of the Orbán government. In 2011 he received the Gőbölyös Soma Award dedicated to investigative journalism in Hungary, and in 2010 he won the Quality Journalism Award, both for a series of articles that focused on a corruption case connected to the former Socialist-led government.