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Hungary's Gov't using commercial ruses to squeeze out independent media - The Guardian

When staff at Hungary's left-leaning Nepszabadsag newspaper packed up their stuff on a Friday night a year ago, they thought they were just moving across town. As it happened, they were moving out altogether. Within hours, the paper had been shut down, literally overnight.

Within weeks, ownership of the other publications in the group had been transferred to a new holding company linked to Lorinc Meszaros, an oligarch ally of populist prime minister Viktor Orban and mayor of Orban's hometown.
"It was an ambush," recalls deputy editor Marton Gergely. "All the circumstances spoke against economic reasons for closing the newspaper down suddenly. We felt betrayed, lied about, cynically played. There were journalists close to retirement worried about their pensions, there were photographers, technical staff, and not all of them were opposed to Orban."
But Nepszabadsag, which had suffered a decline in circulation and heavy losses according to claims from the owners, was no isolated instance. Across central and eastern Europe – and indeed in some parts of the world beyond – political and economic forces are combining to put independent media under unbearable pressure.
The combination of falling newspaper circulations and ad revenues has shattered the business model and left newspapers weakened and vulnerable to both political and corporate pressure. Some fear that as a result, the ideal of journalistic independence is being critically compromised.
In Poland, for example, liberal outlets claim that they are now unfairly treated by the centre-right government, which they say uses economic means for political ends.
"Since autumn 2015, there has been a drastic reduction – sometimes a complete ban – of subscription to some newspapers by public institutions, targeted mostly against two weeklies – Polityka, Newsweek – and Gazeta Wyborcza, which criticise the ruling party," says Piotr Stasiński, deputy editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza.
"There has been a total withdrawal of state-owned companies' ads from critical media and transferring them to many (pro-government) media outlets. This has led to a loss of advertising and circulation revenue."
Luka Oreskovic, an expert in media investment, says this is a common complaint across the region. "From Poland and Hungary and all the way to the chronic state-sponsored pressures on media in the western Balkans – governmental action in the form of withholding public sector advertising, conducting repeated tax raids via state tax authorities, and restricting freedom of speech through the introduction of repressive and restrictive media legislation has had a negative impact on the quality of public discourse," he said.
"These are powerful tools for curtailing media freedom and independence, as they can have – and have had – a tremendous impact on the financial health of stand-alone media outlets."
"The economic volatility of media is an enormous challenge for journalism," says Harlem Désir, a former French minister, and now the representative on freedom of the media at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "It is more difficult to find resources to finance independent and qualitative journalism. Furthermore, media ownership concentration is speeding up. This endangers pluralism and it also means that in some areas, local media are simply disappearing."
Globally, newspaper revenues have declined by 7.8% over the last five years, according to figures from the World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA). But that figure is distorted by the fact that newspaper circulations in China and Indonesia are up by more than 25% and in India have soared by 71%. The reality for most parts of the world has been far more grim: circulation declines of 34% in Spain, 19% in Brazil, 32% in Australia, 22% in South Africa, and 39% in Italy, to pick out a few.
And as revenue from print sales shrinks, global print advertising revenue has been falling too, from $79bn in 2012 to $58bn in 2017. Digital advertising is rising – up 5% in the period from 2015 to 2016 alone – but most of that growth has been captured by the internet giants, Google and Facebook.

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 November 2017 15:29

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