BUDAPEST, Hungary — Thousands of people in Hungary protested on Sunday against government corruption and to demand the preservation of press freedoms.
A rally called by civic groups and small opposition parties was held on Free Press Road, a traditional location for protests but made more symbolic by last week’s closure of the largest opposition newspaper.
Publishing company Mediaworks said the Nepszabadsag newspaper’s “considerable” losses and falling readership led to its closure. Its journalists are still under contract but there’s little chance that the paper will reopen.
Miklos Hargitai, a Nepszabadsag journalist, said Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government was the only one since the 1990 end of the communist regime “which doesn’t tolerate any control or criticism, not even questions,” noting that Orban hadn’t given an interview to the paper in 10 years.
“We are now contemporaries of a thieving regime, but we don’t have to be its accomplices,” Hargitai said. “We always have another choice.”
Orban’s Fidesz party insisted that the paper’s closure was a purely financial decision and blamed the Socialist Party, one of whose foundations sold its minority stake to Mediaworks last year, for its demise.
“Contrary to the opposition’s claims, the closure of Nepszabadsag was a market, financial and competence issue,” Fidesz press department said in a statement. “The future of Nepszabadsag was stolen by the current and past Socialist Party leadership, who were incompetent not only to govern the country but also to take care of their party’s newspaper.”
Leaders of the Together and Dialogue parties also spoke at the rally, where some demonstrators carried issues of Nepszabadsag and said the government’s intention was to ensure that corruption and other issues potentially harmful to the government weren’t covered in the media.
“After they purchase every newspaper, every media outlet, they put their own people everywhere and manipulate the whole thing,” protester Lajos Vig said. “It’s impossible to hear anything, to hear a true word from these newspapers.”
One protester’s large sign read “Our nation is in the stranglehold of politician criminals. Get out!”
Hungary’s media landscape has changed considerably in the last few years, with many print and online publications as well as radio and television stations coming under the control of Orban’s inner circle and showing an unquestioning pro-government bent.