Orban ally buys stakes in owner of Hungarian media group

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarian businessman Lorinc Meszaros, an ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has acquired stakes in Opimus, which owns the publisher of several of the country’s main newspapers, a stock exchange filing showed.

The move is another wrinkle in a shake-up of Hungary’s commercial media landscape, where businessmen seen as close to the right-wing government have steadily enhanced their market share.

The publisher, Mediaworks, is one of the biggest media companies in Hungary, owning the main sports daily Nemzeti Sport, business daily Vilaggazdasag and several regional daily newspapers.

Opimus said in an official filing with the Budapest Stock Exchange on Friday that Meszaros, who is regarded as a close friend of Orban and is mayor of Orban’s home village Felcsut, had acquired 16.9 percent of Opimus.

Meszaros also took a further 14 percent stake in Opimus via another company called Konzum Management Kft, the statement said.

Last month Meszaros bought 20 percent of Konzum’s parent company. He also owns Echo TV, a private TV channel.

Opimus officials were not immediately available for comment.

“We do not comment on changes in the media market, just as we did not comment in the past,” a government spokesman said in an emailed reply to a Reuters’ request for comment.

Mediaworks was bought by Opimus last October, after one of its newspapers, Hungary’s main leftist daily, was shut down overnight amid disputed circumstances, reigniting criticism over Orban’s moves to curb the independence of the media.

The newspaper, Nepszabadsag (People’s Freedom), had been founded during Hungary’s abortive popular uprising against Soviet domination 60 years ago.

Meszaros had previously denied media reports of links to Mediaworks or Opimus and neither he nor those companies had responded to previous Reuters requests for comment.

The control over large parts of the media exerted by business interests close to the prime minister, and the sense that this might increase ahead of parliamentary elections in 2018, has drawn criticism at home and abroad.

Since coming to power in 2010, Orban’s right-wing populist government has locked horns with the European Commission over reforms, which critics say have eroded democratic checks and balances and weakened the independence of the media.

Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Susan Fenton