Hungary's Opimus acquires Mediaworks after disputed newspaper closure

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarian holding company Opimus said on Tuesday it had acquired Mediaworks from Vienna Capital Partners, a move bringing the publisher into government-friendly hands after its shutdown of a major leftist daily in disputed circumstances.

The closure of Nepszabadsag (People’s Freedom), founded during Hungary’s abortive popular uprising against Soviet domination 60 years ago, reignited criticism over rightist Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s legal moves to curb independent media.

His associates have built a sprawling network of news outlets, taking over old titles and starting new ones, raising European Union concern about risks to Hungarian democracy.

Mediaworks abruptly shut Nepszabadsag, Hungary’s largest political daily, earlier this month and local media had speculated the publisher might be sold on to Opimus, a marginal player on the Budapest bourse seen as close to an Orban ally.

Austrian businessman Heinrich Pecina’s Vienna Capital Partners told state news agency MTI that Opimus made an offer after Nepszabadsag’s closure, which Mediaworks blamed on financial difficulties and said was temporary.

“We sincerely hope that the new owner can further build Mediaworks Hungary, including solving the current problems at Nepszabadsag,” Vienna Capital Partners said in a statement.

Nepszabadsag’s deputy editor in chief said Mediaworks’ business arguments did not hold up and that the daily was closed down because of articles critical of the Orban government.

Local media have reported that Opimus is under the influence of an important Orban ally, a businessman named Lorinc Meszaros. A Reuters review of documents supported that perception.

Meszaros did not respond to repeated attempts by Reuters to obtain comment.

Asked about the deal, Orban’s spokesman Bertalan Havasi told Reuters: “Opimus is an open, exchange-traded company. It has several owners and invests extensively. The government does not wish to comment on any Hungarian company’s investments.”

The Opimus Group launched several new companies earlier this year, among them Opimus Press, which issued 20 million euros worth of bonds in a private placement it said was designed to finance unspecified acquisitions.

Mediaworks was Opimus Press’ first takeover.

The takeover consummated a win-win move by Orban, Mertek Institute media analyst Gabor Polyak said. “The premier got rid of Nepszabadsag and secured a friendly media network,” he said.

He said Meszaros, who had not held a media portfolio before, joins several other business magnates in building a media foothold after Orban’s falling-out with media tycoon Lajos Simicska. “Now there are several oligarchs and they all owe their power to Orban. None more so than Meszaros.”

On Oct. 20, Nepszabadsag journalists published their work in Budapest’s street newspaper sold by homeless people, seeking somehow to keep the paper alive.

Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Mark Heinrich