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Hungarian Newspaper Closing Condemned by European Journalists


The European Federation of Journalists has condemned the decision of a Swiss publisher to close one of Hungary's leading independent daily newspapers. The expected disappearance of Magyar Hirlap has raised new questions about the growing influence of foreign investors over newspapers in Hungary and other former communist countries.

Roughly 80 journalists worked overtime Friday in an attempt to save both their jobs and a daily newspaper that has become a symbol of change.

Magyar Hirlap, which first hit the newsstands in 1968, won acclaim for its in-depth coverage, sharply-worded editorials and non-partisan stance in the often-politicized newspaper market in Hungary.

Even former Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a right wing leader who was often the target of Magyar Hirlap's criticism, said he wanted the newspaper to continue.

Other leading personalities joining the struggle for Magyar Hirlap's survival included Hungary's ex-President Arpad Goncz and Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz.

But despite their efforts they were told late in the day that Friday's paper was their last. In a show of solidarity, two competing newspapers will print some Magyar Hirlap pages on Saturday. One of the papers is Magyar Hirlap's sometimes-bitter right-wing rival. A Hungarian Internet news agecncy will also carry the material.

The Swiss-based Ringier Publishing Group, which already owns Hungary's largest circulation daily as well as a tabloid, a sports newspaper and magazines, said it had to close Magyar Hirlap because it was losing millions of dollars.

But Magyar Hirlap's staff writer on European affairs, Nora Rockenbauer, accused Ringier of being a ruthless publisher with no sensitivity for the paper's long-cherished traditions.

"It contributes more than just what it can make financially," she said. "Magyar Hirlap was the first newspaper during the last years of Socialism which became a very firm critic of the system and the government. So people could read either between the lines or even open criticism of the government. And therefore Magyar Hirlap became a very respected paper even during the last years of Socialism. And since than we are very firmly on keeping this direction."

Ms. Rockenbauer and other journalists have accused the publisher of closing the newspaper to boost circulation and sales of its more profitable, left leaning daily, Nepszabadsag.

The Hungarian director of the Ringier Publishing Group, Bela Papp, has denied these charges.

He said the company had to stop printing the newspaper because it accumulated loses of close to $10 million in the last four years, while daily sales dropped from 35,000 copies in 2003, to just about 27,000 this year.

Mr. Papp believes that Magyar Hirlap became a victim of Hungary's overcrowded media market.

"This is a very tough market in Hungary," he said. "You have [had] a revolution in media in Hungary. Over the last seven years four [shocks] have happened. The Internet, free papers, tabloid newspapers, but more importantly commercial television. And regrettably a lot of the political dailies, including Magyar Hirlap, have not been able to change fast enough to adapt to this new circumstance, we are now paying the price of this."

The closing of Magyar Hirlap is being closely watched throughout the region.

Media experts say it has underscored the growing influence of foreign investors over media outlets in former Soviet satellite states like Hungary.

The General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists, Aidan White, told VOA News he is concerned that, like under Communism, the pluralism of Eastern European media is once again threatened, this time by Western companies more interested in profits than newspaper traditions.

"These countries have been encouraged basically to do what no Western European country would do, which is to encourage outside investors to come in and to take over, and to take over almost completely, the media outlets," he said. "And that is proving to be absolutely disastrous. Because these companies come from the outside, they don't come with an attachment to, for example, the heritage, the culture, the history and the tradition of the country they are working in."

Mr. White says governments of Central and Eastern Europe countries should support independent media funds to help struggling newspapers.

But with new European Union member-states like Hungary already struggling to decrease ballooning state deficits, there are fears government support for independent media will not rank high on the political agenda.

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