Independent Hungarian newspaper's covers forced off the streets of Hungary
For forty years, the tongue-in-cheek covers of independent political and economic weekly HVG had appeared all over Hungary on advertisement columns of Mahir Cityposter every week. But the outdoors advertising company now belonging to Orbán's confidante and Hungary's wealthiest person Lőrinc Mészáros had terminated HVG's contract last week with immediate effect ( and according to HVG, unlawfully) : Mahir claims this was necessary due to a lack of advertising space necessary to fulfil their contractual obligations to HVG, however, the ad spaces formerly occupied by the independent weekly had since been taken over by a tabloid belonging to the pro-government media conglomerate.
The last batch of posters - which never hit the streets - featured Cecília Rogán, wife of Antal Rogán, who is often dubbed Hungary's propaganda minister as he is responsible for the government's ill-famed "information campaigns." The cover story was about the spouses of Fidesz politicians and Fidesz-affiliated businessmen who themselves dabble in business and live a glamorous life in the limelight in suspicious proximity to taxpayers' money.
The weekly print edition of HVG could best be described as the Hungarian equivalent of the Economist, and posters of its covers featuring dry-witted graphics and puns reflecting upon the main story of the week had been a staple of Hungarian cityscapes ever since the paper's 1979 launch.
The editor-in-chief of the paper's online iteration characterised the sudden termination of the 40-years-running advertising deal in an article as:
"Censorship under the guise of a breach of contract."
Ibolya Jakus, the editor-in-chief of the print edition told Index at a flashmob held last Thursday that this is an unmistakable sign of censorship, adding that she can see no explanation for the termination of their advertising contract other than a political order.
A lack of advertising space
Mahir Cityposter sent a letter dated 12 April to HVG informing them about their decision to unilaterally terminate HVG's advertising contract without any prior notice whatsoever. HVG writes that as substantive renegotiation was off the table, they view the decision as final. The outdoor advertising company's reason for dropping HVG was that they could not guarantee to display their posters in contractually sufficient numbers due to a lack of advertising space. The contract stipulates that HVG would not have to pay the advertising fee in such cases, and as Mahir's letter states, that would not serve the interests of the company. HVG plans to pursue legal action.
It is a question though why this lack of space on the advertising columns of Mahir became apparent now, and also if it affects any other advertisers, a question we have not yet received any answer to from Mahir. Looking at the background of the company, however, it would not be a surprising twist if this would turn out to be a conscious effort to financially suffocate the newspaper that is one of the few remaining media outlets that have a critical standpoint towards the government. Such outdoor advertising can potentially increase the sales of a weekly newspaper by 10-20%, and Mahir was acquired byLőrinc Mészáros in early 2019, the wealthiest man in Hungary who, in 2014, attributed his fortune to the graces of God and the friendship of Viktor Orbán. The contract between the city and Mahir stipulates that no other advertising columns can be erected within 50 metres of Mahir's columns, practically granting the company a monopoly over the busiest public spaces.
The regular places of HVG cover posters have since been taken over by "Hot!" magazine (before-after picture here), a weekly tabloid that belongs to the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), the giant pro-government umbrella organisation encompassing almost 500 media outlets that used to belong to various oligarchs until they ended up gifting them all to the foundation. It seems that their opportunities were not affected by the sudden surge in outdoor advertising.
Mahir - a company with a troubled past
Until recently, the formerly state-owned Mahir used to be the business interest of another oligarch, Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán's former confidante and the financial mastermind behind the rise of governing party Fidesz. At the beginning of 2015, Simicska and Orbán had an extremely public falling-out (read more on that here), not long after which the Fidesz-majority of Budapest's General Assembly voted to terminate Mahir's 25-year contract with the city signed in 2006. According to the decision, the deal was no longer advantageous. The General Assembly instructed Mahir to remove its 761 columns before the end of the year, which Mahir refused to do.
On 2 January 2016, the municipality decided to enact the decision on its own, commencing a bizarre game of capture the flag between the employees of Budapest's road maintenance company and the security guards hired by Mahir to stop them. The municipality ended up winning on the streets, but Mahir succeeded in the legal battle, as the final court decision deemed the contract's termination unlawful.
However, after Fidesz won its third consecutive parliamentary supermajority at the 2018 Hungarian general elections, Lajos Simicska surrendered all his positions, including Mahir - the company (just like all other business interests of Simicska) was first sold to Simicska's lawyer and confidante Zsolt Nyerges, who passed it on to the lawyer of Lőrinc Mészáros. Since then, as Válasz Online reports, Orbán's close friend and Hungary's wealthiest man had gained control over the parent company of Mahir Cityposter as well.
(Cover: Viktor Orbán's audience at his March 15th address next to an advertising column featuring the cover of HVG, which mocked the government's "You have a right to know what Brussels is preparing to do" campaign - the caption reads "We would have a right to know what Orbán is preparing to do." Photo: Tamás Német / Index)
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