U.S. Concerned Over ‘Decline’ in Hungarian Media Freedom

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. said it was concerned over the "steady decline" of media freedom in Hungary after a news website was banned from parliament and the biggest opposition newspaper was abruptly shut.

Journalists of independent news website 444.hu was banned this week from parliament after its reporters interviewed ruling party politicians about a scandal involving a government minister. That took place after Nepszabadsag, the largest-circulation political newspaper, was shuttered by its publisher earlier this month.

"We are following closely the reported ban of an independent website from the parliament building on October 19 and the sudden closure of Hungary’s largest independent newspaper, Nepszabadsag," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement published on Thursday. "We encourage the Hungarian government to ensure an open media environment that exposes citizens to a diversity of viewpoints and opinions, a key component of our shared democratic values."

The U.S. criticism is “completely baseless” as Hungary “doesn’t limit any freedoms, including media freedom,” Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Tamas Menczer said in a statement cited by MTI state news service.

‘Illiberal State’

Hungary, a member of the European Union, slipped to 67th place in the annual ranking of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, from 23rd in 2010 when Prime Minister Viktor Orban returned to power. Orban has clashed with the EU and the U.S. over the erosion of democracy under his rule and for building what the leader described as an “illiberal state” modeled on countries including Russia.

Mediaworks, a unit of private equity firm Vienna Capital Partners, suspended the online and print editions of Nepszabadsag, citing business reasons. Nepszabadsag journalists, opposition parties and civil society groups said the decision was aimed at silencing critical media and fit into a pattern of outlets increasingly coming under Orban’s influence or going out of business.

"The loss of this paper, regardless of the reason, is a blow to media pluralism in Hungary,” Toner said.