Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has moved closer to gaining near-total control of Hungarian media after the country’s most influential news website imploded. More than 80 journalists at Index quit on Friday 24 July, two days after the publisher fired Szabolcs Dull, the editor-in-chief, with resigning staff citing “overt pressure” that they said jeopardised editorial independence.
“A red line was crossed,” deputy editor Veronika Munk said of the decision to resign.
Hours later, thousands of Hungarians gathered in Budapest to march from Index’s headquarters towards Orbán’s office in protest at the government attacks on media freedoms.
“We are not necessarily here because we liked Index but we are now at a point where accessing information is jeopardised,” protester Istvan told Reuters.
New York Times’s Hungary correspondent Benjamin Novak tweeted a video from the rally where people clap for those who walked out of Index.
Round of applause for those who walked out of Index pic.twitter.com/cCRWqMKppr
— Benjamin Novak (@b_novak) July 24, 2020
The departing Index journalists published an open letter on the outlet’s website in Hungarian and English. “The editorial board deemed that the conditions for independent operation are no longer in place and have initiated the termination of their employment,” it said.
“For years, we’ve been saying that there are two conditions for the independent operation of Index: that there be no external influence on the content we publish or the structure and composition of our staff. Firing Szabolcs Dull has violated our second condition. His dismissal is a clear interference in the composition of our staff, and we cannot regard it any other way but as an overt attempt to apply pressure on Index.hu.”
Only last month, Szabolcs Dull had warned that Index was “under such external pressure that could spell out the end of our editorial staff as we know it”. In an alarming piece published on 22 June, he warned that the website’s editorial staff were “in danger” and the dial on a “freedom barometer” on the homepage was moved to “in danger”.
Index was considered the last major independent outlet in Hungary, which is ranked the second-worst country in the EU for media freedom by Reporters Without Borders. In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Hungary ranks 89th out of 180 countries.
During the past decade of rule by the far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán, the media landscape has gradually contracted, as numerous outlets were bought out by pro-government figures or closed down. Hungary’s most powerful media regulatory body, the Media Council, was reelected in December 2019 but only the nominees of ruling party Fidesz were elected as new members.
Since 2010, in five waves of dismissals, the state broadcaster, closely linked to the government, fired over 1,600 employees, including journalists who were not willing to toe the government line.
According to Reporters Without Borders, access to information is also more and more difficult for independent journalists as they have been banned from freely asking politicians in the Parliament or from attending different events. Government politicians do not give interviews to government-critical media outlets and press departments of public institutions typically do not reply to questions of independent media.
“This is another nail in the coffin for press freedom and independent journalism in Hungary,” Lydia Gall, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“Index is the latest in a series of news outlets that have been bought up by business people loyal to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, shut down, or turned into mouthpieces for the government.”
Dacian Cioloş, President of Renew Europe, the centrist party group in the European Parliament, said in a statement:
“There is no truth without someone free to speak about it. This was a sad farewell to one of the major independent news outlets in Hungary. Freedom of the press is withering in Hungary under Viktor Orbán. This is why the fight for the rule of law and democracy in Europe is existential.”