Friday

23rd Oct 2020

Letter

An open letter to the EPP on end of Hungary's press freedom

  • Screenshot of the front page of Index.hu, whose editor Szabolcs Dull was fired last month and whose staff walked out in solidarity

Dear European People's Party colleagues,

Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party has recently circulated an "Information Sheet" about the events that transpired at Index, Hungary's largest independent news portal.

Read and decide

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  • MEP Katalin Cseh: 'Index' demise was caused by murky deals and a takeover by a well-known pro-government media mogul.' (Photo: Wikimedia)

Editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull was dismissed, triggering the collective resignation of journalists ‒ and marking the end of the portal as we know it.

First of all, please take the time and closely read the 'international press kit' Index journalists prepared in five languages with the basic facts. We'll wait.

Now that you're back, I thought I'd volunteer with some further inputs. (I felt addressed by the references to Hungary's fake news-spreading, hysterical opposition ‒ these are often my monikers.)

The first falsehood I spotted was the title. Far from of an "information sheet", what you received were outright lies and gaslighting.

The main, and only substantial argument levied by the pamphlet is that "business matters of a private entity" resulted in Dull's dismissal, the opposition falsely cries political interference.

To be precise, it was Index journalists who justified their collective resignation by claiming that "the conditions for independent operation are no longer in place."

These people decided their integrity was so gravely endangered that they put their families' financial safety on the line in a collapsing economy, in the middle of a global pandemic. Fidesz tells you they were wrong.

Nowadays, assault against free speech does not entail imprisoned journalists or newsrooms raided by police (although we do have party activists shoved in police detention for criticising the government on Facebook).

Index' demise was caused by murky deals and a takeover by a well-known pro-government media mogul.

Orbán has built an entire media empire based on this playbook.

An eerily similar chain of events went down six years ago at Origo, the only news portal comparable in size to Index.

The owner, Deutsche Telekom unexpectedly fired the editor-in-chief. Scores of journalists resigned.

Slowly but surely, the site was transformed into the nastiest of government mouthpieces. It was a clear (and ultimately, successful) attempt to silence a newsroom that broke multiple corruption scandals of top officials in Orbán's Fidesz party that year.

The pressure on Index has been growing for a long time, pro-government vultures were circulating.

It was no coincidence that two years ago, the editorial board set up an 'independence barometer' and pledged to the public to be transparent about any attempts of meddling.

The beginning of the end arrived with Miklós Vaszily ‒ a tycoon with close Fidesz ties and the very person responsible for Origo's demise ‒ who captured over half of the shares in the firm that controls ad revenues of Index.

Euphemism

This was the context where the editorial board received words about plans to completely overhaul of the portal's structure in June ‒ what the Fidesz Info sheet euphemistically calls "re-organisations of the portal in order to increase its profitability."

The profitability motive raised many eyebrows.

Index was the market-leading news site, they just broke historic readership records through their diligent coverage of the COVID-19 crisis. There were no credible signs of financial trouble.

This was the point Dull decided to signal to the public through their 'independence barometer' that the integrity of the site is in danger. He was removed from the board of directors, but received a promise to be kept on as editor-in-chief.

One month later, he was fired.

The Fidesz pamphlet also repeats allegations about Dull "leaking business secrets". He flatly denies that.

Moreover, the alleged case happened on June 21 ‒ a full month before the dismissal on July 22. Why fire him then?

The answer from the Fidesz propaganda office: Index is a private company and private companies do their private company things privately.

So finally, let me delve a little into this "private company" argument.

Hungary is a country where Orban's son-in-law becomes one of Hungary's wealthiest businessmen after his nuptials.

Where the prime minister's childhood friend, a pipe-fitter, transforms into the country's richest man with a company growing faster than Google.

Dear EPP, this is not "the Hungarian dream" ‒ private businessmen helped by their market acumen. They are politically-connected oligarchs in a blatantly corrupt, captured state.

Similarly, the claim that independent, private businesses operate in Hungary's media market is a joke.

The second-largest TV station changed owners and suddenly, evening news broadcasts broke stories like "Viktor Orbán changed his profile picture" (not kidding).

Over 400 local newspapers were merged into a conglomerate which then received 75 percent of its ad revenues from state advertising. Where exactly do businesses end and government begins here?

I hate to break it to you, EPP, but excuses have run out.

You have to look at the images of sobbing journalists in Index's newsroom, and shoulder part of the blame. Your silence, your continued procrastination led to this. Don't say I didn't warn you this day would come.

Author bio

Katalin Cseh is a Hungarian MEP and vice-chair of the Renew Europe liberal group.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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