Sunday

1st Aug 2021

Hungary's largest news site warns independence at risk

Hungary's largest news site has sent out an emergency alert that its independence is at risk because of "external pressure".

Index.hu on Sunday (21 June) moved its "independence barometer", which it set up in 2018 after an ownership change, to "in danger" from "independent".

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"Index is under such external pressure that could spell out the end of our editorial staff as we know it. We are concerned that with the proposed organisational overhaul, we will lose those values that made Index.hu the biggest and most-read news site in Hungary," its editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull said in a statement signed by almost 90 employees.

Dull said the staff and the independence of Index are in "grave danger" and its fate will be decided in the next few days.

Index is one of the few remaining independent media outlets in Hungary, where prime minister Viktor Orban's government has moved to control an ever-larger segment of the country's media landscape.

The move against Index adds to concerns that the Orban government is tightening its grip on critical voices in Hungary, which stands at the bottom, among EU countries, of the Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index.

On Monday, Dull was reportedly removed from the board of directors of Index, but remained editor-in-chief, according to 444.hu.

Dull, on Sunday, revealed no details - but other independent news websites reported that a reorganisation attempt could see sections of Index outsourced to external companies, hollowing out the newsroom.

"At the end, it is about slicing up the editorial staff of Index," a source at Index told EUobserver on condition of anonymity, because the person was not authorised to speak on the issue.

"The Orban government is smart, we are not going to be beaten like they deal with journalists in China, but our fear is that under the disguise of untraceable business dealings, we will end up like a second Origo," the source said, referring to a news website that was stripped of its editorial independence in 2014.

The person described the mood among staff as "anticipation, filled with fear".

"The foundation of the organisation has been shaken by this attempt to influence," the source added.

50 percent stake

Media reports so far have centred on a businessman, Miklos Vaszily, who oversaw the pro-government transformation of Origo.hu, and has chaired pro-government broadcasters.

Index is owned by a foundation, formed to guarantee its independence, but Vaszily bought a 50 percent stake in March in a firm that manages Index's advertising revenues.

Over the past few years, several publications have been shut down, or turned openly pro-government as a result of Orban's efforts increase his control over the media.

These include the left-leaning Nepszabadsag, the country's largest newspaper, the conservative daily Magyar Nemzet, and Heti Valasz, a conservative weekly that had refused to push the government's line.

In 2018, hundreds of pro-government news outlets were consolidated into the huge Central European Press and Media Foundation. It had been exempted from competition rules, and its editorial content is under strict political control.

Meanwhile, state-owned media has for several years been pushing the government's narratives, including false information.

Orban-allies have also been moving into the Balkans to build up a media presence there.

Budapest's 'unprecedented control'

Asked by EUobserver, an EU Commission spokesman said it did not comment on media reports but it "follows the developments to get more clarity".

Christian Wigand said the the commission's position on the state of media freedom in Hungary is clear, and it has raised concerns on several occasions.

Wigand added that commission's new rule of law report, due out in September, "will cover issues related to media pluralism". "Democracy cannot work without free and independent media," he added.

Last December, a report by the international NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) found "a degree of media control unprecedented in an EU member state", and called on the EU authorities to take action.

The RSF said that "there has been a dramatic decline in press freedom in Hungary", and that to silence media criticism, the government has used "a range of well-oiled methods including acquisitions of media outlets, forced closures, controlling the management of independent media, and smear campaigns against outspoken reporters".

Their report concluded that as a result, many Hungarians, especially in rural areas, have been deprived of independently-checked information.

Author bio

Disclaimer: Eszter Zalan worked as a journalist for Nepszabadsag between 2004 and 2014.

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