“The Hungarian public’s access to sources of balanced news and information is in greater danger than ever before.” This was the stark warning that Index on Censorship, alongside 15 other organisations, delivered to Executive Vice-President of the European Commission Margrethe Vestager today.
After a decade of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s rule, Hungary’s media landscape is in turmoil. Last month, 70 of the approximately 90 journalists working at Index.hu – which had been considered one of the last major independent news outlets in Hungary – resigned after the editor-in-chief was fired by the company’s CEO.
“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,” the departing journalists wrote in an open letter.
“Index was the most widely read news website in Hungary,” explained András Pethő in an interview with Index on Censorship. Pethő is co-founder and senior editor at Direkt36, a small investigative journalism outlet that focuses on reporting abuses of power. “It was one of the few remaining independent news websites in Hungary. It was a kind of hub on the Hungarian internet: a lot of people started their day by checking Index.”
“The organisation, the outlet itself is still here. The whole staff resigned but they hired new people. There’s a new leadership and we’ll see what that looks like, how they will cover news, and how independent they will be,” said Pethő. “What happened is bad for basically everyone who is interested in independent journalism in Hungary.”
Before founding Direkt36, Pethő had been a reporter and editor at Origo.hu, one of the largest online news outlets alongside Index. But in 2014, Origo.hu’s editor-in-chief was abruptly replaced after an investigation was published about lavish expenses claimed by Orban’s chief of staff. “Basically we went through a pretty similar story [to Index],” said Pethő. “The whole project – Direckt36 – was born as a response to the negative environment.”
What happened at Index and Origo are just two examples of the Hungarian government’s efforts to undermine independent media in the country. Index on Censorship has reported regularly on Orban’s attacks on the media and has been particularly concerned by events of the last six months fearing that the Covid-19 crisis is being used as a distraction to further curtail media freedom. In this period, we have received reports of journalists being barred from press conferences, alongside other attacks that we have documented on our map.
But despite the government’s ongoing and strategic efforts to punish critical media and reward government mouthpieces, the EU has yet to meaningfully intervene. As highlighted by the signatories of today’s letter to Vestager, such efforts have included the misuse of state aid, which has resulted in two complaints being logged with the European Commission in 2016 and 2018 respectively. The first complaint relates to Hungary’s public service broadcaster which, despite having long ceased to meet international standards due to its clear pro-government bias, continues to receive state funding. The second relates to the distribution of state advertising to media outlets in Hungary.
Although it was a market leader, Index.hu had received virtually no state advertising in the years prior to the mass resignations. At the same time, its main competitor – the now pro-government Origo.hu, benefitted heavily. As stated in today’s letter, “the goal of these efforts is clear: to financially weaken independent media and hamper the production and dissemination of critical news.”
Pethő says that Direkt36 are among the organisations feeling the squeeze. “When we launched it in 2015 and when we had a bigger story, those stories were often picked up by several online news outlets, a couple of TV channels, radio stations… so it could travel quite widely in the Hungarian media,” he said.
“That space has been shrinking gradually more and more and now when we publish a bigger piece maybe it’s picked up by a couple of news websites, maybe there is a radio interview, maybe one TV channel. But it’s much less than what we had three, four or five years ago.”