On the evening of 24 July, a crowd of 10 000 -15 000 people gathered in front of the office of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to show their solidarity for the journalists who had resigned that very same morning from the largest remaining independent Hungarian news portal. In Hungary, demonstrations tend to draw no more than five thousand people, so the protest's size was surprising, especially since there is nothing new or shocking in democratic institutions being under heavy fire in Hungary.
Since Orbán took power in 2010, his government has curbed the independence of the courts, the freedom of universities, and the autonomy of municipalities; rewritten the entire Constitution; and reshaped the electoral system to favor his Fidesz party. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences had just been reorganized by the government, stripping the prestigious institution of its research network. However, none of those events moved such an amount of people to demonstrate.
To understand the public's reaction, we have to go back to the early 2000s to see how an online political news outlet became a symbol of democracy for so many.
Index.hu was founded in 2000, just as more and more Hungarian households began accessing the Internet, so the site became somewhat synonymous there with the Internet itself. Index.hu was founded by an influential editor, Péter Uj, whose creative style of writing, unconventional ideas, and counter-cultural style had a long-lasting effect on Index.hu. Later, as Index.hu became popular, the site's distinct voice influenced a large part of the Hungarian press and the brand even became part of an idiom in Hungarian: to communicate “Index-like” means that one expresses oneself in a witty, critical manner.
While Index's style became both tamer and more distinguished over the years, their fast news service with its various domestic and foreign reports attracted new visitors in large numbers. In their second decade, Index turned into the country's most significant news medium, with more than a million visitors a day.
Though Index gained more strength at that time, freedom of the press in Hungary has been in sharp decline since 2010. Protesters have chosen to target Orbán with their criticism because Index was the last major independent outlet in Hungary. By 2020, most of the media has been meticulously transformed into vehicles for pro-Government propaganda. Oligarchs loyal to Fidesz have acquired hundreds of privately-owned media outlets - political dailies, news sites, television and radio stations, and the entirety of the country's network of regional dailies. In 2018, with generous help from Orbán, these oligarchs simultaneously donated their media portfolios to a centralized holding company called the Central European Press and Media Foundation, run by businessmen close to the Prime Minister. By 2018, 80 per cent of the Hungarian news media was, directly or indirectly, controlled by the Government, according to the independent investigative portal Átlátszó. Hungary ranked second worst in the EU for media freedom in a study by the media watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders.
Seeing the collapse of Index, those who do not support Orbán’s dream of an illiberal state feel now that Hungary’s last stronghold of press freedom has fallen.
Moreover, the temperature had been raised even more by earlier events that made it clear the Government had been trying to rein in Index for years. Orbán and his longtime ally Lajos Simicska, a former Fidesz treasurer, started their operation against the independent media right after the party's landslide election victory in 2010. Shortly before the 2014 election, in which Fidesz repeated those results, the owner of Index, another oligarch, Zoltán Spéder, was forced to sign an option contract that allowed Lajos Simicska to buy Index whenever he wished to do so.
Two years after Simicska's widely publicized falling out with Orbán, he took this option and set up a convoluted ownership structure in which a foundation became the proprietor of Index.hu, but the site's ad revenue still came through a sales house owned by the publishing company Indamédia, the former owner of Index. This structure left the site exposed to financial pressure; still, it managed to maintain its editorial independence.
In 2018, when a businessman with links to the Government gained control of both Indamédia and of the company that could appoint board members to the foundation, the Index.hu staff, knowing full well how fragile the situation was, set up a barometer on a separate website to be able to alert the public if their independence was jeopardized.
The delicate balance was shaken up this year, when Miklós Vaszily, a media executive with close ties to the Prime Minister, purchased a 50 percent stake in these companies. The public read Vaszily's arrival on the scene as a strong signal. This was the businessman who was the architect behind the transformation of a series of independent publications in Hungary into pro-government propaganda outlets.
In 2014, Vaszily reigned as CEO over the largest online news outlet of the time, Origo, just as it was turned into a Government mouthpiece and journalists resigned from it in large numbers. Later he became the head of the Hungarian public broadcasting service, which was (and still is) often criticized for its biased news coverage. He appeared on the board of several nationwide pro-Government television stations as well.
Just a few months after Vaszily’s appearance, two advisors were sent to Index to solve its critical financial problems. The plan proposed by the advisors triggered a cascade of events that quickly led to the resignation of nearly all of its journalists.
The proposed plan was radical: They suggested Index's staff should be broken up into smaller sub-companies, with content creation outsourced to these companies and to external suppliers. The editors of Index were concerned by the plan – it would not cut their costs, but it would put the integrity of the staff in peril.
The plan was leaked to another still-independent news site, causing a major uproar. Index’s editor-in-chief then published a statement signed by the journalists of Index, which warned that Index had "come under such external pressure that it could spell the end of our editorial staff as we know it. We are concerned that with the proposed organizational overhaul, we will lose the values that made Index.hu the biggest and most-read news site in Hungary.”
Index's barometer moved from the green “independent” zone to the yellow zone: "In danger."
Although the plan was dismissed officially, the sacking of Index’s editor-in-chief, Szabolcs Dull, soon followed suit on 22 July. Explaining his decision, the board chair Laszlo Bodolai argued that Dull had been unable to control "internal processes" in the staff and that his actions had punched a hole in ad revenues. The editor-in-chief was not given much time to say his farewells: As he was heading to the office, the board issued a press release about his dismissal. Dull then gave a short speech to Index journalists featuring a statement that was widely quoted in the press later: “Don’t be silenced."
The next day, Index held a staff meeting to demand Dull’s reinstatement. During the heated negotiation, the editorial staff delivered an ultimatum: they would only continue to work there if management reinstated the fired editor-in-chief.
As this request was starkly refused by board chair Bodolai, almost all of the journalists, 80 people, handed in their resignations on Friday, 24 July and issued the following statement: “For years, we have been saying that there are two conditions for the independent operation of Index: that there be no external influence on the content we publish, and that there be no external influence on 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 to Index.hu. Under these circumstances, following Bodolai's decision, the editorial board considers conditions for independent operation to no longer be in place and have initiated the termination of their employment.”.
The Hungarian public has closely followed these events, even though they have seen many similar stories unfold over the past decade of Fidesz's governance. There was one new element to this story, though: The staff defied the pressure and took the plunge, leaving their jobs amidst an economic crisis induced by the coronavirus pandemic. Such unity is not usual in Hungary, where most institutions, companies and organizations have eventually been subjugated by the Government or forces closely linked to it – first they have tried to negotiate, then they have issued open letters and petitions, and when all of those means failed, they have subsequently continued to work under the frameworks set up by Fidesz.
On the day after the protest, many articles highlighted the surprising nature of the staff's resignation, which even confused the Government's own propaganda machine. An opinion piece pointed out that not even the Government had been able to blur the truth that economic troubles had nothing to do with the collapse of Index.
Even though there are rumors about Index journalists planning to start a new online media outlet, it is clear that there is not much breathing room for independent voices on the Hungarian media landscape.
Hungarian officials denied their involvement in the case. Answering a question from Reuters, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó stated that the Government has nothing to do with Index, dismissing the ordeal as a management decision at a private company and stating that Hungarian law does not hinder press freedom.
The Hungarian government is in a safe position, as the collapse of Index happened just after Orbán returned from Brussels, where he had managed to blunt the edge of a plan that would have linked the distribution of EU funds to strict rule-of-law criteria.
The media freedom problem in Hungary can be accurately summed up by two quotes from opposite sides of the game:
“We would never have the audacity to silence those who disagree with us” Orbán claimed in his address to the European Parliament in 2018.
“Don’t be silenced!” Dull urged his colleagues in his farewell last month.
(The author was previously a journalist at Index.hu)
Edited by Zoltán Kovács, proofreaded by Gwendolyn Albert.