I borrowed the title of this report from an editorial piece of Mr. Szabolcs Dull, former editor-in-chief of Hungarian news website Index. In the article, Mr. Dull explained how Index was then in danger of being controlled from external forces, namely from someone close to PM Orban’s government. The fear was not unjustified: earlier this year Mr. Miklos Vaszily took control of 50% of Indamedia, the firm that controls Index’s advertising and revenue. Being Mr. Vaszily a pro-government businessman and a close ally to Mr. Orban, this acquisition gives Orban’s ruling party a decisive control power over what is written in the news website, and how sensitive topics are effectively presented to the public. Moreover, staffing decisions were not to be considered to be independent anymore.This is not the first time Mr. Vaszily successfully takes over a newsroom. In 2014 the news website Origo, then the main independent opponent to Index, was turned into a pro-government website after Mr. Vaszily acquisition. Nepszabadsag, the main leftist news outlet, closed doors in 2016. Thus, in the latest years Index has been the only reliable source for independent information in Hungary.
But how did we get here? Why the almost entirety of Index.hu newsroom decided to literally walk out the door and leave the job?
Index.hu has had a long and successful history in Hungary. Founded in 1999 by Mr. András Nyírő, the website has been steadily growing in the independent news panorama in the latest years, first with its main opponent, Origo.hu, and then alone. Lately, Index.hu has been the most read news website in Hungary, both in its hungarian and english pages, often seen by its readers as one of the only independent sources of information in the country. But not everyone shares the same feeling. In May, 2018, Mr. Orban refused to answer a question from an Index journalist, calling the website a ‘fake news factory’. The same PM often refuses to speak to ‘non-friendly’ journalists, accusing them to be ‘ill-meaning person[s] […] asking questions filled with prejudices’. On November, 2019, more than 400 hungarian outlets were donated by its owners to an hungarian foundation ‘Central European Press and Media Foundation’, owned by a close ally of Mr. Orban. As of now, those websites, news outlets and other publications are on the pro-government side of information.
Two years ago Index.hu launched a ‘freedom barometer’ to check on the level of independence of the website: until recently, the barometer pointed at the green side, ‘független’, fully independent. Two were the conditions that had to be met in order for the barometer to stay green: editorial independence (journalists, according to journalistic standards, can write about what they want, without external interference) and freedom in staffing decisions (again, no outside interference). Until recently, those conditions were met. Starting June this year, however, some changes started to happen in the Index.hu newsroom. On June, 21st, the barometer went to yellow after Szabolcs Dull denounced external interference into the newsroom: journalists were about to be turned into ‘outside contributors’. Index.hu was now ‘veszélyben’, in danger. The second condition, no interference into staffing decisions, was no longer met. Shortly after, two CEOs resigned in a matter of a few weeks (Pusztay Andras and Ződi Zsolt). On July, 7th, a communications expert and advisor to Indamedia (the company that controls Index’s advertising spaces) told in a video that the website should think of dismissing its editor-in-chief. In the eyes of Index.hu staff, this looked more like a hostile suggestion than a friendly advice. Eventually, on July, 22nd, Mr. Dull was told to leave his post as editor-in-chief, allegedly for endangering the business and leaking trade secrets. Mr. Dull always stated he had nothing to hide with regards to the accusations. Index.hu staff remained on his side throughout all the process, asking the board to reinstate him after he was fired. But nothing happened. As a result, on July, 24th, more than 70 Index.hu journalists quit their job, stating that ‘firing our editor-in-chief was an unacceptable move. […] This is such a strong infringement on the editorial independence of Index.hu that we simply could not accept’. For a few weeks more, however, the content of Index.hu will still be created by the outgoing staff, per legal obligation. There is no certainty when and on which platform their work as journalists will continue after leaving Index.hu for good.
On Sunday, people took over the streets of Budapest  , asking for a free country and freedom of the press, in solidarity with Szabolcs Dull and his staff. Among those protesting, one man explained ‘It is not about Index.hu alone. I don’t think there is any free press left’. And to hear someone stating such a strong message, in a member state of the EU, is quite something. In 2020, RSF placed Hungary on the 89th place in the World Press Freedom Index (in 2019, Hungary ranked 87th), titling ‘Things do not improve’, with ’access to information [being] more and more difficult for independent journalists’. Hungary has been threatened to be stripped off its voting rights under art.7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which provides for sanctions if the core values of art.2 of the same Treaty are in danger. So far, nothing has changed in the government behaviour.
In talking with friends living and working in Hungary, the feeling is the same among them: Hungary is no longer to be considered a completely free and democratic country. For some of them, the opposition is unable to see the importance of independent communication, and more should be done in order to ensure the public with reliable information. However, younger generations are fully aware of the need to protect their rights, and they take the street whenever they feel their freedom and that of their country is at stake. It won’t be an easy journey, nor everything will be solved in a fortnight. But seeing people fighting for one of the basic values of this world, freedom of the press, means that we can still hope for the best.
As the banners on the Sunday protests read,
SZABAD ORSZÁG, SZABAD SAJTÓ
FREE COUNTRY, FREE PRESS