More than 70 journalists and staff from Hungary’s main news site Index have resigned, accusing the government of launching an attempt to destroy or tame their website.
Index is the last of Hungary’s main independent media outlets and editor Szabolcs Dull was sacked on Tuesday.
Its reporters said the sacking was “overt interference” and an attempt to put pressure on the site.
Hours later, protesters gathered in Budapest to rally for media freedom.
Over the past decade, supporters of nationalist and conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban have gradually taken control of the independent Hungarian media. Hungary is ranked 89th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ world press freedom ranking.
Protesters planned to march on the Prime Minister’s desk.
Only last month Szabolcs Dull warned that Index was “under such external pressure that could spell the end of our writing as we know it”. In an alarming article published on June 22, he warned that the site’s editorial staff were “in danger” and that the dial of a “freedom barometer” on the home page had been moved to “in danger”.
Three editors and more than 70 others said on Friday they were terminating their jobs there after board chairman Laszlo Bodolai refused to reinstate the editor. There were emotional scenes as they left the office.
Mr Bodolai rejected claims that the website’s independence was in danger, accusing Dull of failing to control tensions in the newsroom.
Pro-Orban businessman in the center of the row
Fears for Index’s independence came to a head a few months ago when Miklos Vaszily, a pro-Orban businessman, took a 50% stake in the company that controls advertising and revenue from Index. ‘Index.
He already ran the pro-government channel TV2 and was seen as playing a key role in transforming another Hungarian website, Origo, into a pro-Orban medium.
As the drama unfolded in the Index newsroom on Friday, a photo emerged of Mr Vaszily having lunch with Orban’s senior advisor and historian Maria Schmidt.
What does this mean for Hungary and Orban?
Index’s disappearance deprives the Hungarian public of the strongest independent voice in the media.
The staff resigned because they were committed to remaining free from political influence – in a country where most of the media simply await orders from the government on what to report and how to report it.
The editorial staff of state radio, television and the state-run MTI news agency have long given up any pretense of impartiality.
Nepszabadsag, the main left-wing newspaper, ceased publication in 2016, while Origo, another news site, switched to the government side in 2014.
Almost all the regional media are part of the Fidesz media empire. Index journalists have formed a Facebook group to try to continue their work.
At first glance, the events of Index look like yet another victory for Viktor Orban. But the man who imposed himself by opposing the one-party regime has now re-established the one-party regime. By capturing the state – economy, parliament, constitutional court, media – it risks appearing ridiculous.
Those who criticize its power may also be forced to rethink the forms of their opposition. Some argue for new or merged parties. But there is also a growing clamor to boycott Parliament and the 2022 elections, to strip Orban of his latest claim to democratic legitimacy.
Hungary’s dispute with the EU continues
Mr Orban’s government led by Fidesz has repeatedly clashed with the European Union over the rule of law, and the party has been suspended by the center-right EPP group in the European Parliament because of of its immigration policy.
Last month, the EU’s highest court ruled that Hungary had broken European law by restricting foreign funding to civil society organizations.
Earlier this week, Orban said Hungary and Poland had won a “huge victory” against EU countries trying to tie rule of law guarantees to a new budget and a new Covid-19 recovery loan and grant package.
But the head of the European Council, Charles Michel, insisted that the agreement reached on Monday was “the first time that respect for the rule of law is a decisive criterion for budgetary expenditure”.