Lost Voices: Index, Resignations, and the State of Journalistic Freedom in Orbán’s Hungary
On July 24, over 70 journalists from Hungary’s online daily Index — including its three lead editors — resigned in a stunning mass action of protest. The journalists claimed that due to prevailing circumstances, the publication’s integrity as an independent media outlet was now under threat, and that the only choice for maintaining any semblance of principle was to walk out. Sadly, the origin of this decision is one that has become commonplace in today’s Hungary. As has become routine, those in positions of power with the lucrative means to buy a stake in media outlets do so and shift content away from transparent, investigative journalism to promulgating pro-government talking points. If a paper objects to these overtures, one needs only to interfere by coercing private companies away from fostering ad spending and wait for the inevitable constriction and submission. For too long now the EU has sat idly by and watched this happen to one outlet after another in Hungary. It leaves critics exasperated that the democratic right to hold governments accountable is being infringed, all while a perplexing apathy persists within the EU that is as complacent now as it is misguided.
This is the drip-feed approach to imperiling independent journalism: buy a majority share, intimidate advertisers, and reduce content. By doing so incrementally, no single journal’s collapse garners enough international shock for the EU to act or question the surviving enterprises that shift to reportage more befitting Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, now estimated to directly or indirectly control 90 percent of all national media. This is what makes the mass resignations at Index so stunning. They draw attention to the plight of what Central and Eastern European independent media presently face when confronting cronyism and government pressure.
For years now, the editorial staff of Index were aware of the dangers threatening their independence. Considered one of the last independent news websites remaining in Hungary, the staff introduced a “freedom barometer” in 2018 to measure the journal’s autonomy in the face of outside pressure. In March, the firm that controls Index’s advertising and revenue, Indamedia, saw a 50 percent stake purchased by Miklós Vaszily, whose close ties to Fidesz caused grave concern. As a result, the barometer had recently shifted to “in danger.” In June, Editor-in-Chief Szabolcs Dull wrote a piece warning of how dire the situation had become, claiming Index faced “external pressure that could spell out the end of our editorial staff as we know it.” On June 22, he was fired by Board President László Bodolai on nebulous grounds, causing the lead editors of Index to pronounce an ultimatum: either reinstate Dull or they would resign. Their demand was ignored. They posted a final editorial explaining their decision to leave and reaffirmed their commitment to Dull and objective journalism. What impact this will inevitably have on the website’s future is unknown, but it does not look promising.
While Index’s resignations are unprecedented, the pattern is not. Print, television, and online news are all equally stigmatized in Hungary. Népszabadság — the country’s leading opposition paper — shuttered its doors in 2016. Its owner, Mediaworks, claimed the paper was no longer profitable, though many claimed its closure was political. The news website Origo saw its parent company bought in 2017 by the son of the current governor of the Hungarian National Bank. Several staff resignations followed the purchase and the paper subsequently adopted a stridently pro-government stance. Hír TV, once billed as the last domestically owned independent television channel, changed ownership in 2018. The results were jarring; an open letter was written to the European Commission’s First Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, charging that the move led to the dismissal of “outspoken leading journalists” and caused “an abrupt change of editorial policy.” Even English-language news outlets — often noted for their opposition opinions — have not been spared, with both Budapest Beacon and Politics.hu unable to stay afloat in 2018. Reporters without Borders currently places Hungary 89th out of 180 countries in terms of media freedom, whereas in 2013 the country stood at 56th.
The EU’s countermeasures have been invariably negligible. While the European People’s Party (EPP), the EU Parliament’s largest center-right block, suspended Fidesz for its multiple transgressions, this action was emblematic of prevarication, rather than stern resolve. Similarly, the most recent agreements on COVID-19 relief conspicuously called for “rule of law” conditions to be included in its funding distribution, but this was eventually watered down. The EU allowed Hungary’s transparent media to diminish years ago; it now recognizes its error but is lax to commit to doing anything institutionally constructive about it. Full dismissal of Fidesz from the EPP is one option, but unlikely; likewise, initiating Article 7, which sanctions member state rights, has been pursued but would inevitably be challenged by Poland. Threatening Budapest’s access to the coffers in Brussels is another alternative, but the EU may not be willing to withstand the repercussions this could mean for its internal relations, much less outward appearance of unity on the international stage. If the EU can stomach this unease and genuinely admonish Hungary by imperiling its access to EU funds, it may be able to convince Budapest that the Union has had enough.
For now, only drastic actions like the mass resignations at Index momentarily remind Europe and the world of just how far into disrepair Hungary’s media has fallen.