In July 2020 the editor-in-chief of Index.hu, Hungary’s largest and most influential independent news website, was fired after going public over concerns about political meddling in the newspaper. In the wake of the sacking, the outlet’s entire editorial board and some 80 other journalists resigned in protest, saying a red line had been crossed.
The story of Index is the same as many independent media titles in Hungary in recent years: a news outlet is formed, grows until it becomes too influential for the ruling party, and then faces meddling from allies of the government until it implodes or is placed under new ownership. Such trimming down to size of critical titles has long been the norm under the Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Determined to break free from indirect political influence, a group of around 60 to 70 former Index journalists and staff grouped together and in October re-launched an entirely new medium online: Telex. Operating from a small office in Budapest, this new media organization is funded solely through donations from its growing readership. After they set up a crowdfunding page, Telex gathered €1 million is just one month, under the hashtag #nehallgassunk – “do not stay silent”.
Among those to reach out and help Telex get on its feet was Helsingin Sanomat, the largest subscription newspaper in Finland and the Nordic countries (and known internationally for its free press campaign when Presidents Trump and Putin came to Helsinki for a summit). For them, the experience of Index was all too familiar. The newspaper was founded after its predecessor, Päivälehti, was closed by the Russian authorities in 1904 after years of political censorship. In its place, Helsingin Sanomat was founded just four days later.
“I found the Telex example fascinating and I’m a great admirer of the whole team”, Kaius Niemi, senior editor-in-chief at Helsingin Sanomat and chair of the International Press Institute’s (IPI) Finnish National Committee, said. “The Telex journalists are doing exactly what needs to be done when independent journalism is under threat. It is an inspiring example and I think it resonates in the Finnish context and the story of Helsingin Sanomat.”
Speaking at recent webinar hosted by IPI to mark World Press Freedom Day 2021, Niemi said the story of Telex showed that the importance of press freedom cannot be underestimated. “Even though Finland is at the top of the World Press Freedom Index, we are still facing a lot of hardships. I think we have to admit that this cannot be taken for granted. Being vocal… is also a safeguard measure for the Finnish audience and journalistic community to understand that we need to be ready to face new threats.”
He added: “Because it has been clear by what’s happened in Poland or Hungary – countries within the European Union – that it could happen elsewhere. On the other side of the border, we have Russia giving another bad example. We also need to think about how to help people outside the borders of the Nordic countries. Our journalist friends in Hungary are the heroes here. We are hoping that this can add a bit of resilience.”
In addition to cross-border support and solidarity with Telex, staff at Helsingin Sanomat have also held videoconferences with Telex’s management, given advice on how to attract new subscribers and shared insights on the use of digital technology – information it wouldn’t normally share with other media outlets.
More than 44,000 people have donated money, and in the last nine months Telex has grown into the third-most read online news site in Hungary. The outlet now operates its website and social media channels 24 hours day, seven days a week, and is hoping to launch a subscription model in the future.
“We are now able to do what we are best at”, Telex CEO Márton Kárpáti said during the webinar on threats facing press freedom across Europe. “We are free, we are independent. We are not pro-government; we are not pro-opposition. We just do our jobs and run a very good newsroom.”
Kárpáti added: “The help and publicity we are getting from our Finnish friends is emotionally helping us a lot. But even financially. Lots of Finnish readers sent us money after [Helsingin Sanomat published the short film]. We have to talk about these problems and ring the warning bell at different European institutions.”
— IPI – The Global Network for Press Freedom (@globalfreemedia) May 4, 2021
The event on May 5 featured a discussion on press freedom in Europe organized in partnership with the IPI Norwegian and Finnish National Committees. The panel also featured Annelie Östlund, a journalist at Swedish news outlet Realtid, who faces bankruptcy in a defamation case taken by Swedish businessman through the London courts in a classic example of SLAPPs or vexatious lawsuits designed to silence journalists; Adam Bodnar, Poland’s Ombudsman for Citizen’s Rights who is leading a battle to prevent the country’s state owned energy giant from taking over the regional news media; and Ole Kristian Bjellaanes, Sports Editor at the Norwegian News Agency and chair of IPI’s Norwegian National Committee.