This article is part of IPI’s series “Europe media freedom in the shadow of Covid“.
Hungarian independent media, already in turnmoil due to the global coronavirus pandemic, has suffered its biggest blow in a decade of constant attacks from Viktor Orbán’s authoirtarian right-wing regime. In the last week of July the vast majority of the approximately 90 journalists working at Index.hu resigned, after their editor-in-chief, Szabolcs Dull, was fired by the company’s CEO. It is still unclear how this will transform the Hungarian media landscape, but everyone involved agrees: things will be much worse.
The importance of Index cannot be overstated. Index accounted for nearly half of all page views among independent media in Hungary, but beyond the numbers the website was a symbol of post-communist Hungary. Born at the end of the 1990s when the first big wave of Hungarians connected to the internet, in many ways it was the first modern Hungarian news outlet, completely free of the old habits of ex-communist media professionals.
Index’s parent company owns the most popular blogging platform and a number of independently successful websites covering everything from cars to movies, but its flagship was Index.hu. In a country where public broadcast media has turned into a government mouthpiece, Index was prestigious enough to fulfil the role usually associated with state-funded broadcasters. This was especially obvious during the coronavirus pandemic, when Index was read by even more people than usual, and, in a move almost unheard of in Hungary, even government figures published opinion pieces on the website explaining their actions to the general electorate.
But trouble was already brewing in the background. In March 2020, Miklós Vaszily, one of Orbán’s go-to media men, purchased a controlling interest in Indamedia, the company that manages Index’s advertising and commercial affairs. This was a very clear indication that the government was preparing to pounce, and the journalists at Index were well aware of this.
“Since spring 2020 it was very hard to work while maintaining my integrity. It was very tiring to do this while constantly having to watch our backs, afraid of any deals happening there”, Veronika Munk, Index’s ex-deputy editor, explained to the International Press Institute (IPI). “Nobody answered our questions concerning the company’s situation. And then we had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. My job is to tell the truth to everyone, so this was really painful for me. I just couldn’t trust our management any longer.”
Like many outside observers, even Munk was surprised by the almost unanimous wave of resignations. While some have questioned why they didn’t keep on fighting even after their editor-in-chief was fired, Gábor Polyák, a media law scholar, told IPI that they made the right choice. “It was very risky to do because they basically jumped into the void. But if they stayed they risked being slowly, almost unnoticeably co-opted by those in power. If they didn’t act now, they might not have had the power to act later”.
The resignation of the entire editorial team has left Index in a strange limbo. According to Munk, “We’ve all asked management to absolve us from our contractual duties, but they only agreed to this with about 25 people, the rest have to keep working. I personally have to keep working until the end of August, and my colleagues keep doing their duty as professionally as always. It is very hard to motivate anyone in this situation, but we’ve decided to continue as usual until the final moment of this endgame. But none of us are signing our articles with our own names.”
For the casual reader, Index still functions as it used to, albeit with fewer articles, and a close reading shows a general lack of enthusiasm from those still working there. Their visitor numbers are down by a third, according to Munk, which is in line with the number of journalists who have already left for good. Some of Index’s remaining competitors, especially 24.hu, have seen visitor numbers rise, but, according to Polyák, not by as much as the numbers have fallen at Index. Index’s Facebook page has lost about 40,000 likes since Dull’s sacking, and this can be considered an indicator of the number of readers who have left the newssite as a conscious decision. But Index’s page still has about 570,000 likes.
Munk, along with most of her colleagues, will leave Index for good at the end of August. Some journalists will have to stay for longer due to contractual obligations, and a number of them, but not Munk herself, have non-compete clauses in their contracts. Of the journalists leaving Index, nobody has or is allowed to say anything about their future plans publicly. They have started a Facebook page called “Távozó Indexesek” (Index leavers) that managed to collect more than 250,000 likes in a few days. This page has limited itself to publishing sentimental photos and short posts on the journalists’ current situation.
A mysterious photo did appear on the Távozó Indexesek Facebook-page on August 3rd, with only a couple of words on it. “There will be another one. Soon.” it said. IPI asked several people at Index about this message, but the journalists remain mum. “I want to stay in this profession, it’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years. I honestly hope that Hungarian society needs a media outlet like Index. We really want to stay together”, Munk told IPI.
Staying together is what all the editorial teams working at other Hungarian media outlets wanted when facing situations similar to Index, but almost none have succeeded, and definitely not on this scale.
“It seems to me that those leaving Index now didn’t have a backup plan. They need a couple of million of euros to keep everybody together, and I don’t see them collecting that amount via crowdfunding. They would need large companies helping them, some of which have already done so in the background”, Polyák explained. “They would need large companies helping them, some of which have already done so in the background”, Polyák explained. But he said that it would be very difficult to start from scratch in a market where many competitors are already hoping to squeeze out the last pennies from potential readers who care about independent Hungarian media. According to Polyák, if Index’s former editorial team doesn’t manage to stay together, these competitors can offer jobs to no more than about 20 journalists, so many others might have to leave their profession for good. The global pandemic has further weakened the remaining independent Hungarian media companies, forcing all of them to cut wages or fire journalists. Advertising revenue fell dramatically in March and April, and is yet to reach pre-pandemic levels.
It is also unclear what will happen to Index after everybody leaves. The managerial team has been frantically searching for replacements, but so far the only journalist they are known to have convinced resigned after spending a single day as deputy editor. These same managers have previously spoken about not wanting to “turn Index into another Origo”, referring to another large, formerly independent news website that has been turned into one of the nastiest government mouthpieces. Most experts agree that the resignation of such a large number of journalists caught the managers and whoever is calling the shots in the background by surprise. According to Polyák, “it seems like they are all a bit confused now. Index as a brand is losing its value day by day, but I guess they hope to somehow build up a new team that can convince their old readership that nothing has changed”.
There is no doubt, however, that Viktor Orbán and his regime will not have their appetites satisfied after Index’s fall. “The best you can hope for is the quiet before the storm”, Polyák said. The only realistic alternative to Index is 24.hu, a news website covering a broad range of topics and part of a large media portfolio owned by billionaire businessman Zoltán Varga. Government propaganda outlets have been launching vile attacks on Varga for months, and since the turmoil at Index started they have also published some nasty articles about Péter Szauer, owner of the HVG weekly and its sister website.
“For a decade they’ve not stopped for a single second, so nobody can feel safe”, Polyák says. “Until now the government loved to point at independent media outlets whenever their track record was criticized. There comes a point where the government controls 98 percent of media and that looks quite stupid, but who knows if they care about this any more.”