press freedom

Sacking at Hungary news site fuels press freedom fears

Agence France-Presse, Agence France-Presse

The editor of Hungary’s top independent news site was fired on Wednesday, July 22, amid fears of growing government influence over the outlet and sparking a potential mass exodus by journalist staff.

Szabolcs Dull, editor-in-chief of Index.hu, Hungary’s most widely read news portal, was dismissed for leaking internal documents to the media, according to a letter sent by management to staff.

Last month Dull protested against a proposed overhaul of the news site by its owners, by declaring its independence to be at risk due to “external pressures.”

He said the site’s freedom to publish stories critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government was “in grave danger.”

Index management previously said economic pressures caused by the coronavirus crisis forced the planned changes that include outsourcing much of the site’s content creation.

“The political independence of Index is not at risk,” said Laszlo Bodolai, head of the foundation that owns Index’s publisher, in a letter to staff Wednesday.

But Dull’s sacking was called “unacceptable” by most of Index’s approximately 100 staff journalists who co-signed an open letter.

Dull was fired as “he made it clear he will not yield to blackmail,” said the letter.

“Index is a powerful fortress that they want to demolish,” said Dull in a farewell speech reported by the 444.hu news site.

The turmoil at the site follows the purchase in March of a 50% stake in Index’s advertising agency by a powerful pro-Orban businessman Miklos Vaszily.

Vaszily told local media then that he hoped Index would stay influential and independent, but some staff and analysts saw the purchase as a threat to the site’s autonomy.

Since coming to power in 2010, the nationalist Orban has transformed Hungary’s public media into propaganda organs while allies have steadily bought up swathes of the private media sector.

In recent years most independent outlets like Index have either gone out of business or been bought by government allies and adopted pro-Orban editorial lines, while receiving lucrative flows of state advertising.

According to Daniel Szalay, editor of the Media1.hu news site, many of Index’s journalists now plan to leave in protest at Dull’s departure.

“The question is where they will go as the Hungarian media industry is under political pressure,” Szalay told AFP.

“Many news sites belong to the government, there aren’t many positions for independent journalists nowadays,” he said.

The lopsided media landscape and “restricted” access to information in Hungary was cited by election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as part of an “adverse climate” that helped Orban win a third consecutive term as premier in 2018. – Rappler.com