Budapest, Hungary – Thousands marched for press freedom in Budapest on Saturday evening in solidarity with Index, Hungary’s largest and most popular media organisation, after the firing of editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull and consequential resignation of the vast majority of its editorial team.
Estimates place the participants between five and ten thousand people.
The protesters marched from Kolosy Square to to the offices of the Hungarian Prime Minister and the President in the Caste District. As the sun was setting on the warm summer evening, the march walked past the editorial office of Index where the participants symbolically applauded the editorial team that resigned in protest of the management’s interference with their affairs.
Earlier on Friday, almost the entire Index team handed in their resignation after trustee László Bodolai fired editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull for allegedly leaking confidential business information to outside sources.
The explanation was widely met by disbelief as Dull was removed from the managerial board of the company last month with the exact same explanation, although there was no sign of him having to leave the editorial office altogether then.
The alarm bells were first rung at the end of March when Miklós Vaszily, a businessman close to Viktor Orbán, became the co-owner of IndaMedia group, a larger media organisation Index is connected to. In June, Index’s editorial team published a statement in which they declared their independence to be in danger, right after a proposal was leaked by 24.hu, which would have planned to outsource pieces to other editorial teams, threatening Index’s role, influence, and independence.
Many believe Vaszily and political figures close to Fidesz to be behind the initial proposal as well as Dull’s firing. However, Index’s management insist that the firing has no political connotations and does not threaten the independence of their journalists, but was merely done due to Dull leaking the proposal to business rivals.
“This is not about party politics”
The protesters disagree. “This is part of a process, ”Károly Nagy, councillor and member of Momentum Movement, the party that organised the protest told Kafkadesk. “It happened to Origo, Népszabadság, and HírTV and now it’s happening to Index. It is unacceptable that Fidesz oligarchs buy independent media organisations and create propaganda outlets of them. 70 journalists resigned today, which makes it obvious that their independence is threatened.”
When asked about whether he thinks the fact that a political party organises a protest to protect a media outlet undermines Index’s claim of independence, Nagy replies: “It’s not about party politics. The entire opposition consider the free press quintessential for democracy. I read some articles on Index that criticised some elements of my politics but that is completely fine. Szabolcs Dull, for instance, was especially critical of Momentum.”
As a vivid reminder of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, face masks were a widespread accessory for the vast majority of protesters, alongside the usual creative banners. Though relatively high in numbers, the protest’s intensity, perhaps due to the face-mask induced warmth and consequential difficulties with constant chanting, lacked those of December 2018 when Hungarians were protesting the newly imposed so called slave law.
A sad decade for press freedom
After the sun finally set, just like on one of those December evenings, the protest ended in Színház street where the participants listened to speeches of mixed quality by Momentum deputy-leader Anna Orosz, columnist Balázs Gulyás, former tabloid-editor Tamás Szekeres who talked about the disappearing press-freedom, designer Zoltán Herczeg, who remembered the tragically deceased Roma activist and mayor of Cserdi, independent MP Ákos Hadházy and finally Momentum leader András Fekete-Győr.
Orosz drew parallels with independent news organisations that similarly fell victim to Viktor Orbán’s war on media in the past years, then argued that by shutting down independent news organisations, Fidesz is taking away conversations from family dinner-tables and pub-gatherings between friends.
Gulyás showed his oratory talents by managing to fire up the otherwise lukewarm crowd. He greeted the audience with the phrase, “Hello Liberniks,” a slur on liberals unexpectedly used by Viktor Orbán that morning to describe some of his colleagues in the European Union. After some powerful oratory parallels with the tragic death of George Floyd, he warned Fidesz-voters that eventually, they will also appear on Viktor Orbán’s death list.
Towards the end of the event, Ákos Hadházy expressed his admiration for how Index managed to resist both the carrot and the stick. András Fekete-Győr closed the speeches and praised Index before the remaining audience held long applause for the popular website that guided them through Hungarian politics for the past two decades.
Before they left, the protesters held their phone up with the flashlight turned on, an act that became a symbol of resistance during the 2018 protests. As the crowd dispersed and the lights turned off, and another day ended in a sad decade for Hungarian press freedom…
By Ábel Bede
Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and is currently studying History at Durham University. He wrote his dissertation on early 20th century Hungarian politics and culture and published several pieces in prominent Hungarian newspapers. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!
Main photo credit: János Bődey