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Index.hu bows out: “We really believed in our newspaper and our mission”

András Földes doesn’t know when he’ll be able to pack his bags for his next story in the field. Until last week, this award-winning journalist had been working for 20 years at Index.hu, one of the leading independent and most influential Hungarian online news portal.

The 48 year-old journalist resigned along with about 80 of his colleagues in a masse protest against the dismissal of their editor-in chief Szabolcs Dull, fearing the independence of his media might be jeopardized. This marked the end of Index.hu as we know it, a media which has attracted over one million daily visitors through the years, the full stop of an independent online media that emerged at the very beginning of wide-spread Internet use in Hungary in 1999.

András Földes, who had released video stories of migrant rescue boats off the coast of Libya or on Sahara human smugglers in Niger, doesn’t have a lot of options other than to leave his homeland and work for international outlets. “I want to remain a video journalist, the topics I cover are not Hungarian and no other independent Hungarian media would be able to pay for what I do. And I don’t want to live in a country where I can’t speak on the phone, because I wouldn’t be surprised that my phone is tapped”, he said over WhatsApp, adding that he had stopped using his phone altogether with his Index colleagues.

An air of déjà-vu

“I feel like they took away something from us which was more than a job and readers feel they were taken something more than a media”, points the seasoned journalist who had joined the media the year after its launch. “We really believed in our newspaper and our mission. Index was so much a part of the Hungarian public life that even Fidesz or government supporters are in a state of shock”, he continues, even expressing his surprise at the scale of the outcry, which pushed 10,000 people last Friday to rally in solidarity with the media in a Budapest demonstration organized by Momentum, an opposition political party.

“Index had its own studio, a podcast room, rooms for special effects, we had several cars: it was enough to go down to the garage and rush to the scene! You can’t find a media company with so many of these facilities in Hungary”, points the video journalist who is convinced the Orbán government was seeking to close Index down. “It was the right time to do so. We’re halfway before the 2022 general elections, the biggest independent media were destroyed when the elections were not that close in sight; this is what happened to Népszabsag in 2016, just two years before the general elections.”

Indeed, the end of Index (although the outgoing journalists and editors will still have to publish articles for a short period of time to respect their contract) is reminiscent of how Népszabság, the biggest print newspaper at the time, came to a sudden and brutal end four years ago, never to be printed again. A few days later, a government-friendly company linked to Lőrinc Mészáros – Orbán’s close friend and billionaire – bought over the shares from the newspaper’s publisher, confirming fears that the Orbán government had something to do with the closure.

Viktor Orban’s decade-long media grab

The Hungarian media scene has been sailing through troubled waters ever since the fall of the communist regime. But the turbulence only became worse since Viktor Orbán rose to power in 2010. The Prime Minister had learnt his lesson from his defeat in 2002 – partly attributed to the media. A few months after his landslide victory in 2010, the populist right-wing government, which has enjoyed a constitutional majority almost ever since, passed a controversial media law increasing state control over media outlets – a bill that eventually had to be amended at the request of the EU Commission.

Public media was completely overhauled and in the end became a mere government mouthpiece, only keen to present the government’s actions in a favourable light and echoing its rhetoric on such topics as George Soros, the migrants crisis, Brussels technocrats and other now well-known bogeymen of Prime Minister Orbán.

“I don’t think Viktor Orbán watches anything else on public TV than soccer matches”, jokingly points out Martin Bukovics, co-editor in chief of Azonnali.hu, an independent online publication with a special focus on Central and Eastern Europe (whose main owner is Péter Ungar – an opposition politician, completed by a minority owner: Gábor Gerényi, whose plan to radically restructure Index a few weeks ago got overwhelmingly rejected – see below). “The reason Index was so important to everyone is because the public media became propagandistic. Index did what a normal public media broadcaster would do with only a fragment of the public broadcasting budget”, explains the journalist.

But the government’s growing control over the Hungarian media sector didn’t stop at public broadcasting. Today, around 80% of Hungary’s news-related media is controlled either by the state itself of by close friends and associates of the Prime Minister. No wonder, then, that throughout a decade of Orbán rule, a number of influential private media outlets ceased to be published once their ownership changed or their shares got sold to new companies and conglomerates linked to “Fidesz oligarchs”. These outlets either closed down for good (Népszabaság) or consequently became loyal pro-government platforms (Origo, TV2, etc.).

Another case study is provided by Lajos Simicska, an oligarch whose powerful media empire switched to all-out Orbán critique mode after his falling out with the Prime Minister in 2015. Simicska eventually gave up his media business after Fidesz won a third consecutive victory in the 2018 general elections. Today, most of his remaining outlets simply ceased to exist, while some reporters managed to “survive” by moving their editorial work to online platforms, such as Héti Valász online or Magyar Hang (former Magyar Nemzet).

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Ranked 56th out of 180 countries in 2013, Hungary has recorded its sixth consecutive decline in the World Press Freedom Index this year, falling to the 89th position, the second-lowest in the EU.

The state advertisement weapon

“Since 2014 especially, the government has spent even more money on the media. This money goes to newly established or overtaken outlets loyal to Viktor Orbán”, analyses Tamás Bodoky, founder and executive director of Atlatszo.hu, a Hungarian media watchdog and investigative website (published by a non profit – owned by several individuals and financed in part through subscriptions of its readers as well as institutional donors). Almost all of these outlets – accounting for more than 500 press tittles – are under the umbrella of one single foundation, created in 2018: KESMA (Central European Press and Media Foundation in English), which includes dozens and dozens of regional newspapers, handed out for free by various Orbán cronies.

These outlets “attack everyone who dares to criticize the government”, laments Tamás Bodoky who himself faced a smear campaign after sharing a selfie with Judith Sargentini (Dutch MEP and one of Orban’s bête-noire, author of a report on Hungary) in Brussels on Facebook.

Another weapon used by the Hungarian government to either favour or punish outlets is public advertisement, widely used for instance to promote the eight “national consultations” or other “information campaigns”. “State advertisement represents 15-20% of the total advertising market, making the Hungarian state the biggest advertiser”, notes Gábor Polyák, director of Merték, a media watchdog organization and think-tank.

“It’s absurd that there is no state advertisement in the most read media in the country while very small outlets distorting the market get so much of that money”, adds Péter Pető, editor in chief at 24.hu, the second biggest news website after Index, now called to take up the mantle. Founded in 2015, 24.hu both belongs and is published by Central Médiacsoport – owned by Zoltán Varga, a Hungarian businessman not connected to Orbán’s inner circles.

Péter Pető joined 24.hu in 2017 after the closure of Népszabság. Watching Index journalists resigning one after the other in a video widely shared on social media gave him a painful impression of déjà-vu. “Index.hu is an irreplaceable loss. Of course, there will still be other newspapers in Hungary. But it was the same with Népszabadság, we are not only losing outlets, but institutions that had been built for decades”.

Did Index.hu just commit “collective suicide”?

The crisis at Index.hu had already been looming for several years. To grasp what happened this month, one first needs to understand the “multiple ownership vehicles” (roughly one editorial, one financial) of the platform. Lajos Simicska had opted for a secret option right to buy all the shares of Index Zrt (Index’s publishing company) from Zoltán Spéder, an oligarch close to the Prime Minister. When Simicska turned his back on his former dormitory roommate (Viktor Orbán), he placed all the shares under a foundation, Magyar Fejlődésért Alapítvány (MFA), managed by László Bodolai a well-known media lawyer. But Zoltán Spéder remained the owner of CEMP, the company in charge of the sales.

After Fidesz’ victory in 2018, Gábor Ziegler and József Oltyán (businessman member of KDNP, the junior coalition partner of Fidesz) sneaked in to buy Zoltán Spéder’s company that they turned intro Indamedia Zrt, a new company in charge of Index’s sales and advertisement incomes. Magyar Fejlődésért Alapítvány (MFA) remained the owner of Index.hu news website but in many ways Index’s survival depended on Indamedia Zrt. That’s when Index set up its “independence barometer” to inform its readers that the media’s financial security could be in danger.

In the middle of the pandemic, in March 2020, Miklós Vaszily, the man behind all the prominent pro-government media overhaul, bought József Oltyán’s shares, that is, half of Indamedia Zrt. The redaction reacted imposing two conditions on Bodolai: there should be no external influence on the structure and composition of Index staff and on the published content. The redaction also rejected a reform proposed by Gábor Gerényi, which planned – among other suggestions – to turn journalists on the payroll into contractors. Tensions rose, and the crisis eventually led to the sacking of editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull.

Some commentators argued the redaction decided to “commit collective suicide” even before any clear political influence was exerted. True or not, this doesn’t change the fact that “firing the editor-in-chief was a huge casus belli. Journalists didn’t have any other choice than to do what they did. I think everyone made mistakes, but the whole process was directed by Fidesz, it’s absolutely certain”, concludes Gábor Polyak.

Main photo credit: Index.hu

By Hélène Bienvenu

Hélène is a multilingual (photo)journalist focused on writing about the ‘unknown and little known’. French-born, fluent in Polish and Hungarian, she has been working as a Central European-Budapest based correspondent for French and English-language media since 2010 (including The New York Times and Le Figaro).

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