Index’s readership has plummeted since its editorial staff resigned en masse at the end of last month, over fears it would fall under the control of Hungarian authorities. 24.hu is the most likely candidate and best-placed online media to take up the mantle of independent journalism in Hungary. We spoke to Péter Pető, its editor-in-chief.
Péter Pető’s journalistic background is indicative of the turmoil experienced by Hungary’s media sector during the ten years that Viktor Orbán has been governing. Formerly deputy editor-in-chief of the emblematic left-wing newspaper Népszabadság, he found himself unemployed after the newspaper was dismantled in 2016. He joined 24.hu the following year, a pure news player founded in 2015 and which is experiencing a boom as a result of the numerous reshuffles and closures of independent media in Hungary.
24.hu, which belongs to the Central Médiacsoport Zrt press group (which also owns flagship titles such as the women’s magazine Nők lapja), is an exception within the Hungarian journalistic scene. Its owner, Zoltán Varga, is a “classic” businessman who isn’t closely affiliated with the regime. Since Index’s downfall, 24.hu, with some 60 employees and one million daily visitors, appears set to dominate the local online information market.
We can assume that what happened to Index.hu inevitably brought back bad memories, the abrupt closure of the newspaper Népszabadság four years ago?
Yes, unfortunately, I had a sense of déjà vu when watching the heart-wrenching video of Index journalists as they handed in their resignations. I know that feeling of losing a newspaper in which you had invested so much work.
In what way is the end of Index.hu a loss for Hungary?
It’s a bit loss, it’s the biggest newspaper in Hungary in terms of readership. It’s an irreplaceable loss. Of course, there will still be other newspapers in Hungary. But it was the same with Népszabadsg: we are not only losing outlets but institutions that has been built for decades and hold so many stories, that represent so much creative energy and hard work.
What kind of media is 24.hu, the online news site where you’ve been working since 2017?
We are an independent newspaper and for Hungary it’s important (laughs). We are independent from any political party or lobby, I’d formulate it like that: we are independent from any will outside of our own redaction. I hope we fully represent all the best norms and standards of a free quality press. This is why our independence is important. We stick to the reality and the facts. I could mention a lot of “old school” things that are sometimes being presented as an utopia, but for us, that’s how we understand journalism.
We try to use all the possibilities that technology and technological development offer us, such as videos, podcasts and all the other tools that can be used to explain the world to different types of readers). But we want to preserve the traditional forms of journalism. Like reportages and long interviews. We try to have something for everyone in terms of topics, from politics to entertainment.
Do you manage to get past the many high-quality media in Hungary, who can sometimes be a bit too “Budapest-centric”?
We tend to say that if you want to tell what’s really going on, you need to go the closest you can. That’s why we do go outside of Budapest, and have contributions for regional journalists. I think we’re the media that produces the largest share of regional content. We just launched a series on countryside museums for instance! Unfortunately, because of Hungarian media’s financial situation, it’s impossible to have regional correspondents. Népszabadsag was the last independent outlet to have that.
Do you have readers among Fidesz supporters?
It’s impossible not to have Fidesz supporters among our readers, considering the party’s dominance in the Hungarian electorate. For an independent newspaper such as Index or 24.hu to dominate in terms of readers, you need a lot of pro-Fidesz readers. And I would even add that it’s a guarantee in terms of independence because if, as the government says, we really were a left-wing title or whatever, then that would show in our audience. When people want to be informed – and not vote – they will look for titles that give the most accurate and detailed picture of what’s happening. And I don’t care who our readers vote for, I just want them to read us!
What is 24.hu’s relationship with its owner, Zoltan Varga?
It was hard for me to imagine that I could have a perfectly trustful relation with our owner. But I am incredibly lucky that it’s the case today. I wish the same for some of our colleagues! It’s quite exceptional to be able to work independently in the current Hungarian political environment.
Have you been the subject of a smear campaign by pro-government media in particular, and what about the fact that Zoltán Varga now seems to be their target?
Yes, I, too, of course, have been targeted in a propagandist article. That does not affect my work, but there are more aggressive means of intimidation. A colleague of mine, for example, was harassed by the staff of HírTV (a pro-government TV channel) knocking at her door. We don’t really know where their limits are… I don’t like to care about external pressure, it’s time I’m not spending in my redaction. Our mission is to keep doing our job regardless of what the pro-government media are trying to do.
How do you explain that in Hungary, a person like Miklós Vaszily (a businessman linked to Fidesz) can buy 50% of the shares of Index.hu’s advertising company overnight?
Someone who has spent 10 years in this regime more or less knows there is very little space left, and traps set up everywhere. Their goal is to have an influence on everything, to be on top of everything and have everyone at their mercy. That’s why it’s critical to have a good relationship with the media owner, like we have, a businessman who believes it’s important to maintain a role to play in the media sector.
It’s the same for HVG, for instance, whose owner respects the media’s independence. I would welcome more competition, because for us it was very motivating and challenging to have to compete with Index.hu, see who would find the best headline or the best front-page.
How do authorities go about making a publication disappear?
Actually, the methods used were always a bit different each time, and they were sometimes very surprising developments, including the one that ended up with the dismantling of Népszabadság. After a long and complicated process, after its liquidation, it was finally Loric Meszaros (number one oligarch of the Orban regime) who became owner of the company in charge of printing the newspaper.
It was a bit the same with Index, which had a very complicated structure, until Vaszily, the regime’s “media man” who was involved with many state media, who arrived and took over. But once they’re in, it’s the end of the redaction, sooner or later. Apart from that, Hungarian authorities choose their favourite publications and give them a certain amount of money for its message to be conveyed. It’s absurd that there’s not a single state-sponsored ad in the most read media in the country, while so many small outlets get a lot of money, these are distorting the market.
Do you face any other difficulties with the government in your work as a journalist?
It’s really hard to get answers to questions we ask to public and state actors. Many people are told not to talk to us. The regime is built in such a way that it refuses to answer to independent media.
Many newspaper titles have started asking their readers for financial support in recent years in Hungary. Is this the solution to guarantee independent reporting?
Crowdfunding is unavoidable if the readers want their media to get closer to the reality or to the decision makers. It’s important for the country, a democracy needs a free press and we need for the public to contribute as much as they can to safeguard this independence, so that the newspapers and their content not be left at the mercy of political funding and remain free of any outside influence. Maybe that after Index and so many tragedies in the media, Hungarians will realize that there is no other way. To be clear, it’s not about sponsorship, but simply about buying. Just as people pay for Netflix or other services, good articles have a price.
In short, 24.hu is living proof that you can run an independent media in Hungary?
To run a media independently in Hungary comes with a lot of pressure and many hardships, in a system where media that are not in the regime’s good graces have less and less space to operate. But yes, it’s possible!
Interview conducted by Hélène Bienvenu, and published in French on Le Courrier d’Europe Centrale, an official Kafkadesk partner.