Interview with Hungarian journalist Veronika Munk, founder and editor-in-chief of Telex.hu, and former deputy chief-editor of Index.hu.
In July, Szabolcs Dull, editor-in-Chief of Index.hu was fired. A few days later, almost the entire editorial staff chose to resign, fearing the government would take full control of one of the last remaining independent media in Hungary. Veronika, how was this – highly political – decision to resign en masse perceived by the Hungarian public?
Index was Hungary’s leading news site and the main point of reference. During the pandemic, we broke all readership records in Hungarian media, with 1-1.5 million readers signing in each day. We also know how much our work meant to the readers, when during the last few weeks – when it was already clear to everybody that the editorial staff of Index was in danger – we received tons of messages from all kinds of people telling us what Index meant to them personally.
There was an ongoing public debate on the “meaning of the Index.hu case” even before our resignation, yet the amount of people who openly expressed solidarity with us and started to follow us on Facebook immediately after that was heart-warming and encouraging. A large press freedom protest was organized in the streets of Budapest on the same day we handed in our resignation.
Given the fact that Index.hu’s staff had resigned and the transformation of the well-known, 20-year-old news site left a sizable void in the Hungarian public discourse, it seems increasingly clear that Hungarians want credible news and are willing to pay for it. There has never been as many people financially supporting free online media than there is today.
Index.hu is nevertheless still active as we can see. Who controls it and works there now? How have things changed since your departure in terms of content and coverage? Is this a symbolic example of the Hungarian authorities’ efforts to dismantle free media organisations since 2010?
I do not want to comment on the current activities and representation of Index.hu. I prefer to invest my creative energy in making Telex.hu as effective and influential as possible in Hungary. Since I resigned, I focused on Telex, the new independent online news daily that my colleagues and I decided to launch. We started our crowdfunding campaign nine days ago, and already have more than 30,000 supporters – no media projects in Hungary has ever reached that level of support.
Telex was officially launched a few days ago. What are the goals of this media? Is it the relaunch of Index.hu under another name? Or do you have additional objectives?
Telex cannot be the “new Index.hu”, there is still a news site operating under that name. Of course, we cannot help it if many people still regard us as such, since the majority of that site’s outgoing staff will continue working with us. We take pride in the work we did so far, we are proud of our past, and like we did many times before, we stand by our statement that the only place where we can imagine ourselves working at is an independent and free media outlet. Telex will be just that, something that readers and staff members alike will be able to feel as their own.
As an independent media, you’ll probably once again be an obvious target for the authorities. How can you protect yourself against this? Have you found solutions (legal, financial, etc.) that you didn’t have at the time of Index.hu? In addition, has there been any official reaction to the launch of Telex.hu?
The founders of Telex have learnt the lessons from the fate of Index: a media outlet that is owned by a few big external investors, and which relies on advertisement revenues, is vulnerable. Therefore the editorial board’s plan is to remain the majority owner of Telex’s publishing company, and operate on some kind of subscription model in the long run. If any other investors join Telex’s publishing company, they will need to provide guarantees not to influence the content we publish, nor the structure of the editorial staff. That’s why we think Telex will be independent.
We believe we have a good chance to reach our goal in the current context, given that hundreds of thousands of people have relied on Index as their major source of information, and many of them miss our work so much that they are willing to support our project financially. We started a crowdfunding campaign on September 4 and at the moment, more than 30,000 people pitched in to help us get Telex started.
Since Viktor Orbán came to power, Hungary has experienced a dramatic fall in press and media freedom. Could you give us an overview of the media situation in Hungary today?
Media freedom in Hungary is in a bad shape, the number of independent outlets keeping the power in check has been in sharp decline over the past ten years as more and more newspapers, radios, and televisions were taken over by owners who are closely connected to parties and politicians. The current situation in Hungarian media does not only affect journalists and newsrooms, but also readers who have fewer and fewer independent sources to get their news from. A media landscape where independent voices are constantly losing ground weakens democracy. In a functioning democracy, people have a right to access the information needed to be able to make informed decisions.
Telex will certainly improve the situation: we will start with a large newsroom, with around 50 journalists and editors, plus an approximately 6-10 strong publishing team, which makes the project one of the biggest news sites in Hungary. Our goal is to provide basic news service, as well as deeper insights on various subjects, investigative reports – all this in an independent, impartial way.
Finally, what do you expect from the EU and/or its member states in the face of the deteriorating media environment in Hungary? Do you see possibilities of support for independent media (and more broadly for civil society)?
The European Commission can be very strong in several industries when it comes to illegal government subsidies, potentially dangerous mergers and acquisitions or similar competition issues. But they seem to be sort of fine with the Hungarian media industry as long as the Hungarian Competition Authority is ok with that. I am a journalist, not a policymaker, but I believe there are a number of ways the EU in general can help to set up a level playing field for the media industry, where the same rules apply to all actors. For example, it could definitely help in terms of funding of new media organizations in countries where press freedom is most at risk.
When it comes to what European citizens can do, I would suggest them to support financially the media outlets that they can rely on, if they have the means to do so. I believe that media pluralism and the possibility of fast, reliable and accurate information is essential for making free decisions. Enabling people to have this possibility is and has always been my goal, and I can only speak for myself, but I think it’s a goal that can be important all around the world.
As a conclusion, how could we concretely support Telex and the few last independent Hungarian media organisations?
Anyone can support Telex financially on tamogatas.telex.hu/en, so any media coverage is a great help on its own to help us gather more supporters. We hope that the freedom of the Hungarian media has allies and potential backers all around the world.
Interview conducted by Lucie Deffenain et Sofia Erpenbach and originally published in French by Euro Créative, an official partner of Kafkadesk.