Opinion After the crackdown on Index

No impunity for the abuse of press freedom in Hungary

The de facto end of Index, one of the last Hungarian independent media organisations, is one more thumbed nose to freedom of the press. The EU should make the granting of funds to Budapest conditional on its respect.

Published on 28 July 2020 at 15:16
Gábor Bankó | 444.hu  | "Free country. Free press". At a rally in solidarity with Index, Budapest, 24 July 2020.

No sooner had EU leaders returned from a marathon EU summit than Szabolcs Dull, editor-in-chief of Index.hu, a leading news channel in Hungary, was fired.

The Hungarian government argues that it does not interfere with press freedom because “journalists can write what they like”. As Foreign Minister, Peter Szijjártó told a news conference during a visit to Portugal: “How would the state intervene in the decisions of a media which is privately owned?”

The answer is simple. Government cronies buy a majority stake in the companies that own the platforms. Next the platforms are starved of government advertising revenue which is used to build up competitors. Then you sack the editor-in-chief on the grounds that the media outlet is not commercially viable.

Or as László Bodolai, chief executive of the holding company put it to editorial staff, the decision to sack Dull was “personal”. A Reuters report quotes Bodolai as saying that “Dull had been unable to control internal newsroom tensions, leading to disarray and a drop in revenue as advertisers stayed away”.

In fact the decision was neither commercial, nor personal but rather political. That was obvious to the 80 journalists (from a total of 90) who resigned in the wake of Dull’s sacking as well as to the thousands who joined street protests in Budapest.

Speaking to newsroom editors following his sacking, Szabolcs Dull said: “Index is a mighty fortress which they (the government) want to blow up.”

Istvan, 30, who joined the protest march from the Index HQ to prime minister Viktor Orbán’s office in Buda castle, said “We are not necessarily here because we liked Index but we are now at the point where accessing information is jeopardised”

Over the last few years, independent media in Hungary, has been steadily emasculated.

The monitoring site, Hungarian Spectrum reports that many platforms have “disappeared or been bought up by oligarchs, most likely with covert assistance from the government itself and added to the government-friendly media stable”.

Despite this decline, Hungary is still only ranked by Reporters Without Borders as the second worst EU member state for media freedom (Bulgaria tops that particular list of shame).

But whether in Hungary, Bulgaria or anywhere else in the EU, shouldn’t the EU Commission be calling time on press freedom abuses in Europe?

With over 1 million readers a day, Index represented over half of all daily page views amongst Hungary’s independent media sector. According to the International Press Institute, it was a mainstay of press freedom in Hungary.

The case of Index well illustrates the manner in which Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have been able to gain more and more control over the independent media outlets in Hungary.

Through a complex management structure, Index is owned by a foundation, theoretically designed to safeguard its editorial independence.

As Justin Spike, a journalist for the independent outlet Insight Hungary, explains: “For years, government-tied businessmen lurked within the ownership structure of Index, but the site managed to maintain editorial control of its newsroom.”

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However, it was the holding company, not Index itself, which controlled the way in which advertising revenues were sourced. This was done through a public relations company called Indamedia.

In March 2020, Indamedia was bought by Miklós Vaszily, a close ally of Viktor Orbán. In 2014, Vaszily was responsible for the take-over of Origo, another web-based media outlet. Following the publication of an article alleging the misuse of funds by a senior government official, Vaszily sacked the editor-in-chief. Origo has subsequently adopted a pro-government stance.

In response to Vaszily’s take-over of Indamedia, Szabolcs Dull instituted a three colour online barometer to alert readers to threats to the independence of Index. Green was for ‘independent’, red for ‘non-independent’, yellow for ‘in danger’.  

In June, following the appointment of another Orban crony, Gábor Gerényi as an advisor to Indamedia, the editorial board downgraded Index’s status to yellow. It was at that point that Szabolcs Dull was told to leave.

How do you protect press freedom in a member state of the European Union in which democratic checks and balances have been eliminated?

First, we need to address the vast imbalance between the government-controlled and independent media in Hungary.

Market distortions and the unlawful use of state aid is well-documented in Hungary. For example, the EU Commission is currently investigating whether a decision by the Hungarian government to grant 108m Euros in state aid to Samsung to build their SDI battery cell production unit in Hungary breached state aid rules.

In opening the Samsung investigation, Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager made clear: “Public support should only be given if it’s necessary to trigger private investment. Otherwise, it only gives the beneficiary an unfair advantage over its competitors, at the expense of taxpayers.”

You do not need to be a communications expert to notice that the Hungarian media landscape is hopelessly skewed in favour of state-controlled media. Only pro-government investors can obtain a frequency band to be able to broadcast.

The Hungarian Media Council, which amongst other functions, is supposed to be the guardian of broadcasting standards, is entirely controlled by Fidesz appointees. Decisions of the Media Council serve the political interests of Fidesz.

In huge billboard campaigns, the government promotes its own media outlets which it fills with propaganda, fake news and content designed to manipulate and control the public into supporting government policy.

Stripped of the values of public service broadcasting, government controlled media outlets pump out huge quantities of fake news daily. In fact the government is so adept at distorting the flow of information, there is no need for (and no sign of) any Russian interference.

If the EU Commission wanted to get serious about media abuses in Hungary, it could start by examining the structure of media ownership there and the misallocation of public funds under existing competition rules. Despite multiple requests for such an investigation, no such steps have yet been taken.

Secondly, the EU should introduce much stricter conditionality with respect to the use of EU funds in Hungary and other member states, such as Poland, where there is clear evidence of democratic and human rights abuses including failure to respect the rule of law.

It is no surprise that Szabolcs Dull was fired within days of the EU summit. The Council’s failure to lock conditionality clauses into the disbursement criteria for the recovery plan gave a green light to Orban for further democratic abuses.

In May, Commissioner Vera Jourová, Vice-President for Values and Transparency, sent a message of support to Index.

“What you are doing, the values you are fighting for, media freedom and pluralism, are essential for democracy,” the Commissioner said in her message, “you can count on my support”.

Thirdly, the Commission should accede to calls by the European Parliament for a trebling of the Commission’ Rights and Values programme to support civil society organisations working to monitor and challenge democratic and human rights abuses.

When there is no conditionality on the handing out of EU funds to Hungary, no assessment of whether those funds are being used legitimately from the point of view of competition law, then who will stand up and fight for freedom?

When huge sections of the independent media landscape have their oxygen taken away from them by a government that doesn’t like what they have to say about the government, who will be left to bear witness to government abuse?

Fourthly, the European Union should insist on Hungary’s participation in the European Public Prosecutor’s Office so that claims relating to the misappropriation, for example of EU funds, can be investigated independently.

The experience of Index is symptomatic of what is happening in other sectors of the economy where a string of businessmen, including relatives of Orban, have risen to prominence since 2010 – they now benefit from over 25 percent of all public procurement from EU funds.

Orbán denies corruption and says that allegations should be reported to the authorities, authorities that are themselves controlled by Fidesz appointees.

Finally, the EU must pursue vigorously the Article 7 probe against Hungary. What clearer indication of mea culpa could there have been, than Orbán’s attempt in July to blackmail the EU into dropping its investigation into rule of law breaches in Hungary in return for supporting the recovery package?

The fate of Szabolcs Dull and the 80 journalists who have walked out of Index in protest at his sacking is a new low water mark in Hungary’s slide into authoritarianism.

For European citizens, it raises a profound an existential question about the integrity of the European project.  Sometimes in politics you have to hold your nose when you take action to secure the greater good. But you should never sell your soul to the devil.


Support and solidarity from the Association of European Journalists

The international Association of European Journalists (AEJ), which Voxeurop is a member of, issues this joint statement with the Board of the AEJ Hungarian Section:

The AEJ and its national section in Hungary express our support and solidarity with Mr. Szabolcs Dull, who was dismissed on 22 July as the editor-in-chief of Index, and with all the journalists working for Index who resigned their jobs after accusing the government of seeking to destroy the media outlet through political interference. Index has been known as Hungary’s top independent news website. The sudden sacking of its editor came after allies of prime minister Viktor Orbán took a controlling interest in the ownership of the online news outlet. The unanimous walkout of the Index staff was a rare example of moral and professional commitment to the principles of independent journalism. The events immediately triggered street protests by thousands of people in Budapest in a show of public support for press freedom.

Once again, the carefully-planned and persistent efforts by pro-government forces have undermined and brought down an iconic and much-respected news portal of the Hungarian online media landscape. Almost one million media users – including many Fidesz-voters and leading politicians – visited the Index website as a source of information even though some years ago it was labeled a “fake news outlet” by the Hungarian prime minister. The high popularity of Index was due not only to its great variety of news, opinion articles and investigative reports, but also to its mission based on the Anglo-Saxon tradition of providing unbiased analysis of the activities of successive governments as well as  opposition parties.

The ruination of Index as an independent media voice is a blatant continuation of the empire-building media politics of Fidesz which has swallowed up the public media, almost all of the regional press, the news portal Origo, the political dailies Népszabadság and Magyar Nemzet and the weekly Héti Válasz. The gathering together in 2018 of over three-quarters of all the country’s surviving news media into a giant foundation with a uniformly pro-government editorial line has led to the stifling of independent and critical media voices. In the mind of the government, loyalty to the ruling party is now the only standard that matters. By the abolition of the old Index media pluralism has been severely damaged again. And the dwindling number of independent media that remain are also under intense pressure.

The AEJ welcomes the statement of  the Vice President of the European Commission, Vera Jourová’s. She has highlighted the  danger to democratic values of the attack on Index. The wave of  international protests  against the its destruction as a source of independent news is also welcome. But this is not enough. We call publicly for clear and strong statements of protest and opposition by all the relevant bodies of the European Union, and by other institutions in Hungary and abroad. The outrageous assault on Index again demonstrates the cynical disregard for the rule of law and media independence of the Fidesz government. This new attempted power grab shows that the present Hungarian government is seeking even further to extend its own control of the information sphere. It represents a desecration of the principles of press freedom and democratic freedom of choice as fundamental and universal values.

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