Thousands March for Press Freedom in Hungary

Concerns about the plurality of independent media in Hungary are growing after a government-affiliated entrepreneur bought into the business of the country’s largest still independent news portal. For weeks, the portal’s employees have been warning that their independence is under threat. Following the dismissal of the editor-in-chief, more than 80 employees submitted their resignations. Thousands of Hungarians took to the streets in Budapest to protest against the government’s influence on the media.

“Index.hu”, Hungary’s most popular news website, is widely regarded as the last major, wide-reaching and independent player in the Hungarian media. The liberal online portal reaches close to one million readers every day in a country of almost 10 million inhabitants and has earned a reputation for asking unpleasant questions and publicly holding decision-makers accountable.

At the end of March, Miklós Vaszily, a businessman close to the governing party “Fidesz” and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, took over a 50 percent stake in a company that handles the advertising business of index.hu. As Orbán loyalist, Vastily was already instrumental in turning the once independent Internet news website Origo.hu, a competitor of index.hu, into a pro-government mouthpiece.

After Szabolcs Dull, editor-in-chief of Index.hu, protested against the planned restructuring of the publishing house and changed the website’s so-called independence barometer from “independent” to “endangered”, he was fired. Dull was accused of forwarding internal documents to other media. In response, more than 80 journalists and employees of Index.hu resigned in protest. They called the dismissal of their editor-in-chief an open attempt to shift the medium towards more pro-government reporting by restructuring the editorial staff.

On Friday, several thousand Hungarians protested in Budapest for press freedom and the survival of the Index.hu portal. The solidarity rally, called for by the liberal “Momentum” party, started in front of the Index.hu editorial office and led to the Carmelite monastery in the castle, the official residence of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

“This brutal attack by the Hungarian government will not be unanswered,” said Katalin Cseh, MEP of the Momentum party. “With our European allies, we will work relentlessly to restore media freedom and those responsible will have to answer for their actions.”

Systematic Erosion of Press Freedom

The events surrounding Index.hu are another link in the chain of a systematic strategy: over the past ten years, followers of the right-wing conservative government under Viktor Orbán have gradually taken control of the independent media in Hungary.

In 2016 “Népszabadság”, Hungary’s national daily newspaper with the highest circulation, was shut down and sold overnight. Origo.hu, one of the leading independent news magazines in Hungary, was put on government line following its sale by Hungarian Telekom in 2015. According to independent studies, almost 80 percent of the Hungarian news market is now more or less directly under government control.

In 2010, when Orbán won the parliamentary elections, Hungary ranked 23rd in the press freedom index published annually by the non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders. Today, Hungary is ranked 89th, and this year “Freedom House” downgraded Hungary from the status of a “democracy” to a “hybrid regime”.

Orbán’s Self-Proclaimed Victory

Orbán has long been at odds with the institutions of the European Union because of his attempts to anchor the concept of “illiberal democracy” in Hungary and export it to the region. The European Parliament opened proceedings against Hungary under Article 7 of the EU Treaty in 2018. The main concerns raised by the Hungarian parliament were the independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression, corruption, minority rights and the situation of migrants and refugees.

This month Věra Jourová, Vice-President of the European Commission and also Commissioner for Values and Transparency, made a statement in support of the news portal Index.hu. “Economic pressure should not become political pressure,” she said, pointing to the financial constraints faced by the media during the Corona crisis. She said that the values Index.hu stood for were “essential for democracy”.

At last week’s European Council on the Corona Reconstruction Fund and the forthcoming multiannual financial framework, EU leaders postponed an agreement on a rule of law mechanism to tie financial aid to rule of law standards. This compromise solution is interpreted by political analysts as an encouragement for the course taken by Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán so far.

After the summit, Viktor Orbán said Hungary and Poland had won a “great victory” over other EU countries trying to link rule-of-law guarantees to a new budget and a new Corona aid package. The declaration adopted at the summit contains a passage on the rule of law that is so vague that it can hardly be considered a firm demand to uphold European values. This vague wording has clearly sent the wrong message to Hungary, as we can now see. The message that needs to be sent around the “hostile takeover” of Index.hu more than ever is clear: a free country needs a free press. And unfortunately the situation in Hungary is worse than ever.

Toni Skorić

Project Manager FNF Central Europe & the Baltic States