Hungary’s main online news site says independence in danger

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary’s leading online news site said Sunday that its editorial staff and independence are at risk because of a reorganization attempt that could compromise its journalistic integrity.

Index.hu moved its “ independence barometer,” set up in 2018 after an ownership change, to “in danger” from “independent,” while declaring that “the staff and independence of Index are in grave danger.”

Index is among a handful of independent media outlets which have suffered financially and seen their freedom to operate curtailed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s efforts to control an ever larger segment of Hungary’s media.

While Index did not give details about its possible reorganization, 24.hu, another independent Hungarian news site, said Sunday that sections of Index would be outsourced to external companies, practically dismantling the newsroom.

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Laszlo Bodolai, an Index executive, later told Media1.hu, a website specializing in media matters, that while a plan really had been drawn up for a possible reorganization of Index, it had been rejected by the news site’s management.

“We have been affected by an external influence whose end result could be the termination of the newsroom,” said a note published on the Index website and signed by nearly 90 employees, including Editor-in-Chief Szabolcs Dull. “We are worried that, with a single blow, with an organizational change, the values, too, will be lost, due to which Index is today the country’s largest and most read publication.”

“The fate of Index will be decided in the coming days. We will inform you about the developments … for as long as we can. For as long as it’s possible,” the note said.

A businessman closely linked to the pro-government transformation of Hungarian media over the past several years, Miklos Vaszily, said at the end of March that he had acquired a 50% stake in Indamedia, the company which sells Index’s advertising.

The move raised concerns that Index would eventually suffer a similar fate as Origo.hu, which during Vaszily’s tenure underwent a transformation from an independent news site to an openly pro-government outlet.

In a 2020 global survey of media freedom by Reporters Without Borders, Hungary fell two spots to 89th place among 180 countries. It was in 56th place in 2013.

Reporters Without Borders cited Hungary’s distorted media market, in which hundreds of pro-government news outlets were consolidated into the huge Central European Press and Media Foundation. The editorial content of the foundation, known by the Hungarian acronym KESMA, is under tight political control and receives ample government funding.

In the last several years, numerous publications have been shut down as a result of Orban’s steps to increase his and his Fidesz party’s media dominance. They include Nepszabadsag, a key left-leaning daily, and Heti Valasz, a conservative weekly founded with Orban’s support in 2001 but which increasingly resisted efforts to toe the government line.

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