BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Dozens of journalists, including top editors, resigned Friday from Hungary’s main news site because of the firing earlier this week of Index.hu’s editor-in-chief.
Over 80 Index staff members, the vast majority of the newsroom, said they were leaving the country’s most-read website because the dismissal of Szabolcs Dull endangered its professional independence and its future.
Several thousand people took part in a solidarity march for Index that concluded late Friday with speeches outside the offices of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and President Janos Ader.
The website has long been a target of Orban, who once called it a “fake news factory,” and the recent acquisition of control over the news site’s advertising sales by the prime minister’s allies was considered a bad omen for its independence.
“The fate of Index is ultimately decided within Fidesz, that is, the power factory around the prime minister, since by now the owners (of Index) can be found there,” political analyst Gabor Torok wrote in a Facebook post. Fidesz is the name of Orban’s party.
“For the power factory, the media is exclusively a political matter, they don’t believe that there can be journalism independent of politics,” Torok wrote. “They obtain what they can. What they can’t, they consider the enemy and that is how they relate to it.”
Last month, Index moved its “ independence barometer ” to “in danger” from “independent” after it was confronted by management plans to reorganize the newsroom, which the editorial staff strongly opposed.
The change led to a loss of trust between staff and management, which felt that keeping the dial at “in danger” had a negative effect on the news site’s ad revenues, and led to Dull’s firing on Wednesday.
Friday’s resignations came after management refused to comply with the staff’s demand to rehire Dull.
At the night march called by opposition political parties, speakers reminded the crowd about the numerous media outlets the Orban government shut down or incorporated into its propaganda machine. They also criticized the government for its efforts to bring as many previously independent institutions under its control as possible.
Balazs Gulyas, a columnist at the weekly Magyar Hang, provoked whistling and jeering when he read out a 2018 quote from Orban: “We would never have the audacity to silence those who don’t agree with us.”
“This hideous regime which is currently devouring the press, earlier devoured the municipalities, the universities, the Academy of Sciences and, in conclusion, is slowly but surely devouring the whole country,” Gulyas said.
Organizers estimated that 5,000-10,000 people participated in the protest.
The International Press Institute, an association that advocates for freedom of the press, described the developments at Index as “a devastating blow to journalism in Hungary.”
“Like other independent media in Hungary, Index was being suffocated economically,” IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said in a blog post. “While the COVID-related economic crisis obviously doesn’t help, it is ultimately a pile-on to years in which the government deprived Index and other critical outlets of state-funded advertising and pressured commercial advertisers to stay away.”
“This is how press freedom is eliminated in Europe in 2020,” Griffen wrote.
Earlier this month, European Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova expressed support for the news site.
“I have been following the situation of Index with concern,” Jourova said. “I would like to express my solidarity with the staff of Index who has been working under very difficult conditions.”
Press freedoms in Hungary have deteriorated greatly since Orban’s return to power in 2010, with the government exercising control over hundreds of publications through a foundation while supporting them with ample taxpayer funds regardless of viewership or readership figures.
A previous version of this story was updated to correct the day Index’s editor-in-chief was fired. It was Wednesday, not Tuesday.