Weekly newsletter

Gov’t-Linked ‘Indamedia’ Buys ‘Index’ Shares, New Leadership Leaves After 4 Months

Ábrahám Vass 2020.11.25.

On Monday, Indamedia announced the purchase of news portal Index’s shares from the Foundation for Hungarian Progress (MFA). The leadership that has been managing the site after the entire original staff’s departure in July will also be replaced. Index, which was Hungary’s most-read, government-critical news portal before its entire staff resigned, is now officially under the direct influence of a government-ally media mogul, Miklós Vaszily.

Turbulence around Index began to peak at the end of June (although the government’s circles’ slow and complex influence gaining maneuvers behind Index originate in 2014) when editor-in-chief  Szabolcs Dull announced that the portal’s editorial independence was in danger. The decision came after aforementioned Vaszily had purchased a 50% stake in Indamedia Group, the company which controls the revenue streams and advertising of the site. Following this, a new restructuring plan was put on the table, suggesting some of the portal’s content and columns should be outsourced to external providers. Although the plan was not implemented, the staff felt that all this was nothing more than an attempt from pro-government circles to influence the editorial policy and content of the online media outlet. The leader of the foundation that owned Index, László Bodolai, then fired Dull (for allegedly leaking classified information, something that Dull consistently denied), soon followed by the entire editorial staff’s resignation as they viewed Dull’s dismissal as a clear sign that their editorial independence was no longer guaranteed. This original staff remained more or less intact and since established Telex.

Fact

Miklós Vaszily, an economist by profession, was involved in a number of dealings set to extend the pro-Fidesz and pro-government media portfolio and is known to be linked to Orbán-ally billionaire Lőrinc Mészáros. He played a major part in firing popular independent news portal Origo’s editor-in-chief Gergő Sáling, after which Origo had been gradually turned into an extremely pro-Fidesz tabloid. Between 2015 and 2018, he has been the CEO of Hungarian public media (MTVA). He also led Mészáros’ Echo TV until it merged with news channel HírTV. He now runs commercial channel TV2 and a few months ago established pro-Fidesz tabloid Pesti Srácok’s TV channel, Pesti TV.

After the mass departures and change in ownership, many readers and those critical of the government turned away from the “new Index.” Interestingly, however, its popularity didn’t collapse although it definitely decreased; recently it appeared to bounce back despite a smaller editorial staff.

After the acquisition of Index, Indamedia parted ways with CEO Pál Szombathy. However, they said they wanted to keep him as editor-in-chief, but Szombathy decided to walk away. Likewise, deputy director/managing editor András Sztankóczy also left. This means they only spent four months leading the ‘new’ Index. Meanwhile, chairman of the board of directors László Bodolai announced he will leave the board and continue only as Indamedia’s media lawyer.

In a Facebook post, Szombathy insinuated that the reason for his removal was that he “didn’t obey.” Despite expectations, during his leadership, Index, besides publishing pro-government articles that did not appear on the site earlier, still kept a somewhat government-critical attitude, and was engaged in conflicts with the pro-govt media, and government officials in recent times. A few days before the change in ownership and Indamedia parting ways with Szombathy, pro-government media sites had repeatedly campaigned against Index, calling it a fake news outlet due to negative (and partly false or misleading) articles (for instance, on the chief medical officer).

Indamedia officials, once again, pointed to Index’s troublesome finances (this was their official reason behind the ‘restructuring’ plans in summer as well) when confirming the move. New CEO Ákos Starcz explained that the major change is that Indamedia will now become the actual owner, making the foundation (MFA) not needed. This way, he says, collaboration between the site and Indamedia (which controls the advertising) could become more efficient and business-like. The ownership structure will also become more transparent in all respects and thus expected to result in quicker and more efficient management of finances in the future, Starcz argued.

Now that the complicated background of Index’s ownership has been cleared up, many consider it proven that the aforementioned June-July-August (and earlier) happenings were in fact orchestrated by the Fidesz-led government, something that both government politicians and those taking part in the events, such as Bodolai, have so far denied. According to government media, a fight between opposition parties, namely Democratic Coalition and Momentum, led to the changes during the summer.

featured image: Miklós Vaszily; via Zoltán Balogh/MTI