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‘Index,’ Hungary’s Leading News Outlet Scared of Losing Independence

Péter Cseresnyés 2020.06.23.

The editor-in-chief, and most of the editorial staff of Index, Hungary’s leading news outlet, feel that the paper’s independence is in jeopardy. In the background, most assume a political attack against the government-critical site. According to the head of the foundation that owns Index, this is not the case, the staff has been misled. Meanwhile, the board membership of the portal’s editor-in-chief was revoked, and on Tuesday, the CEO of Index Inc. resigned.

The independence of Index, one of Hungary’s most popular news sites, is in danger, and major changes might take place in its daily operation in the near future, says editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull.

“Now there is trouble. The staff and independence of Index are in grave danger. Index is under such external pressure that could spell out the end of our editorial staff as we know it,” Dull wrote in a statement published on Sunday.

“We are concerned that with the proposed organizational overhaul, we will lose those values that made Index.hu the biggest and most-read news site in Hungary,” he added.

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Although he does not go into detail about the kind of pressure they are facing, he lists at length what kind of newspaper they want to create. For example, one in which “politicians and messengers of the government or economic actors have no power to pull a story,” or “where external advisors with shady political backgrounds, appearing out of the blue, have no say in the structure of our editorial staff.”

The editor-in-chief also published a gauge on szabadindex.eu intended to show the site’s level of independence. According to this, the staff feels it is not guaranteed, moving the graph’s indicator to the range of “in danger.”

The conflict started after Index’s leadership received a reconfiguration plan, according to which the columns of the outlet would be outsourced to external companies, news site 24.hu reported on Sunday, just two hours before the statement was published.

The concept basically means that Index would essentially be split into numerous smaller companies, having to order articles from a third party and the management of the paper would only be a client in these transactions.

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It is no secret that the site, which is critical of the Orbán government, has long been a thorn in the sides of those in power. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and several members of his administration had previously referred to the portal as a “fake news factory.”

Many fear the worst, especially as the incident hit the news only two and a half months after Miklós Vaszily, the president of pro-government commercial broadcaster TV2, also became the owner of Indamedia Group, a company responsible for selling advertising space for Index.

Vaszily bought 50% of the company from József Oltyán, a Christian Democrat party (KDNP) businessman, who appeared in 2018 and had already caused concern for the editorial staff, as he had strong connections to the governing parties.

According to liberal news site 24.hu, the plan was presented by Gábor Gerényi, who is among the founders of the portal, but he left Index eight years ago. Today he is the co-owner, with centrist green opposition LMP lawmaker Péter Ungár, of news portal Azonnali.hu.

Fact

Index Zrt., responsible for publishing the news site, is owned by a foundation called ‘Foundation for Hungarian Progress’ (Magyar Fejlődésért Alapítvány.) It is led by László Bodolai who is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees. However, the company’s contracts and advertisements are managed by Indamedia Group, thus the portal is severely dependent on the company, the leader of which is Miklós Vaszily.

Later, the chairman of the board of trustees said that the whole case was a misunderstanding and the staff of Index had been misled.

László Bodolai admitted to media news site Média1 that Gerényi had indeed developed an operating concept as a consultant due to the site’s steadily declining revenues, but he emphasized that it had not been accepted by the board of directors, and Gerényi’s work ended after this.

He added that after this, Index Inc.’s CEO András Pusztay was tasked to work out a concept that can be implemented to justify the operation of the site.

Bodolai emphasized that disbanding Index is out of the question, adding that in his opinion, 24.hu leaked business secrets from his market partner’s board meeting in such a way that it failed to reflect reality.”

Then, on Monday morning, Index had an extraordinary staff meeting during which Bodolai announced that he would terminate the board membership of editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull because he had leaked internal information to the public. He was not relieved of his post as editor-in-chief, however.

This was followed by the resignation of András Pusztay, the CEO of Index Inc. on Tuesday, according to kreativ.hu. In an article published on Monday, 444.hu had already speculated about the possibility of András Pusztay leaving, as he said at the staff meeting about last week’s decision by the board of directors that he could not implement it according to his conscience.

It is clear that the story will continue and the fate of Index might be decided in the following days.