The entirety of leading news portal Index’s editorial board commented that editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull’s dismissal is “unacceptable.” After their demand to restore Dull to his position seemed fruitless, resignations began at Hungary’s most-read news portal. The staff cites outside pressure and fears the decline of independent reporting.
Following the announcement of László Bodolai, the chairman of the Foundation for Hungarian Progress that owns Index.hu Inc, the editorial staff published an open letter. “For years, we’ve been saying that there are two conditions for the independent operation of Index: that there be no external influence on the content we publish or the structure and composition of our staff. Firing Szabolcs Dull violates our second condition,” they wrote.
While in response to Bodolai, who claimed that the editor-in-chief had leaked a preparatory document and that “in the past couple of days,” he was no longer able to control or stop internal processes, the statement goes that “the only thing Szabolcs Dull could not control was how László Bodolai tried to force us to move the barometer back into the green zone by blackmailing us with austerity measures. In fact, the reason for Dull’s dismissal was that he made it clear that he will not yield to blackmail. His dismissal is a clear interference with the composition of our staff, and we cannot regard it any other way but as an overt attempt to apply pressure on Index.hu that will result in the decline of independent reporting.”
What is more, in an official staff announcement published soon after, they said they had asked Bodolai to reinstate Dull. Bodolai, however, argued that “the loss of confidence in him is so deep that I can’t work with him anymore in any way.”
It was after this latest event that some of the staff began to announce their resignation, and according to Media1, around forty of them plan to do so now. Cultural columnist András Zsuppán, for example, commented that, “what happened today was easily avoidable on one hand, and fatally unavoidable on the other, and it marks the end of the Index.”
Turbulence around Index began a month ago when Szabolcs Dull announced that the portal’s editorial independence was in danger. The decision came after Miklós Vaszily, a media manager close to the government, had purchased a 50% stake in Indamedia Group, 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 should be outsourced to external providers.
Although that plan was not implemented, many fear that the government and Fidesz circles are in fact behind the confusing maneuvers either in order to influence the editorial policy and content of the gov’t-critical outlet or to gradually downsize it. And that one way or another, the same destiny is envisaged for Index that was, for example, for left-wing daily Népszabadság (which ceased completely after shady background dealings of pro-gov’t businessmen) or once popular news portal Origo (that by now has been turned into a pro-Fidesz tabloid).
Meanwhile, government politicians furiously rebuff criticism and deny to be behind the events. In Portugal, in response to a question, the Foreign Minister explained that what is going on is that the editor-in-chief of a privately owned medium has been replaced by the owner. Péter Szijjártó also insisted that the government has nothing to do with a private company and that “accusations” about the situation of the freedom of the Hungarian press freedom are baseless.
Anyhow, a demonstration has been announced for today by liberal opposition Momentum party (rightist Jobbik and left-liberal Democratic Coalition have also since joined in as organizers) inviting “all those who don’t listen, those who stand for a free press and a free country.” The organizers argue that in a democracy, it cannot happen that a pro-government owner sends away the editor-in-chief of the country’s best-known online news portal overnight, citing organizational transformations and synergies. All this, of course, in such a way that, in the meantime everyone is well aware that “their sole purpose is to silence anyone who disagrees with them, who writes the reality.”
UPDATE: Eventually, on Friday, Index’s three leading editors have initiated the termination of their employment, who were followed by more than 70 journalists from the news site.
featured image: Index’s editorial staff with Bodolai (in yellow T-shirt) yesterday; via János Bődey/Index