Staff of Hungarian News Site Resign, Claiming Government Interference

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Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban

The editors and more than 70 journalists at Hungarian leading independent news service walked out Friday amid accusations that new owners are looking to censor Index, which has been critical of the government of Hungarian President Victor Orban.

The editors and staff of Hungarian news website Index resigned Friday in protest of what they see as an attempt by forces close to Hungary's far-right leader Victor Orban to undermine their editorial independence.

Three leading editors and more than 70 journalists resigned from Index after the company's board refused to reinstate editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull, who was fired Wednesday. Dull's dismissal came after he warned of political interference in the outlet's operations. A businessman close to the Orban government acquired significant control over Index's funding earlier this year, prompting Index to put out an emergency alert to its readers warning that its editorial independence was "in danger."

Laszlo Bodolai, the chief of the foundation that owns the website's publisher, has said Dull was fired because of a drop in advertising revenues at Index. "Political independence of Index is not at risk," he said in a letter to staff.

The incident is the latest in what international observers claim is a concerted plan by Orban, who has been in power in Hungary for a decade, to force independent media in the country to toe the government line.

Orban's critics say he has put pressure on privately owned media by restricting lucrative state advertising contracts to pro-government outlets and by harassing companies that advertise with independent media. In a dramatic move in late 2018, businessmen affiliated with Orban who had bought up a number of independent media titles "donated" the lot — some 476 titles — to a state-controlled media foundation.

Index is one of the largest and most respected news outlets in Hungary. It is also among the most read. In a country with a population of 10 million, the site receives around 1.5 million visits a day. Its political reporting has often been critical of Orban and his government.

In late March, Miklos Vaszily, a media entrepreneur who heads the pro-government broadcaster TV2, acquired a 50 percent stake in Indamedia, a firm that manages Index's online advertising. That sent off alarm bells at Index and led to Dull's warning that Indamedia could blackmail the group to stop its critical reporting.

The resignation of Index's staff could resonate beyond Hungary's borders. Orban has frequently clashed with the European Union, of which Hungary is a member, over his treatment of the media and other self-declared "illiberal" policies.

This week, the European Parliament said it will not pass an historic €750 billion ($871 billion) novel coronavirus rescue package for EU countries without stricter conditions requiring countries to comply with "rule-of-law" conditions, including the guarantee of a free press.

The Index walkout could end up costing Orban dearly.