Gloom Hits Hungary’s Largest Independent Newsroom

Journalist warns of 'doomsday scenario'
September 24, 2018 Updated: September 24, 2018

BUDAPEST—The new owners of the largest independent news outlet in Hungary say they won’t meddle in its editorial policies. Reporters at Index.hu are far from sure, and recent history shows why.

Dozens of newspapers, radio, and television stations critical of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have changed hands in the past four years. Some subsequently closed, while others have quickly and dramatically changed their tune.

On the day news channel Hir TV was taken over last month, one of its new owners, Zsolt Nyerges, told the newsroom he wouldn’t interfere with its work. That evening’s programs, including a hard-hitting political talk show, were canceled, and in its place, a recent Orban speech played on a loop.

Recently, the European Union’s parliament voted to punish Hungary for flouting EU rules on democracy, corruption, and civil rights, including media freedom, although the actual punishment, suspending its voting rights, is unlikely.

An EU parliamentary report said media had been concentrated in the hands of pro-Orban oligarchs, state-funded advertising went largely to outlets loyal to the government and other journalists were often banned from parliament. Hungary’s government has denied undermining press freedom and says it has no desire to control the media. It is taking the EU Parliament to court, accusing it of breaching voting rules.

Asked about Index’s independence, one of its new ultimate owners, Gabor Ziegler, said on Sept. 19 it was guaranteed.

“We have no right to interfere with daily editing or the paper’s contents,” he said in an interview with Napi.hu, one of a number of smaller sites clustered around Index that Ziegler and his partner also acquired. “We need an independent, widely read, and decidedly high-quality Index.hu to achieve our business goals.”

Index.hu’s editorial line hasn’t changed since the takeover on Sept. 24, but staff are on alert. A new dial on its home page has a needle pointing towards “independent”: next to it is “in danger” and further along, “not independent.”

“When it changes, we’ll talk. As loudly as possible,” the strapline says. A statement signed by dozens of staff likened the situation to “a war.”

Chief editor Attila Toth-Szenesi told Reuters his fellow journalists were tense. “We would like to work peacefully,” he said. “It isn’t good for anyone for us to be the news.”

‘Doomsday scenario’

Ziegler and media investor Jozsef Oltyan gained ultimate control over Index by buying media group cemp-X Online Zrt, which sells Index’s advertising space, as well as the company owning the foundation set up to guarantee Index’s editorial freedom.

Oltyan is a member of a party in coalition with Orban’s ruling Fidesz, while Ziegler has been a staff member on Index’s business side for almost two decades.

Toth-Szenesi said he’s concerned that the ownership change could bring Index.hu under the influence of Fidesz and its ideological agenda, called the “National System of Cooperation” (NER).

NER was launched in 2010 to counter liberal values and champion nationalist policies, and under its auspices, some of Orban’s friends and family have won an increasing share of publicly funded business.

“What seems to be the doomsday scenario may be reality,” Toth-Szenesi said. “It may, in fact, be the NER approaching Index right now.”

Ziegler denied that.

“I would like to reject that in the strongest possible terms,” he wrote in an emailed response to Reuters. “We decided freely to buy [the companies that own Index and sister publications]; there is nobody behind us.”

He added that nobody had the option to buy the companies in the future, and they wanted to hold on to them for the long term.

Oltyan didn’t respond to requests for comment.

By Marton Dunai

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