28/08/2020

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The last days of press freedom in Hungary?

István Pócza
Hungary’s oldest and up to date largest online news portal, Index.hu, is on the brink of extinction.

Many are shocked to hear this, because the portal has become a part of our everyday lives. If we want quick information about a recent event, the first thing to say in Hungary is often “Let’s look it up on Index.” With a news site that is almost part of our lives, even the possibility of extinction raised our curiosity: What could have happened?
 
This question is essential, because some of the domestic and international press delivered this information in the context that the future of the portal was at risk due to intervention from the Hungarian government. This is a serious accusation, and in case it is true, then the freedom of press in Hungary is violated considerably. What exactly has happened, then? What do we know so far? 

Index.hu Ltd., the entity behind the Hungarian online news portal, has been owned entirely by a private foundation since 2017. It is important to note that private companies operate freely in Hungary, and their business decisions are their own affairs. Around June 21st, information was published about plans by the owner to carry out re-organizations of the portal in order to increase its profitability. But why was this decision necessary?  

It was clearly demonstrated that the standard of the paper had been on the decline for the last 10 years. This was felt in the editing and quality of the articles, which contained more and more grammatical and typing errors, unacceptable for a leading portal. In addition, and even more importantly, more and more articles were taken over from the press of Western Europe, the translation of which were also questionable. These articles did not come from a wide range of sources, but solely from committedly liberal ones, such as the Buzzfeed, the Vide, or occasionally the New York times. 
Site editing has also come to show signs of becoming highly politicized lately, often focusing entirely on news and events that held the interest of only a thin layer of society. As an even more substantial problem, the portal – along with some of the Hungarian media – has departed from its traditional press role and started to talk politics more than write about politics. Gábor Gavra, formal chief editor of the left-wing liberal HVG, presently journalist of the also left-wing liberal Atv, gave the following summary of this phenomenon in an interview: “After 2010, parties in opposition proved to be unable to fulfill the role voters sent them to parliament for, and in certain aspects, the media stepped into the role of these parties…”

Due to these crisis symptoms – as the press indicates –, the owners concluded that the structure had to change, because the standard was declining, the income right alongside. Along these lines, the owners laid out a specific plan to adjust the operation of the portal and rationalize the costs. 

Consequently, the Head of the Board of Directors of Index.hu Ltd. dismissed the chief editor from his position in the Board of Directors first, and then also moved him from his position as chief editor, due to loss of confidence. Loss of confidence was primarily due to leaking business secrets for competitors, which has already resulted in a prosecution. In addition, the former chief editor made the technical differences of opinion on matters of reorganization public on the portal, describing them as an attempt at exerting influence from outside. Due to his dismissal, more than 80 employees resigned, which led to significant attention and claims from the opposition that these events had occurred due to political interference.

In the case of Index.hu, an internal debate unfolded about the future operation of the portal, which led to internal management decisions. The dismissal of the chief editor of the privately-owned online news portal was an internal decision that concerned the company management alone.

Consequently, this is a technical and business debate, and not an attack on the freedom of press in Hungary, or a governmental attempt at silencing the largest portal. Nothing proves this better than the press reporting that the journalists who quit are already thinking about establishing a new portal.  The former chief editor himself declared that he never experienced political pressure on the content of their articles, they took the proposal for adjusting the operation of the editorial office as political pressure only due to the reasons described above. As an interesting turn of events, the owners say that the dismissed chief editor is the one who correlated the strategy and the communication of the editorial office with representatives of the left-wing liberal parties.
 
Besides, it is noteworthy that according to the most recent site visitors data, readers of Index started to position themselves towards rival portals that area also highly critical of the government (24.hu, 444, and hvg in the first place). This brought up 24.hu to be the most visited Hungarian news portal from its previous third place. Therefore, the situation arising in relation index.hu is not a violation on the freedom of press, but more of a shift, a repositioning in the media market. 

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