Veronika Munk, deputy editor-in-chief of Hungary’s largest news site Index.hu, discusses the difficulties that journalists have recently had to go through, and assess the overall state of the country's media landscape.
People rallied on the streets of Budapest against any editorial interference from the the government on index.hu
DW: Ms Munk, why did you and your colleagues resign from Index?
Veronika Munk: We think that the firing of our editor-in-chief was an unacceptable move. Our entire staff requested the reinstatement of Szabolcs Dull on multiple occasions but despite our pleas, management did not budge.
This is such a strong infringement on the editorial independence of Index.hu that we simply could not accept.
Of course, the reasons behind this decision are way more complex and we could explain them at length, but as our contracts have stringent confidentiality clauses that can only be waived by the owner of Index.hu, we are not in a position to do that.
How did the owner of Index justify Szabolcs Dull’s dismissal?
The owner's representative, Laszlo Bodolai, claimed personal reasons, citing that he does not trust Mr Dull anymore. He also claimed that Szabolcs Dull had leaked sensitive information to other media outlets about Index.hu's planned financial and organizational transformation process (a transformation which - in my point of view - would end Index).
Szabolcs Dull consistently denies the alleged disclosure of confidential information. On top of that, an entire month has passed between the original accusations and his termination. Dull made it clear several times: He has nothing to hide in this situation.
In 2018, you set up an "independence barometer" to monitor editorial freedoms after a change in ownership of Index. Weeks ago, you have changed the barometer from "independent" to "in danger." Can you explain what factors informed this change?
There was a transformation plan of the editorial structure from an external source, i.e. external advisors. Based on this outside initiative, Index.hu's board of directors had taken a step towards a complete overhaul of the structure of the site's editorial staff.
This move would not have served its supposed goal of cutting costs, but it would have disrupted our staff and could have compromised our unified editorial standards. Years ago, we drew the line and set two conditions, namely that nobody tells us what we write and how, or with whom we're working or not working. Up to the start of the conflict, these conditions were met.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is transforming the media landscape in the country by exerting more control over the media industry. How do you judge this interference in your editorial independence?
The Hungarian media structure went through a huge transformation over the past ten years, with more and more media outlets falling into the hands of business people with close ties to the government. This spring, a similar businessman, Miklós Vaszily, took over the company that was Index's main contracted partner, called Indamedia.
Indamedia has exclusive rights to sell advertisements on Index, and basically, Index's money goes through them. And Indamedia also provided every service (IT, HR, sales, etc.) to Index.
But in the past few years, a number of big Hungarian independent media outlets have been turned into pro-government outlets under Vaszily's leadership.
In 2019, Hungary’s press freedom index was ranked 87 by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). In 2020, it fell to 89. With Index being the largest news site in the country, how do you rate the freedom of the press in Hungary for the future?
(Index) was just an ordinary online news daily, which was critical and wanted to hold accountable the ones in power.
It was not an opposition media source, and I do not like when people call Index an opposition paper. And Index was not the only critical newspaper in Hungary, but it was the largest.
Its credibility also came from the fact that Index.hu behaved exactly the same with the former socialist governments before 2010. Also, though they were very few, there always remained some independent media outlets still. But this successful attack against Index.hu definitely not help the country and the freedom of the press.
Is there anything that outsiders – for instance in Europe – can do to improve the situation of press freedom in Hungary? Do you think the EU has to take action?
First of all everybody should defend the freedom of the press in their own country. Ten years ago, nobody would have anticipated that these things could ever happen in Hungary. But history can go backwards – even in the EU. On the other hand, readers and viewers should probably finance their trusted news sources more directly. This helps every media outlet to withstand political or economical pressure.
And regarding us: the journalists and editors at Index would like to stay together. So we set up a dual-language Facebook page where we communicate our plans for the future, when our contracts will be finished with Index.
According to the Hungarian law, this is within 30 days.