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An online barometer showing the level of independence of Hungary's largest news outlet Index.hu downgraded its status on Sunday to "in danger" for the first time since the barometer's creation two years ago.
The barometer was set up as a means for the outlet to communicate directly with its readers whether it was facing outside pressure on its editorial independence or staffing decisions. For years, government-tied businessmen lurked within the ownership structure of Index, but the site managed to maintain editorial control of its newsroom.
The downgrading of Index's independence status on Sunday came after leaders of the editorial board determined that they were "under external pressure that could spell out the end of our editorial staff as we know it". In a statement signed by around 100 staff members, editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull wrote, "We are concerned that with a proposed organisational overhaul, we will lose the values that made Index.hu the biggest and most-read news site in Hungary. We are not sure that we will be able to keep working this way for long, and since we believe in the power of the public, we are of the opinion that you, as our readers, must know about this."
According to reporting from 24.hu, the current threat to Index's independence began several weeks ago when a media consultant, Gábor Gerényi, was installed at the outlet as an advisor. Gerényi, who was present at the time of Index's founding but left the outlet in 2012, is known on the online market as a website manager, and has worked at the conservative Mandiner.hu and is a partial owner of Azonnali.hu.
A proposal floated by Gerényi at a Thursday meeting of Index's board alarmed editor-in-chief Dull and other leaders. In order to cut costs in response to the loss in advertising revenue caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the proposal went, the work of certain editorial sections at Index would be contracted out to external companies. Index would thus act as a central page editor, ordering media content from the outside companies as needed, an essential elimination of the outlet's editorial independence.
The board voted to consider Gerényi's proposal, causing commotion among the editorial board and staff. It is clear from the statement by Dull and signed by the staff that they believe a hostile attempt is at work to take down the outlet.
"We want a news site the existence and operation of which does not depend on the unpredictable and ever-changing tastes of political and economical powers, [and where] external advisors with shady political backgrounds, appearing out of the blue, have no say in the structure of our editorial staff," the statement reads.
This clear reference to Gerényi is rooted in his reputation for being connected to high-level figures in the Hungarian government. Gerényi is also known to be a friend of Miklós Vaszily, who several months ago purhased a controlling interest in Indamedia, the company that manages Index's advertising and commercial affairs.
Vaszily himself has a long history in Hungarian media: he was CEO of Hungary's public broadcaster as well as outlets owned by personal associates of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán like ECHO TV and TV2. Vaszily is famously credited with a major shake-up in 2014 at Origo, then Hungary's largest online news outlet, which resulted in the departure of its editor-in-chief and dozens of staff members and a major editorial shift. Origo is now widely considered a government mouthpiece.
The establishment of Index's independence barometer is a testament to the years-long struggle to maintain the site's autonomy. In 2005, the site was purchased by interests with ties to Fidesz, then in opposition. When Fidesz won parliamentary elections in 2010, Index staff worried that the suspected owner, Fidesz-tied businessman Zoltán Spéder, was exerting political influence on the newsroom, resulting in editor-in-chief Péter Uj and many journalists leaving the site in 2011. (Uj and several of those journalists went on to found 444 in 2013.)
In 2014, an option for purchasing the site was signed by Lajos Simicska, an oligarch whose dramatic falling out with Viktor Orbán in 2015 led to his media holdings taking a government-critical turn. In 2017, Simicska placed control of Index into a foundation, protecting it from Fidesz-allied businesspeople expressing interest in purchasing it.
Meanwhile, in 2018, KDNP politician and businessman Zsolt Oltyán purchased a 50 percent stake in Indamedia, Index's ad manager. The ownership changes took place without the knowledge of Index leadership and staff, and though they were unhappy with the arrangement, they vowed to maintain editorial independence.
In his statement, editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull wrote that the outlet's future is uncertain, but that "in the upcoming days, the fate of Index will be settled.
„We will keep you updated on the developments here on Index and on Facebook as long as we can. As long as we are allowed. AS LONG AS WE ARE FREE.”