- Stay updated on the latest news from Hungary by signing up for the free InsightHungary newsletter:
The editor-in-chief of Index.hu, Szabolcs Dull, was fired Wednesday morning amid a series of events in past weeks that suggested the independence of Hungary's largest outlet could be under threat.
The decision to dismiss Dull was made by the board of directors of the foundation which owns Index. The board's chairman László Bodolai informed Index staff of the decision through a written letter but declined to comment on the matter to 444.hu, saying he would give a statement at a later time.
Dull's firing was the latest major change at Index after weeks of shakeups that led to concerns the site was the target of a takeover.
On June 21, Dull issued a letter signed by nearly 100 staff members claiming the site was "under external pressure that could spell out the end of our editorial staff as we know it". An online barometer controlled by staff to communicate to readers the status of the site's independence was downgraded from "Independent" to "In Danger".
Index staff became alarmed in March after a media figure with close government ties purchased a 50 percent stake in Index's revenue manager, and later, when government-connected external advisors were installed at the outlet. One such advisor, Gábor Gerényi, proposed breaking up the outlet and outsourcing content creation to external companies.
Index's CEO resigned in response to the proposal, saying he could not in good conscience carry out the tasks placed on him. Dull was removed from the board of directors, reportedly for leaking the details of the proposed shakeup, and later, another advisor recommended Dull's dismissal as editor-in-chief.
On Wednesday, Index's publisher issued a statement which claimed that board chairman Bodolai had initiated Dull's removal. In a letter to the editorial board, Bodolai claimed that the site's independence had never been in jeopardy, and that "at present, the economic impact of uncertainty generated by internal concerns is the greatest danger" threatening the website. Bodolai justified Dull's dismissal by writing that the editor-in-chief had been unable to control internal processes which had adversely affected the site's market position.
In addition to firing Dull, Bodolai appointed board member Pál Szombathy to the position of CEO after the original CEO's successor Zsolt Ződi also resigned after less than a week on the job. András Sztankóczy, a lawyer and journalist with the conservative news website Válasz Online, was named to join the board of directors.
Bodolai's argument that the shakeups at Index and the firing of Dull were justified by economic concerns were familiar to observers of Hungary's media environment. Numerous news outlets have been transformed or shut down since 2010 in the name of commercial efficiency, likely a factor in the sense of an impending takeover among Index staff.
For detailed background on the story of Index and how recent events echo previous occurrences in the Hungarian media, read this InsightHungary story.
Update: Details emerged Wednesday afternoon of the circumstances around Dull's dismissal, according to which László Bodolai invited Dull to an external location to discuss "financial matters", but then dismissed him. According to Dull, Bodolai offered him a substantial sum of money if he would leave Index quietly of his own accord. Dull said he rejected the offer.
Following the meeting with Bodolai, Dull called a meeting of the editorial board at Index's headquarters. In a video of the staff meeting obtained by 444.hu, Dull said he was offered "an extremely reasonable amount of money if I would accept it and remain silent". Visibly emotional, Dull told the staff, "No, we will not be silent".
Dull said the reason Bodolai gave him for his firing was that the decision to adjust the barometer indicating the independence of the editorial board and the last few weeks of announcements issued by the editorial office had been detrimental to the perception of the company and its business prospects.
Index staff authored an open letter Wednesday afternoon, calling Dull's firing "unacceptable" and saying the only reason for his dismissal was that "he made it clear that he will not yield to blackmail".
"[Dull's] dismissal is an undisputable intervention in the composition of our staff, and we cannot regard it any other way but as an overt attempt to apply pressure on Index.hu that will result in the decline of independent reporting," the letter reads.