In April, Matej Voda reported on new coronavirus-related legislation in Hungary which could lead to journalists being jailed for up to five years, further squeezing Hungary’s shrinking independent media. Now Hungary’s leading independent news site is under threat.

The editors of Index say their independence is in “grave danger” following management changes within a news organization that is one of the last remaining critical voices of Viktor Orban’s government.

Under the guise of addressing falling advertisement revenue, Index’s board of directors moved to outsource the paper’s reporting to external businesses and dismissed editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull from the board on June 21. The announcement plunged Index into turmoil, with its CEO stepping down on June 23, followed by the resignation of his replacement in the same week. Index continues publishing, with editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull writing on the website, “We don’t have a CEO, we know little.”

The changes at Index, which launched in 1999, follow a pattern that has brought a number of Hungary’s once-independent media outlets under the control of the government, according to Dalma Dojcsak, a lawyer at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union in Budapest. “Everything is presented as a tool to make Index work better and to serve its owners better,” said Dojcsak. “It’s a sophisticated tool to blur the lines of the story and to distance the whole issue from the government.” 

Several members of Index’s board have indirect ties to the government.

Index has weathered a number of dramatic shake-ups in Hungarian media, holding on to its independence as nearly 80% of the country’s media was brought under the control of the state or the ownership of friends and allies of Orban. Some of Hungary’s pro-Orban media moguls have also purchased news outlets in other parts of Europe, including the UK, Macedonia and Slovenia.

With 62% of Hungarians reporting that they are satisfied with Viktor Orban’s response to the coronavirus, the government feels it can silence any remaining critics. “I think they feel very confident now that they can manage situations like closing down Index,” said Dojcsak.

Following an ownership change back in 2018, Index created an “independence barometer” for its readers. On June 21 the dial turned from “independent” to “in danger.” 

The site also opened up a page where readers can post their support for the site. Words of support came from leading public figures and celebrities in Hungary. “Index is one of the last memories of long-standing press freedom,” wrote professor and author Vilmos Csanyi. In another post, singer-songwriter Jonas Vera said that “Index is a critical voice to me, they seek the truth, they follow it and stand up.”

Illustration by Inge Snip & Karol Bohacova