Hungary's nationalist government is again being accused of suffocating independent media after dozens of journalists at leading news outlet Index quit over the sacking of their chief editor, who warned of growing political interference in the website's work.
Editorial staff at Index warned last month that its independence was in danger, amid concern over a deal in March that saw Miklos Vaszily – a businessman close to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban – take a large stake in the company that effectively controls the publication's advertising and other revenue streams.
The foundation that owns Index insists its independence is not threatened, and says chief editor Szabolcs Dull was sacked this week for publicly discussing controversial plans for an overhaul of the website's operations, which in turn affected income.
“It was not without reason that Index’s staff felt in danger,” Mr Dull said in a letter to colleagues following his dismissal, which prompted the resignation of several journalists on Thursday and more than 50 other editorial workers on Friday.
"What transpired in the past few weeks had convinced me even more that Hungary needs a news site where the content and who is on staff are not determined by stealthy external powers, a news source where the only goal is to inform readers . . . where our work is free and independent."
After taking power in 2010, Mr Orban tightened central control over a host of previously independent agencies and turned public news outlets into transmitters for government messaging, while favoured businessmen secured domination of key sectors of the economy – including the media.
The government insists that Hungary’s media landscape is free, but experts say it is shaped by advertising revenue that flows strongly to outlets that are known to have government approval, while critical voices can be starved of income.
"This is another nail in the coffin for press freedom and independent journalism in Hungary," Lydia Gall, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said on Friday.
“Index is the latest in a series of news outlets that have been bought up by businesspeople loyal to prime minister Viktor Orban, shut down, or turned into mouthpieces for the government.”
Hungarian liberal opposition party Momentum called a protest march for Friday evening in Budapest, under the banner "Free country, free press", which will begin at Index's headquarters and end outside Mr Orban's office.
The crisis at Index came days after EU talks on a long-term budget and coronavirus crisis recovery plan that Mr Orban hailed as a triumph for Hungary, because ultimately only a vague link was made between the disbursal of funds and respect for the rule of law.
"Empty words, without actions, only serve to embolden the populists," Momentum MEP Katalin Cseh told the European Parliament on Thursday.
“Yet again the [European] Council failed to deliver a strong rule of law mechanism, a clear link between EU values and EU money,” she said.
Mr Orban said on Friday he expects more EU criticism over his stewardship of Hungarian democracy: “We didn’t win the war, we won an important battle.”