The honorable death of Hungary’s top news site

The most popular news site in Orbán’s Hungary was killed but the journalists keep on fighting.

A group of 100-150 gathered in front of a courthouse in Budapest in early July. It was an unusual crowd of protesters: angry parents, mostly young mothers, who were outraged by a pedophile scandal that has rocked Hungary. They protested after Gábor Kaleta, the Orbán government’s former ambassador to Peru, received only a suspended prison sentence and a fine of 1500 euros for possessing more than 19,000 pornographic images of children. The public knew absolutely nothing about the ambassador’s pedophile case until Hungary’s top news site, Index.hu, uncovered it and reported on it in a series of articles. 

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government champions itself as a defender of families and conservative values, yet it kept the ambassador’s case  secret. Kaleta was arrested in a multi-national investigation into a worldwide child porn ring last year, after which Hungarian authorities quietly evacuated him from Lima to Budapest. The government not only did not disclose it for months, they even refused to answer questions from the media for a long time. They even classified the details of a parliamentary inquiry about it for 10 years. Index’s investigative work was a direct hit to the core. The embarrassment eventually forced the Hungarian government – including the Prime Minister – to react, change course and to at least promise tougher child pornography laws. 

Only a few weeks later, on July 24, a much bigger protest was organized, but this time for Index.  Hungary’s most popular news site basically ceased to exist only a few hours earlier. Following the firing of editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull two days earlier, the site’s editorial board and most of its journalists resigned in protest.

“However weird it may sound, we actually saved Index by resigning”, one of their political reporters, Tamás Fábián wrote, arguing that the mass resignation at least means a honorable death for the outlet. Seeing no alternative, this was the only way for the journalists to avoid being compromised and corrupted by their new, government-serving management.

Index’s demise is documented in details. In short, it is the result of pro-government businessmen essentially hijacking the site’s revenues and trying to pressure and blackmail the editorial staff into giving up their independence and integrity. It is not a direct consequence or retaliation for uncovering a single story, the Kaleta scandal, but for uncovering or simply just covering sensitive stories throughout the ten years of the Orbán government. 

In recent years, even stories which were uncovered by other media outlets couldn’t have had the same effect without Index quoting and running them. The site’s readership, influence and agenda-setting ability was just unprecedented. It had almost one million unique users a day in a country of ten million, meaning that a single article could attract hundreds of thousands of readers and collect tens of thousands of likes and shares on Facebook. 

But Index’s biggest feat was the loyalty of readers who spent dozens of minutes if not hours on the site every single day. This chart, published by economic non-profit site G7, shows that Index accounts for almost half of all page views on real Hungarian news sites – excluding the ones that are already a part of the government’s propaganda machinery. In terms of readership, for Hungarians, losing Index is like what losing CNN for a global audience, losing The New York Times and The Washington Post for Americans, or losing the BBC and The Guardian for the U.K. would be. 

Index was not without flaws, but as many of the mourning readers now say, Index was “the internet” for them. Not just the start page in the browser, but the go-to site if anything happened in the world and they needed reliable news coverage. Or if they simply wanted to have fun, because Index was known for mixing humor with news. Other readers say Index was like a „mirror” or a „messenger” for Hungary’s public as everyone else they knew was reading it too. Some took comfort in saying that it was really a miracle that Index managed to survive for such a long time. 

Index was my first real workplace, the outlet that made me a journalist and the community that shaped my identity, brought me good friends and many fun moments. When I worked at Index between 2013 and 2018, pro-Orbán circles were already buying up media outlets one after another, still, we felt invincible. There were recurring rumors in every 3 or 6 months alleging that someone from Viktor Orbán’s inner circle will buy us up, but this time for sure. As it never actually happened – at least not until this year –, we started making fun of these rumors just to ease the tension. But working under constant pressure and uncertainty took its toll. Some of my colleagues even had to face harrassment by authorities, prosecution, lawsuits, and of course there was the neverending smear campaign against Index in pro-government and far-right media. 

Meanwhile, the world around Index was falling apart quickly. In 2014, Index’s former main competitor, Origo was turned into a full-blown, unreadable government propaganda outlet. TV2, the second largest privately owned television was bought up by a right-wing businessman and soon, celebrity anchors presenting tabloid news started ranting about George Soros. Népszabadság, the largest daily was simply shut down after a buy-up while dozens of other smaller outlets, print, online and broadcast were taken over in a similar fashion. 

However, we came to realize that Index’s huge influence and popularity simply meant that the political costs of using the same overt and obvious methods to take over this news site were too high. So it gradually became clear that the real intent of Orbán’s media bosses is not to shut down or convert Index, but to tame and compromise it by silently influencing HR decisions and structures or its content, headlines and priorities. 

 János Bődey, index.hu

János Bődey, index.hu

Even before 2018, some of our sources in the governing party, told us multiple times, off the record, that it was not in their interest to blow up or openly take over the news site, as they feared that readers would instantly migrate elsewhere. What they did not take into consideration was the moral integrity and courage of Index’s editorial staff and journalists who refused to play along: this footage of dozens of journalists handing in their resignations simultaneously is one for the history books. Hopefully, a new chapter will start for the „távozó indexesek” (those who left Index) who set up a Facebook page with this name, attracting more than 220,000 followers in just days. Readers should follow them indeed, just like government politicians fear.

Szabolcs Panyi

VSquare’s Budapest-based lead investigative editor in charge of Central European investigations, Szabolcs Panyi is also a Hungarian investigative journalist at Direkt36. He covers national security, foreign policy, and Russian and Chinese influence. He was a European Press Prize finalist in 2018 and 2021.