Trying to muzzle Hungary’s top news site was a bad idea

One year after the pro-governmental takeover of the top Hungarian news site, Index.hu, its former staff members are thriving.

by Balint Szalai

This time last year I was staring at an empty desk while all my colleagues at Index.hu were forming a long line, holding their resignation papers, waiting to get them signed by a middleman, the owner of the company on paper. Although a few of us could have resigned the day before, the middleman dissappeared, suddenly escaping out a back door, so the vast majority of Index.hu staff had to wait another day to officially quit. 

We were thinking whether we could have achieved any better result, could have saved both Index.hu and the integrity of the editorial staff, if we had done something different during the negotiations. A lot of us kept on analysing this whole process even weeks after the resignation.

I had never experienced a takeover of a media outlet from the inside before, not to mention a really hostile one with endless waves of lies, cheap promises and unusually strong threats either, so it was a very tough time. 

Index.hu was the top news site in Hungary for years. In fact it was the main independent agenda-setter as there were days when more than 2 million real users visited it – in a country with fewer than 5 million average daily internet users. For the record, the other half of the country, which does not have internet access, can essentially only get information from government-controlled media outlets, as the Fidesz party pulls the strings in 80–90 percent of them in its hands. The government has almost 500 media outlets in a centralized organization, the Central European Press and Media Foundation. Althogether it owns basically all local newspapers, controls all national radio channels and all but one national television station, and heavily finances all political dailies.   

Around one-fourth of Index.hu’s 1.3 million daily readers were open Fidesz voters, mostly from Budapest and other cities. But this fact sealed the site’s fate when Fidesz suffered a number of surprising defeats in the 2019 muncipal elections in Budapest and other cities. In response pro-government businessmen quickly established a new television station targeting Budapest and took over Index.hu in 2020. 

In 2019 Index.hu had the largest editorial staff of any news site in the country, although it should be noted that with slightly more than 80 employees it was still rather samll, considering that Hungary’s population is 10 million people. In fact, there once was a bigger independent news site in Hungary, Origo.hu, which was also the former market leader. But six years before the fall of Index.hu, this site, too, collapsed. Its reporters couldn’t stop asking about the short but expensive foreign abroad that Minister János Lázár took in secret with an unknown partner. As a result, the editor-in-chief was fired, a number of journalists quit, and a pro-government businessman took over the outlet, turning it into an extreme propaganda channel.  

It must be said that Index.hu’s ownership was never that transparent, and during the eight years I worked it only seemed to get murkier. It is possible that the current owners bought the company earlier than in 2020; maybe they even did. But these conditions meant that the editorial staff always stuck together and that the editor-in-chief was the only one managers or owners had to deal with. The editor-in-chief served as a shield, protecting us journalists from the owners’ influence.  

That changed last year, when some new stakeholders wanted to have a say in Index.hu’s content. But the editorial staff pushed back, demanding basic assurances that no outsiders could interfere with our content, that we would decide who we work with, that nobody can be forced on the editorial staff. In response, the editor-in-chief was fired. It was clear that after this move, none of us journalists could stay, but we agreed that if anyone did indeed stay at the Fidesz-controlled Index.hu for the undoubtedly better bay, we wouldn’t blame them for it.

Nonetheless, the whole staff resigned. And no matter how many times I tried to analyze this whole process of negotiation, this, losing with dignity, was the most that we could have reached. 

But our quitting en masse did not mark the end of Index.hu. Under Hungarian law, we still had to work one month and the deputy editor-in-chiefs even longer. The owners compiled a list of 30 people or so who didn’t have to work this one month and in fact were not allowed to come in any more. It was quite painful for the others who had to stay on, seeing the swarm of applicants who held different journalistic values, training them, and listening to the planned changes all while having to keep writing articles. 

I could not help but ask some of my friends why they didn’t sabotage things during that month, with the hope that the new owners would have fired them immediately and maybe even released the others from their contracts. The response was sobering: they said they never wanted to write bad articles under any circumstances. They also felt that Index’s fate was quite predictable anyway, so one month wasn’t going to make a difference.

Index.hu instantly lost around one-third of its readers, but it is still the second biggest news site in the country. Of course, its content changed greatly; it now produces a great amount of tabloid pieces, animal stories, and unmarked PR, while articles about business and economics have disappared entirely. There is much less political coverage, but government members started to appear to show their human side, and headlines of articles published in the past are being changed. I think exactly such an editorial line was expected from us in the first place. It still hurts sometimes when I see strange, different content in the familiar design.   

For me, though the biggest news of the last 12 months was not that Index.hu survived but that the former staff has started up a new site, Telex.hu. A well-targeted fundraising campaign and regular microdonations from the readers managed to get this new project off the ground, and Telex already has around 70 journalists and 700,000 daily readers. If it continues to grow at this speed, it will be the market leader at this time next year.

As far as I know, the site’s journalists will all have some share in its ownership, and they also plan to protect the main company behind it from any internal or external acquisition attempts. But the most important thing is that the culture of our news site, all the work routines, professional and ethical standards will live on in the Hungarian media landscape. Even though Telex’s office is way too small yet for all journalists to fit into at the same time.  Telex is already offering them brighter prospects than Index ever could.    

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE) has also relaunched its Hungarian Service. It is not a radio station though but a small news site with only 15 employees altogether, including myself. We had some big stories as well. It is also nonprofit, so RFE can easily cooperate with other independent media outlets in the region. Hopefully, there will be an increasing number of those. 

Perhaps the biggest lesson that can be learned from Index.hu’s story is that it may not be worth taking over independent outlets just to muzzle them if the editorial staff can quickly start a new site, even in one of Europe’s worst media environments.

Balint Szalai is an award-winning journalist who joined Index.hu’s business desk in 2012. He has been working for Radio Free Europe since 2020.

The views and opinions expressed on our blog are those of the authors, representing a wide range of viewpoints, and do not necessarily reflect the position of VSquare or our affiliated organisations.

Cover photo: A demonstrator wears a face mask during a protest for media freedom after the editor-in-chief of Index, Hungary’s leading independent news website was fired, in Budapest, Hungary, July 24, 2020.Source: Bernadett Szabo / Reuters / Forum


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