Orbán, the press, and Europe’s billions

, by Théo Boucart, translated by Elena Vardon

All the versions of this article: [English] [français] [magyar]

Orbán, the press, and Europe's billions
Szabolcs Dull, former Index.hu chief editor, pictured in December 2018. Source: Youtube screenshot.

The Hungarian government’s censoring of a new domestic news network comes as the European Council reached an agreement on the Next Generation EU stimulus plan. Though allocation of the plan’s funds seems to be linked to respect for the rule of law, Viktor Orbán has managed to avoid any such obligation... and therefore continues to receive billions of euros in European funds while trampling on democracy and freedom of expression.

July 22nd, 2020 was another sad day for journalism and press freedom in Hungary. Szabolcs Dull, editor of index.hu, the most widely read news website in Hungary (with almost 1.5 million daily readers), was ousted by the leaders of the Magyar Fejlődésért Alapítvány foundation, owner of Index Zrt and closely linked to the Hungarian government. Dull is accused of leaking confidential information concerning his network’s restructuring and compromising his editorial autonomy, weeks after previously reporting the network’s vulnerability.

This dismissal led to 70 journalists quitting two days later. These “solidarity resignations” reinforced concerns about the network’s future. In a press kit for foreign journalists that we were able to obtain by email, said journalists affirm that Szabolcs Dull’s departure is “unacceptable” and have repeatedly demanded his return, without success.

The slow death of Hungarian independent journalism

Index’s ‘bringing to heel’ is unsurprising, unfortunately. In 2018 when a pro-Orbán businessman, József Oltyán, bought a stake in Indamedia (the company which has all of Index’s economic resources), the editorial board tried to anticipate any interference by enacting two fundamental rules for its independence: no one has a say in the composition of the editorial board apart from the board itself, and no one can influence the publication of editorial content. Dull’s departure therefore directly contradicts the first rule.

Concerns go back beyond even this. From the beginning of the 2010s, with Viktor Orbán’s return to power, the first doubts arose, particularly due to the close links between the new government and Zoltán Spéder, the network’s owner at the time. Péter Uj, the iconic editor in the 2000s, left the editorial board in September 2011 to found 444.hu. On the day of Szabolcs Dull’s explusion, Uj published an opinion piece lamenting the network’s restriction: “Index is uncomfortable for the Orbán clan because it is a residue of a pre-2010 institution”.

In fact, ’pre-2010’ institutions have faced government persecution for many years, especially since a 2011 law which targeted media independence. In 2014, the government took control of origo.hu —known for its journalistic seriousness— by sacking Gergö Sáling, the editor. “Origo was renowned for its extremely objective articles. To attack it is to issue a stern warning to all media,” French newspaper Liberation wrote at the time [1]. As with Index, almost all of the editorial board had resigned out of solidarity.

Two years later, it was Népszabadság’s turn to fall victim to Fidesz’s freedom-killing spree. The iconic left-wing publication was suspended overnight. In an interview with The New Federalist a few months ago, former editor András Dési labelled the shutdown of Népszabadság “an assassination”. To reinforce its work of controlling and centralising the Hungarian media, in 2018 the government founded KESMA, the “Central European Press and Media Foundation”. The creation of this “media monster” was lead by Lőrinc Mészáros, a close friend of Viktor Orbán and owner of the company that organised the closure of Népszabadság.

Our French edition Le Taurillon tried contacting Szabolcs Dull, to no avail. His contact address on Index is deactivated. On the other hand, we were able to find, via one of the resigned journalists, the comments of Veronika Munk, deputy editor. For her, the government strategy to gag index.hu was carefully put together: “Last March, Miklós Vaszily, former CEO of Hungarian public television and important player in the transformation of many newspapers, including Origo, into pro-government media, bought half of Indamedia. Shortly after that, external consultants were employed to fire the editorial board of Index, as Bodolai [László Bodolai, the president of the Index editorial foundation] publicly acknowledged […] Besides, Indamedia is our network’s only advertising agency.” The arrival of Fidesz henchmen will, therefore, have the consequence of making these spaces a place of pro-government propaganda, as is the case with many other networks.

Resistance from journalists and Hungarian citizens

However, it would be too easy to fall into complete pessimism. Veronika Munk is keen to point out that there is still hope for the Hungarian media field. “Despite an increasingly unfavourable situation for independent journalism, there is still a lot of free media in Hungary, and which have also developed increasingly recently. We believe that Index’s current situation can raise awareness about what is left of press freedom, indeed even foster the emergence of a movement to financially support independent journalism. […] We are thinking about the future of our editorial board, we will try to stay together ”.

Other Hungarian colleagues share this optimism. In an interview [2] published in the Europe-specialised news site Le Courrier d’Europe centrale, Peter Pető, editor of 24.hu and Dési’s former deputy at Népszabadság, maintained that “making independent media work in Hungary is possible!” The reason, according to him, is the independent position of the owner of 24.hu, Zoltán Varga: “Before, it was difficult for me to imagine that I could ever have a trusting relationship with the owner of the paper where I work. But I am incredibly lucky that it is now the case [...] It is quite exceptional to be able to work independently in the current political environment in Hungary ". At the moment, 24.hu appears to be the best-placed network [3] to take over independent journalism in Hungary. It remains to be seen whether it will be able to withstand potential government pressure the day it gets in Fidesz’s way.

Among Hungarian citizens, who are sometimes criticised for their passivity in the face of their country’s authoritarian turn [4], a certain form of resistance is being organised. After the news broke that Index’s editorial board resigned, thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets in support. A Facebook page, “Legyen Másik Index!” (“To create a new Index!”) was also created and currently has 250,000 followers.

For Christian Gibbons-Smith, an American student at the Central European University in Budapest and Global Affairs Editor at The New Federalist, Hungarians mobilised —albeit rather languidly— whenever a major media network was trapped in the government’s grip: “When the upheavals in Index were announced, just like when Népszabadság disappeared, there were protests, thousands of people took to the streets to demand a change of direction, more freedom of the press and an end to corruption. Unfortunately, the protests for Népszabadság did not last very long. I don’t know what will come of these new protests.”

Towards a correlation between the rule of law and the allocation of European funds?

Despite these different voices bringing hope, it is clear that the overall situation is very difficult. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the country continues to plummet in the press freedom ranking (in 2020, it was ranked 89th). Moreover, it seems obvious that Orbán and his “clan” want to continue down their illiberal path.

Recently, however, more and more observers have brought up the idea of making European subsidies (Hungary is highly dependent on cohesion funds in particular) conditional on respect for the EU’s values set out in the treaties (which “pluralism” is a part of, and therefore media pluralism). The negotiations for the Next Generation EU stimulus plan saw heated debates on the issue, with Budapest, allied with Warsaw, absolutely refusing to see this condition written into the Council’s conclusions.

The debate rages on in Hungary, where opinions collide quite abruptly. Balázs Brandt, a member of the Hungarian branch of Young European Federalists (JEF), sums it up as follows: “on television, it’s a real battle of opinions where experts say that defending the rule of law is not affected by the Next Generation EU plan, while others say it is written in black and white in official documents”.

The reality is rather vague: while the conclusions of the European Council mention respect for the rule of law, they do so evasively, avoiding wording of a binding nature. This nebulous language also caught the attention of MEPs during an extraordinary plenary session held on July 23rd. “Not a euro will go to authoritarian regimes,” warned Iratxe García, president of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament.

Will all these voices in favour of a more binding condition of respecting the rule of law for the allocation of funds be enough to put pressure on the Hungarian government to back down? While the editorial board of Index refuses to comment on the role that the European Union should play in this affair (“our job is not to advise politicians”) RSF called on European institutions to “make access to EU funds clearly conditional on respect for the rule of law”. RSF was joined in this by the new French Secretary of State for European Affairs, Clément Beaune. In an interview with The Financial Times, he confirmed that Paris was in favour of sanctions against countries that do not respect EU values: “We cannot tell French, Polish, Hungarian and European citizens that we can have financial solidarity in Europe without worrying about respect for the fundamental rules of democracy, media freedom and equal rights”. A message directly addressed to Budapest and Index.

While the European Commissioner for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, has said she is ready to support Index journalists, it is very unlikely that all the European states will follow, given Budapest’s network of alliances in central Europe to promote “illiberalism”. However, the unanimity of the States is necessary to initiate the rule of law infringement proceedings (the famous article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union) which can lead to the suspension of the state’s right to vote and to European funds it receives.

The Index example, much more than a “simple” internal Hungarian matter, is, therefore, a new test for the European Union’s credibility in the defence of its values of the rule of law and freedom of the press.

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