Recently, an article appeared in the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat about the freedom of the press in Hungary, as exemplified by the index.hu affair and its aftermath.
The article was written by Szabolcs Dull and Veronika Munk, originally in Hungarian. Dull had been the editor in chief of the online newspaper index.hu until mid-2020, when he was kicked out, followed by an exodus of a large part of the newspaper’s journalistic staff.
Dull and Munk allege that Dull has been kicked out because Miklós Vaszily – according to them a friend of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – took over ownership of a substantial part of index.hu, as part of Orbán’s strategy to increase the influence of his government in the media sector, resulting in a decrease of press freedom in Hungary.
This allegation has become one of the corner stones of accusations against Hungarian press policy. It is regularly mentioned in international media as a proof of the threat to freedom of press in Hungary, posed by the Orbán government. Thus, it is worth trying to find out more about it.
The story of index.hu during the last 20 years is extremely complex, with a number of different owners and managers following each other. In addition, there are large numbers of claims and counter claims by the different actors about what has happened in 2020.
Thus, the events surrounding the exit of Dull and the exodus of the index.hu staff are murky. Still, there are a few quite well established facts:
March 2020: Vaszily takes over 50% of Indamedia, the company which apparently takes care of the advertisement business side of index.hu.
June 2020: external experts are invited to give advice about re-organizing index.hu. I haven’t found direct information about why this re-organization was deemed to be necessary or who exactly invited these experts. However, according to hvg.hu the foundation owning index.hu had a debt of 180 million forints (about 500,000 euros). László Bodolai, the president of the board of the foundation, also admitted cash-flow problems of the company. Furthermore, on 30 June Zsolt Ződi, who had become the new managing director of index.hu just one week before, has resigned. His reason: after getting to know the financial situation of the company, he decided that it is too big a task for him to deal with its financial problems. Thus, it seems probable that these financial problems were the reasons for this re-organization attempt.
Gábor Gerényi was one of the invited experts. He made the suggestion to outsource content creation for many of the columns – though not for the main, political column – of index.hu to smaller companies which would be created and owned by index.hu and which would employ journalists currently working for index.hu.
This caused protests by the redaction of index.hu, in particular by Dull. They suspected – or at least alleged- that the idea behind this suggestion was to break up the redaction. According to Dull, the independence of index.hu was now in danger.
July 2020: Dull was kicked out by László Bodolai, the president of the board of the foundation owning index.hu. The main reason mentioned by several sources – including Bodolai himself – was that Dull leaked out sensitive information about the company to leftist politicians and to leftist internet portals, which were business competitors of index.hu.
So what should one think of all this? Remember: Dull and Munk maintain that the reason they had to leave index.hu was because of a takeover by a person closely associated with the Orbán government. They see this as an example of an increasing threat to the freedom of the press in Hungary.
The facts don’t support this version of the events very well.
The protests and the alleged leaks by Dull followed the recommendations about the re-organization of the company, by outsourcing part of the content creation. These recommendations seem to have been made because of the financial problems the company had, and not because of some nefarious attempts by Orbán’s men to break up the redaction. Indeed, short of vague speculations and general statements about Orbán’s attempts to rule the Hungarian media landscape, none of the reports – even in leftist portals like 444.hu or in left-liberal portals like hvg.hu – allege a direct influence by Vaszily on what has happened in June and July 2020 at index.hu.
None of the actors directly involved in the exodus of the index.hu staff has been alleged to be an ‘Orbán-man’. Bodolai, who kicked out Dull, has been a member of LMP – the Hungarian Green Party. Gerényi, who advised outsourcing part of the content creation, was one of the founders of index.hu, and had worked there for 12 years. For what it is worth, even Vaszily himself had had a strong association with index.hu in the past: he was the managing director of index.hu between 2005 and 2009.
My conclusion: the index.hu affair – the kicking out of Dull and the exodus of the index.hu staff – was not caused by an attempt by Orbán’s government to break up the index.hu redaction and to take over index.hu. Instead, it was probably caused by financial problems of index.hu and suggestions to solve these problems by outsourcing part of the operations of the online newspaper, to which Dull reacted with protests and accusations of government-inspired interference. Dull repeated these accusations and leaked confidential information to leftist politicians and to leftist internet portals. Because of this bad behavior he was kicked out from index.hu.
So what happened to Dull, Munk, and the rest of the ex-staff of index.hu after they left in summer 2020? As Dull and Munk describe in the article in Helsingin Sanomat, they founded a new internet portal called telex.hu. The money needed to create it came from a fund raising effort.
According to Dull and Munk, telex.hu has been extremely successful. In less than a year their readership arrived at 700,000 per day. They seem to see themselves as both victims of an unjust, oppressive system and as some kind of heroes who won a great battle against that system.
But, the fact that an independent newspaper with a government-critical, leftist orientation – which telex.hu is, in spite of assertions by Dull and Munk that it is politically neutral, objective, etc. – can be established, financed, and thrive in Hungary is in direct contradiction to the many complaints by Dull and Munk about the lack of press freedom in the country.
Dull and Munk themselves don’t seem to be aware of this contradiction. Neither they, nor the media reporting about this affair admit that the success story of telex.hu could hardly be possible in a dictatorial regime that they describe Orbán’s Hungary as.
Meanwhile, Dull and Munk’s version of the index.hu affair has spread all over the world and is mentioned many times as a proof of the lack of freedom of the press in Hungary.