When 80 of Index.hu’s 90 journalists resigned on 24 July in response to editor Szabolcs Dull’s dismissal, they were in tears. But signs of hope ensued: thousands of people rallied to their support that evening in Budapest, chanting, “Free country, free media,” while 200,000 people became followers of their new Facebook page during the weekend. Dull’s dismissal on 22 July came after one businessman allied with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government became a major shareholder in Index.hu’s advertising company, while another one joined the website’s management.
At this point, it’s not known whether the journalists who have left Index.hu – which was launched in 1999 and was visited by a million readers a day in a country with 10 million inhabitants – will launch a new media outlet, seek work with existing ones or abandon journalism altogether. What is clear, however, is that if they want to continue working for independent media in Hungary, they face increasingly difficult conditions that include not only hate campaigns against critical journalists, judicial harassment and restricted access to state-held information, but also systematic distortion of the media market by means of unfair allocation of state advertising.
Three quarters of the advertising by public entities, which is worth hundreds of millions of euros, is placed with pro-government media. Index.hu received only 4.5% of the state’s online advertising in 2017 while Origo, its pro-government rival, which has a comparable number of readers, received 44.5%. This highly discriminatory policy, whose effects are being exacerbated by the economic crisis resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, continues to handicap the handful of independent media outlets and will clearly make any attempt to launch a new one much more difficult. European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová says she is ready to “support” the Index.hu journalists, but the EU officials working for her colleague in charge of the competition portfolio, Margrethe Vestager, have so far turned a blind eye to the complaint filed in January 2019 by the NGO Mérték Media Monitor, a radio station and a Hungarian MEP about this illegal state aid, despite a reminder from RSF and its partners last December.
“The end of Index.hu as an independent news website is a cruel reminder of the difficult environment for independent media and the constant decline of press freedom in Hungary,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk. “Under its exclusive competence with regard to competition, the European Commission should urgently examine the unfair and non-transparent distribution of state advertising, while the Council of the EU should agree to European funds being clearly conditioned on respect for the rule of law, as the European Parliament requested after the latest European summit.”
Hungary is ranked 89th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.