Marton Dunai –
The new owners of the largest independent news outlet in Hungary say they will not meddle in its editorial policies. Reporters at Index.hu are far from sure, and recent history shows why.
Dozens of newspapers, radio and television stations critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orban have changed hands in the past four years. Some subsequently closed down, while others quickly and dramatically changed their tune.
On the day news channel Hir TV was taken over last month, one of its new owners, Zsolt Nyerges, told the newsroom he would not interfere with its work. That evening’s programmes, including a hard-hitting political talk show, were cancelled. In its place, a recent Orban speech played on a loop.
Last week, the European Union’s parliament voted to punish Hungary for flouting EU rules on democracy, corruption and civil rights, including media freedom, although the actual punishment, suspending its voting rights, is unlikely.
An EU parliamentary report said media had been concentrated in the hands of pro-Orban oligarchs, state-funded advertising went largely to outlets loyal to the government and other journalists were often banned from parliament.
Hungary’s government has denied undermining press freedom and says it has no desire to control the media. It is taking the EU Parliament to court, accusing it of breaching voting rules.
Asked about Index’s independence, one of its new ultimate owners, Gabor Ziegler, said on Wednesday it was guaranteed.
“We have no right to interfere with daily editing or the paper’s contents,” he said in an interview with napi.hu, one of a number of smaller sites clustered around Index that Ziegler and his partner
“We need an independent, widely read and decidedly high-quality Index.hu to achieve our business goals.” Index.hu’s editorial line has not changed since the takeover on Monday, but staff are on the alert. A new dial on its home page has a needle pointing towards “independent”: next to it is “in danger” and further along, “not independent”.
“When it changes we’ll talk. As loudly as possible”, the strapline says. A statement signed by dozens of staff likened the situation to a war.
Chief editor Attila Toth-Szenesi said his fellow journalists were tense. “We would like to work peacefully,” he said. “It is not good for anyone for us to be the news.” Ziegler and media investor Jozsef Oltyan gained ultimate control over Index by buying media group cemp-X Online Zrt, which sells its advertising space, as well as the company owning the foundation set up to guarantee Index’s editorial freedom.
Oltyan is a member of a party in coalition with Orban’s ruling Fidesz, while Ziegler has been a staff member on Index’s business side for nearly two decades. — Reuters
Marton Dunai –