What little media independence remains in Hungary hangs by a thread. The country is in serious democratic trouble. The big question is: does the European Union have the political will to take decisive action?
Index.hu was Hungary’s largest remaining independent news site, read by over a million people until it became the latest victim of the relentless political interference of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government. Last month its editor-in-chief, Szabolcs Dull, was fired.
In an act of defiance against interference, around 90 journalists – almost the entire editorial staff – resigned. Their reasons were clear: “This is such a strong infringement on the editorial independence of Index.hu that we simply could not accept,” the journalists said.
The events unfolding at Index.hu did not happen overnight. In June, more than 100 Index.hu journalists published a letter stating that the site was facing external pressure. This came a few months after Miklos Vaszily, a business tycoon close to Orbán, gained a large stake at the company that controls the site’s revenue streams and advertising.
Outsource content creation
Following Vaszily’s involvement, newly installed government-connected advisors pushed a proposal to break up the editorial staff and outsource content creation to external companies, a move that could only compromise editorial independence. Dull resisted this plan, making him the target.
Dull’s resistance against external pressures, together with the collective decision of the Index.hu editorial team to resign is a sign that independent journalists in Hungary have had enough of political interference and are fighting back. Citizens showed their support as thousands protested outside the Prime Minister’s offices in Budapest.
The former Index.hu journalists have started a Facebook page where daily updates are posted and information is shared with the public. Their act of solidarity has been a powerful one, as they expressed it:
“We only gradually realised what power our common, demonstrating stand has. Since we didn’t know how many people were going to stand up, we couldn’t even predict how big it would be when it really happened…. Because journalism is a power, to which responsibility belongs, for example, to know when to give up on it.”
Such responses are increasingly needed in Hungary and the other states in Europe that imitate its slide away from democracy and towards authoritarianism. The chilling of Index.hu’s independent voice is part of a pattern of ever-tightening political control of the media. Following the ruling Fidesz party’s election victory in 2018, 476 media outlets became part of a new, government-controlled media organisation, KESMA.
Recently, it was revealed that journalists working for the Hungarian public media organisation (MTVA) need special consent when reporting about, “migration, European terror, Brussels, church issues,” along with elections in other European countries. MTVA also issued an order prohibiting employees from reporting on leading human rights organisations.
Only the ruling party’s views can be accessed
Democracy requires that people are able to participate effectively in collective decision-making processes, freely assess the performance of the government and opposition and express democratic dissent. Without access to a diversity of information and viewpoints on public matters, citizens cannot exercise their democratic freedom in meaningful ways. These changes make it much harder for Hungarian citizens to access any views other than the ruling party’s.
Last year, research by media-monitoring institute Mertek, found that “adding up the relevant figures for the KESMA, the manifestly pro-government media outside the KESMA and the public service media, the total pro-Fidesz portfolio encompasses 77.8 per cent of the entire news and public affairs segment.”
Hungary’s rapid decline in media freedom is part of a bigger state attack on the institutions and arenas where democratic debate happens. It comes alongside a governmental takeover of key culture, higher-education and science bodies, unrelenting attacks on civil society and attempts to grab power under the guise of COVID-19 response.
These are some of the reasons why Hungary is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist, which alerts to countries where civic freedoms are under serious threat. Censorship is a key means by which the Orbán government has attacked civic freedoms, and this is part of a growing problem across the world: globally censorship was the most reported violation documented by the CIVICUS Monitor’s ‘People Power Under Attack’ report 2019.
Given this broader pattern of falling freedoms and declining democracy, the loss of independence of Index.hu should not be considered a minor hiccup that European institutions have no business to meddle in. Rather, it sends the latest alarming signal that Hungary’s rulers are intent on dismantling democracy.
European citizens rightfully expect their leaders to stand up against authoritarianism and uphold the values set out in Article 2 of the EU, which states that “the Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights…”.
What democracy is worth to whom
So far the EU has done little, but European institutions finally seem to have realised that the EU has all the legal instruments necessary to encourage Hungary’s leaders towards a democratic path. The latest EU summit that ended on 21 July ties the distribution of EU resources to compliance with the rule of law.
However, the agreement’s language is deliberately vague and allows for very different interpretations of how the conditionality of the rule of law will be implemented.
Whether EU leaders are really committed to making the rule of law a meaningful conditional for support, as they ought to be, remains to be seen: the coming months will show what democracy is worth to whom.
We do not yet know what will happen to the cadaver of Index.hu. Perhaps outgoing staff will create another site that could eventually fill the void and offer a vital independent voice. We do know that the loss of this outlet is a serious blow to democracy in Hungary.
But the collective action of Index.hu journalists gives us hope that honest and independent journalism cannot be repressed forever. Sooner or later it will resurface, as an essential safeguard of democracy.
Orsolya Reich is a Senior Advocacy Officer at the Civil Liberties Union for Europe.
Aarti Narsee is a Civic Space Researcher at CIVICUS.