BUDAPEST — Hungary’s most widely read news site was thrown into disarray this week after the organization’s editor in chief was fired and dozens of journalists quit in protest as the government moved closer to near-complete control over the country’s media landscape.
A decade into Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s quest to transform Hungary into an “illiberal” nation, where he controls nearly all levers of the state and uses them to maintain his grip on power, the takeover of Index.hu’s advertising unit by an Orban ally was part of a broader effort to limit dissenting voices and silence critics.
The potential loss of the news site as a check on the government was a particularly painful blow to the small but determined coterie of independent journalists left working in the country.
The site was one of many independent media outlets in Central Europe that have come under sustained financial and political pressure from governments bent on controlling public discourse.
Roughly half the staff at Index, some 60 employees, announced their resignation on Friday after the firing of the editor, Szabolcs Dull.
“We have emphasized for years that we have two requirements for Index to continue operating independently: that there be no outside interference in Index’s content or in the composition or structure of Index’s staff,” the group said in a statement. “The firing of Szabolcs Dull violated the latter of these requirements. His dismissal was a clear interference in the composition of the staff.”
The steady decline of independent news outlets is part of the slide toward autocratic rule in Hungary and, to a lesser extent, in Poland. Those concerns were one of the key sticking points in the debate over European Union’s $857 billion pandemic recovery plan and whether Hungary and Poland should be penalized financially.
In the end, recovery money was not tied in a significant way to the behavior of member states, appeasing Poland and Hungary, and setting up a possible clash as the deal moves to the European Parliament for final approval.
Earlier this month, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, narrowly won re-election after a bitter campaign in which the media was a frequent target.
Mr. Duda accused Germany of trying to influence the result through media outlets owned by German companies. The government even summoned Germany’s charges-d’affaires to complain about the matter, and has yet to approve Germany’s incoming ambassador.
After the election, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party, vowed to press ahead with plans to limit media ownership by foreign companies.
“The media in Poland should be Polish,” the party leader declared after the victory.
Since coming into power in 2015, Law and Justice has transformed state television into a propaganda arm of the government, applied financial pressure on Polish media by preventing all state-related entities from advertising with critical outlets, and waged aggressive campaigns against journalists critical of the government.
Poland fell to 62nd place out of 180 countries ranked in the World Press Freedom Index in 2020, dropping from 18th in 2015.
The election results are being challenged in the country’s Supreme Court, with one of the accusations being that the Law and Justice party’s control over state television created an unfair playing field.
The Polish government has often followed the path set by Mr. Orban, who has transformed the media landscape in Hungary despite European Union pressure to change course.
When Mr. Orban returned to power in 2010, he and his allies immediately went to work overhauling the country’s democratic framework. A landslide victory at the polls in 2010 allowed them to unilaterally rewrite Hungary’s constitution and change its electoral laws to favor their party. Since then, they have secured constitutional supermajorities in two subsequent elections, despite receiving less than 50 percent of the popular vote.
The Constitutional Court has been stacked and lower courts overhauled, public media and most of the country’s private media have come under the control of the prime minister’s allies, and independent watchdog institutions have been stripped of influence.
In late 2018, hundreds of nominally independent media outlets controlled by the prime minister’s allies were given to another foundation controlled by Mr. Orban’s confidants. Media and competition regulators were barred from scrutinizing the transactions, according to a decree issued by Mr. Orban in early December 2018, on grounds that the ownership changes were of “strategic national interest.”
Index, which traces its roots to the advent of internet news in Hungary, had largely weathered many political storms over the past decade.
It has reported critically of Mr. Orban’s government, prominently featuring stories of Russian meddling in Hungary, alleged graft involving politicians and individuals close to Mr. Orban’s inner circle, and by chronicling other government policies widely condemned as assaults on democratic institutions.
In March, as Europe struggled to contain the coronavirus, Miklos Vaszily, a media executive with close ties to Mr. Orban’s allies, acquired 50 percent of Index’s advertising business.
The move prompted concern from journalists and free press advocates, not least because of Mr. Vaszily’s role in overhauling media outlets, including Origo, a site once regarded as one of Hungary’s most reputable independent news organizations.
On June 21, local media reports indicated the leadership at Index planned to overhaul the website’s staff, essentially turning reporters into outside contributors. The staff declared the plan a threat to its independence, warning of a concerted attempt to expose the publication to heightened political interference. Within days, the editor in chief was removed from the company’s board, its chief executive officer resigned, as did an incoming C.E.O.
The matter remained at a standstill until Wednesday, when the chief editor, Mr. Dull, was fired by Laszlo Bodolai, head of the foundation that exercises ownership of the publication. Mr. Bodolai accused Mr. Dull of being unable to quell internal anxiety at Index, endangering the business.
In a statement released after his departure, Mr. Dull said he always acted with the interests of his staff in mind.
“It is no coincidence that Index’s staff felt at risk,” he wrote, adding that the recent events have convinced him that Hungary needs a newspaper where content is not decided by “outside powers.”
A last-ditch attempt by the news outlet’s staff failed to convince the organization’s management to rehire the dismissed editor in chief.
“We don’t know what is happening,” Veronika Munk, the deputy editor in chief, said Thursday afternoon. “I firmly feel that for many in the staff work has ended at Index.”
Through a windfall of state advertising contracts, which often promote conspiracy theories and attacks on the European Union, media entities under the control of Mr. Orban’s allies have flourished. They have been instrumental in promulgating sweeping state-funded propaganda campaigns that tap into anti-Semitic tropes reminiscent of the interwar period.
“Imagine all the media in a U.S. state were to come under the ownership of a single political group,” says Gabor Polyak of Mertek Media Monitor, a media think tank, “and all of these media outlets are funded by taxpayer money.”
In 2018, the European Parliament voted resoundingly to initiate proceedings against Mr. Orban’s government for what critics say are systemic threats to Hungary’s rule of law and democracy. The process could strip Mr. Orban of his vote in the European Council.
At the debate, Mr. Orban rejected criticism of his stewardship of Hungary.
“We would never resort to silencing those who disagree with us,” the prime minister said.