The list of media outlets zombified or shut down by Orbán is long. The Orbanization of index.hu would be the biggest loss yet. Probably lethal to press freedom.
“For years we’ve been feeling like we were stuck in the frontline of a world war. Sometimes it’s the Red Army, sometimes it’s the Wehrmacht that marches over us, and here we sit, turning our heads trying to keep up with the events. Sometimes there is just menacing silence. Maybe that is the worst.”
So begins the statement issued today by index.hu, Hungary’s most important and still independent news portal.
The famous Orbán-Simicska war (in which his former top oligarch and architect of Fidesz’ economic empire, Lajos Simicska, turned against Orbán and took his media holdings in the divorce) ended with Simicska’s capitulation after Orbán’s election results in April. Simicska’s media interests were shut down or handed back to Orbán after the elections – with the major exception of Index.hu, Hungary’s single most important and influential news portal. Simicska put that in the care of a foundation, which made it trickier than usual to overtake it by legal means.
Today news broke that the holding company has been taken over by pro-Fidesz individuals (no one asks anymore how they had the money for such an acquisition) and that Index’s independence is under threat.
Index released a statement that they are still independent. For now.
“It has been an open secret for weeks that something is definitely happening around us, and the silence was broken yesterday.”
They also specified what they meant by independence:
1) editorial independence: that the journalists are not told what to write and they can’t be made to withdraw stories, and that
2) staff decisions: that they cannot be made to hire or fire people on outside pressure.
“If there are any changes in the above, we will notify the world as loud as we possibly can.”
They have also released a lame meter that is meant to signal when they come under pressure:
The statement didn’t mention financial independence or independent ownership because that is not the case anymore.
“The most important thing: the shares of our publisher, Index Zrt. remain in the property of Magyar Fejlődésért Alapítvány (Foundation for Hungarian Progress), controlled by László Bodolai. What changed is that the most important partners of Index – CEMP SH, that is selling our ad space, and the company that provides all IT services to us – are now in the hands of Gábor Ziegler and József Oltyán.”
Oltyán being an inconsolable enemy of independent media and is known for opinions such as “I put Index on my blacklist” which he made in comments on various news portals, under his own name. He is also known to have rejoiced at the shutdown of every media outlet that wasn’t Orbán-friendly.
Eventually, he collected enough cookie points with Orbán to finally buy the biggest news portal in the country. Not many online commenters can afford that…
And with Fidesz-ownership, Index can be held by its revenues and funding. As the people who now write on origo.hu (a former competitor of index.hu, Orbanized in 2015) gleefully remarked, Index journalists can now worry whether their next paycheck will arrive.
In a boastful post, Origo.hu also commented on the acquiisition of index’ parent company. Their commentary was full of unnecessary allegations that Index was totally unfairly out against poor Orbán, and it was peppered with names of irrelevant socialist politicians for no reason other than driving in the paranoia that pre-2010 politicians still have media influence. What influence? That they have an overwhelming media supremacy. (After all, paranoia has to be maintained even when all enemies are dead and any populist government worth its salt must pose as an anti-establishment superhero, even though Orbán is the very definition of Hungarian political establishment.) Then they glibly remarked that Index’s journalists can now worry about their salaries. Like that’s normal.
And Origo’s writers surely know what they are talking about. Their salaries come straight from the taxpayer- with some loyalist thrown in as “owner” of the site. Before 2015, origo.hu used to be Index’s closest competitor, a high-quality journalism site. But then it was sold to a young nephew of an Orbán-loyalist (again, no one bothers to ask anymore how he had the money) and it became like one of those ants that are turned into a zombie by a fungus. Journalists resigned, and their seats were filled up by semi-literate loyalists.
If you want to see what happens to a portal once the Orbán-steamroller went trough it, you only have to look at Origo. Today it is the deepest propaganda-spewing cesspit. It publishes dozens of migrant-themed scaremongering pieces every day, they go below and beyond in bashing Orbán’s opposition (pardon, enemies) and threaten dissenters. They are often used to issue threats in anonymous editorial articles. They compete with each other (and similar zombie sites) as to who can deliver the lowest blow to the reputation of the enemies of Orbán, nothing is too unethical or too damaging to publish if it shows their unconditional loyalty.
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