Is collective exodus the new MO of the resistance? Or was it just two idiosyncratic cases?
When the biggest news portal was finally taken over by Orbánists, its journalists did the unexpected: they all resigned collectively. When Orbánists closed in on the university of film and theater (SZFE), its students occupied the buildings and some of the faculty resigned. This was not what was planned for them. The regime planned a slow submission, almost imperceptible and deniable.
Orbánist takeover of media outlets takes different shapes. Some were simply bought and shut down overnight. Some saw their newsroom fired and loyalist typists hired on fat salaries to simply publish what was sent from above. Others experienced a more gradual bleeding out.
Take origo.hu, once one of the two top news sites of the country and a place of serious journalism. Once sold to Orbánists, its real journalists were fired or left, the remaining ones tried to justify keeping their jobs (I just proofread make up tips for the lifestyle section) but had to find out that not even sport news is safe from political pressure. In the long run, origo.hu went from the top news portal (in tie with index.hu) to a joke of a site filling its front page with hysterical migrant propaganda when ordered from above and nothing else. Taken out the referral traffic they buy and dumb tricks like directing everyone who uses freemail.hu (a mail platform they own) to their front page upon signing out, they have around 20 million visitors a month. Still a lot. But it was 50 million in genuine traffic before the takeover.
No doubt, Orbánists didn’t intend to destroy index.hu the same way and have its readership plummet the way origo.hu did. They wanted a sneaky takeover, a hard-to-pin-down conversion, a slow death of independence – much like the country did since 2010 – so thy can use the platform for their goals by 2022.
When they finally moved in on the newsroom, they expected journalists to be divided and some of them ready to conform. Some would have to be fired, no doubt, but a good excuse is always available. Others would have resigned on their own accord – and good riddance as far as Orbánists are concerned. Those who remained would have to submit. In little things at first, and then on more and more. Now we just want you to dig up dirt on the opposition mayor. (Is that too much to ask? There is always dirt, isn’t there? So it’s still journalism! Good boy!) This request was actually even made before the mass resignation, so I am not guessing here.
Then the no-go topics would come. Just avoid the royal family. Then everyone OfFidesz. Oligarchs, thieves, corrupts legislation, yachts and private jets. Any journalist would have to be existentially suicidal to look into the enrichment of the royal family. It has been like that for a while, it would only be pressed a little harder. Those who remain are unlikely to risk their jobs now that they submitted. And at any rate, there are always plenty of reasons to reject an article, even if a journo works on it in his free time and his assigned duties don’t take up his whole working day.
Then would come the bigger atrocities against independence, the more blatant abuse. The first article that doesn’t run because someone said so. The first article disappearing from the archives. Or rewritten retroactively. The first article disappearing from the website – because apparently those above have admin rights to the site.
The first turbo-loyalist Orbán-interview, dictated by Orbán’s spin doctor. Then every single Orbánist from all sector would get his moment under the sun, an interview where he can let the world know that he just… and that those who oppose him just don’t understand (plus they are communists).
But by that time the remaining journalists would have no moral case to stand up. It was all known by the time Orbán’s henchmen walked through the door and fired the editor to make way for a more flexible one. Besides, money is now flowing in like crazy. Not only do they get all the government hate advertising revenue, companies will also go into bidding war to advertise on an Orbánist site.
Why would an unacceptable PR interview be the thin red line? Why a deleted investigative article from the archives? Gradual onset of autocracy is a bitch – on the national level as well as in the newsroom.
By 2022, the next general elections, the remaining journalists would have been neutralized or turned into propaganda zombies – utilizing their skills to make propaganda sound less like propaganda. They would have tried to whitewash it on their own accord, trying to justify their decision to stay.
That was the fate allocated to index.hu. But its journalists had one last chance to – no, not to stop it. Their paper was bought from above their heads. But to make a stink and exit with a bang.
All they had to do was to move in unison and no one to submit. No one to bend. No one to kiss the ring with any justification. For the money. For his family. To stay and try to make change from the inside. Easy.
Such a slow death of autonomy (organizationally as well as inside the heads) has played out at every university, the constitutional court, the prosecutor’s office, with certain judges, in virtually every economic sector, the academy of science, the state broadcaster, the commercial TV channels, radios, the parties, the parliament, and in every town and village in the country over the last decade. Not to mention nearly every newsroom. Teachers were salamied that way, healthcare workers pitted against each other, unions Orbanized to pacify their respective sectors, etc. It did happen everywhere.
The 80+ journalists (and developers) of index.hu are now on the cusp of starting their own news site based on frenzied crowdfunding – and we badly need them because at this time we are basically blind. (It is another story how long the impoverished country can keep financing a news site that is stuck between Orbán and Zuckerberg, gasping for revenues despite their much-in-demand content.)
After the exodus of index.hu, another act of outright rebellion occurred, although with much less consequence. The students and faculty of SZFE (the university of film and theater) have rebelled against the Orbánist takeover of their institution. Under the disguise of “making them private” Orbán is putting universities in the hands of loyalist appointees with a package of shares in national champions (at the time of economic crisis) to go and live off the dividends (seriously). It makes sure that 1) rightwingers abroad have an excuse to see it as just heartwarming privatisation (it is not), and 2) that the universities will still have to beg for funding every single year and only a loyalist chancellor can get a penny out of Orbán.
Going private it is not. Handing it to loyalists it is. The new appointee to head SZFE has already done this to another university, pushing nationalistic, ethnic and christianist agenda on the institutions, firing resistance and hiring loyalists who also happen to be butthurt nobodies, crawling out from under rocks, eager to exact revenge for having been shunned in the past by the industry. These kind of people and this kind of behavior are rewarded in an autocracy.
SZFE is a tiny, elite university, and their rebellion is bound to fail. If they “negotiate” as they are asked, they will be promised everything and get nothing. If they don’t – nothing happens. There is no alternative in which they “compromise”. You can’t compromise with someone who threatens with violence – legal, administrative, political, economic, etc. If the basic principles are not observed by either party, you are not negotiating, you are begging. And it is not a compromise but surrender. And you have no guarantees.
But the film students will find their places abroad, much like CEU did after being chased out by Orbán. And much like annoying, pesky journalists, art students who often come from very prominent families are also a special demographic. They tend to have no existential risk to run. They will still live somewhere and eat if they get expelled (unlike many other students). They will be welcomed in Berlin even if they never graduate in Budapest. They will even be heroes who can take advantage of the disadvantage (as long as they move fast). All they need is to abandon their mother tongue, the language of their art form. Easy.
Journalists are also a special bunch. Not only did they watch and document the Orbanization of other newsrooms, not only did they document the aggressive takeover of a bullying regime everywhere, they are also difficult people by definition. It makes them good at their jobs, asking questions when the respondent clearly doesn’t want to answer them.
And both journalists and film students have a strong international network – unlike healthcare workers, judges, entrepreneurs and teachers who were intimidated by the regime, and ended up divided and conquered.
The question is thus whether the collective exodus is the new MO of the resistance and submission would be too embarrassing from now on – or whether it was just these two cases.