It is surprisingly difficult to recruit people to pose as journalists at the newly Orbanized index.hu.
In July 2020, index.hu, the most significant independent news site with universal coverage, went down. Orbánist cronies have finally managed to put their hands on it, but the journalists did the unimaginable: they all resigned en masse.
This was not what Orbánists expected. A slow, almost imperceptible death of independence was index.hu’s fate in Orbán’s playbook, we have seen it unfolding elsewhere. In the end, no one could pin down the exact moment when the site was turned into a propaganda machine like all its predecessors that suffered an Orbánist takeover before.
But with the mass exit of its journalists, index.hu, the de facto front page of the Hungarian internet, became a ghost site. Some of the journalists were asked to leave without even filling their notice period. Others had to stay on for another month to fill the page with content to avoid being sued for economic damage caused by their resignation. They lasted until the end of August.
August was an amusing month – if you can still find humor in the spread of autocracy. The new overlords of index.hu tried to stay away from the premises to avoid personal embarrassment (one broke down on the meeting where they told the journalists about the takeover and the journalists accused them of being Orbán’s men – which they are, but prefer to see themselves something else). They were even hiding from the journalists lining up outside their offices to hand in their resignations. Then they tried to manage (remotely) the hiring of new people. And that was a farce.
For the last 20+ years, index.hu has been the single most prestigious place for a Hungarian journalist to work for. Being from Index has been the identity of each and every one of them. The shock of the site’s takeover cannot be overestimated.
And yet, when the new index started recruitment, there was no journalist that wanted to apply. No actual journalist, that is. There are now hundreds of former journalists in the country who had lost their jobs when Orbánist takeover happened at their previous medium. (One particular journalist has lost his fourth job to such a move when he resigned from index.hu.) Many of them left their field because there weren’t enough independent media outlets left to soak them up. But they still didn’t apply to the new index.
These former journalists all struggle to make ends meet, cannot find jobs – not in the private sector, let alone the public sphere. And yet, they didn’t apply.
Even one of the people who assisted to the Orbanification of origo.hu, index’s main competitor until its Orbánist takeover in 2017, turning it into a zombie site beyond repair – who became the new editor of index could only stayed for a day, claiming serious concerns about the site’s future independence. And he wasn’t fussy about independence, he worked on such zombification before. Others have arrived and left the same day.
In the end, even the editors had to be appointed from among the closest circle of the individuals handling the takeover. One of them had to start writing stuff himself to avoid empty pages. Another used to be the editor of orbanviktor.hu and a rabid loyalist from Fidesz’ youth movement.
At some point they were even trying to entice the bloggers on the blog platform blog.hu (owned by index) that their content can now go on index’ front page – just please, pretty please, someone write something because they had nothing. These bloggers are civilians, who could run a blog about literally anything – and yet, they didn’t seem to have taken up the offer.
The few individuals (I will not say journalists) who slowly arrived to work at the new index were painful to watch. They were desperately trying to imitate index’ tone, which they apparently identified as hip condescension. Every time they try to be lighthearted, even when they share color pieces, they fail to be funny. Secondary shame is how it feels to read them.
As a consequence, index.hu’s readership has sunk from 75 million per month to 43 million in August. Still huge. They have also started to publish ass-licking PR interviews of Orbánist ministers – it is only a matter of time before Orbán himself will grace index.hu with a first-ever interview. The only question is whether he will wait until the 2022 elections to use his newly acquired communication weapon. As things are with the economy due to corona, he appears to be on the communication offensive to shape the agenda himself, giving “interviews” to loyalists outlets and talking to microphone stands in his radio show to spread his spin on events.
Meanwhile, the former journalists of index.hu launched an incredibly successful crowdfunding campaign and they are now working on starting a new site, telex.hu, that aims to start operation with a huge newsroom (they are trying to retain as many as they can from the previous, 90+ journalists) and aim to do what has never been done before: start a news site with universal coverage from scratch.