Now that index.hu, the de facto front page of the Hungarian internet, is finally Orbanized, Orbán’s pitbulls’ attention has turned to 24.hu. Its owner harassed, intimidated and obviously in the crosshairs.
In July 2020, index.hu, the de facto front page of the Hungarian internet and 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.
Had they followed the role that was assigned to them – slow, gradual submission – index.hu’s death would never have made the international press. But the journalists did one last act of defiance and raised hell – despite the existential insecurity this move has pushed them into.
Now they are 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.
Index.hu has long been the target of ire and open hostility by Orbán and his loyalists. They had to work especially hard to kill it – it took them 10 years. Now that they managed and eliminated news as we know it, their attention has quickly turned to the last remnants of independent news, no matter how small or insignificant they might be.
Emboldened cronies and aggressive loyalists’ quickly turned against 24. hu, the second biggest independent news site, albeit not even in the same league as index.hu was. But nothing is too small to squash. It appears that they want exactly zero independent news source in the country, lest they lose again in 2022.
24.hu’s owner, Zoltán Varga, a businessman has found himself under extraordinary scrutiny by the authorities after index.hu went down – and that was just the beginning. Over the summer he received two unsolicited offers for his media group, one Hungarian, one from abroad, both representing Orbán, he said in an interview with Bloomberg.
His company, Central Media Group, is relatively recent, founded in the Orbán-era. 25 print magazine titles and 19 online publications belong there, employing 650 people, according to the Bloomberg profile. They reach half of Hungary’s population, according to the company. “While that might make you an A-lister at government functions elsewhere, he says it makes him a marked man” in Hungary, Bloomberg remarks. “It’s a big and terrifying number for the government and they really have a headache with it, because their outlets are much smaller, because we are the biggest internet group in the country,” Varga said about his holdings in an interview to Politico.
If you ever wonder if he could just sell his company to someone else, like an untouchable foreign billionaire, the answer is no. Orbán’s media council blocks every transaction that does not serve the consolidation of media in Orbán’s hands – but they were strangely relaxed when Orbán received some 500 media outlets as a gift from the assorted loyalists who bought it for him in 2018.
Apparently seeking some protection by media exposure abroad, he also described intimidation attempts, including a helicopter circling his garden, frightening his family and a big, black car parking outside his house with two men. Orbánist propaganda media has started calling him disparaging and menacing nicknames, like Red Baron and Zotya, the trickster, clearly signaling that they have all received the command to hunt him down. In an interview with Politico, he discussed the campaign to destroy his name in Orbánist media. “The articles say “that I do not pay taxes, that I am a bad person, that I pay my employees badly … They interfere with my private life and I am on TV every day. They try to put me in a corner, demotivate my employees and persuade them to leave.” He added, “Independent media, such as Index, are seen as an obstacle by the authorities.””
While the Bloomberg article is dutifully skeptical about this being real, they remark that “…his concern that he’s the target of intimidation says much about the country under a leader who has extended his influence over the courts, the central bank, education and the media with an unassailable grip not seen since the communist era.”
“they would like to have Russia-style controlled media landscape”
In a Bloomberg interview in 2017, Varga spoke very differently. He was still naive and proudly bragged about his secret to thriving in Orbán’s autocracy. Like many others, he joined the choir that sang that Orbán is not as bad is he appears. Probably because he, Varga, has also met Orbán in person – and that tends to make people go soft. Orbán either charms and reassures them, or – more recently – they are simply smitten with themselves to have “access” to the man himself and overestimate their own ability to control Orbán. Back then Varga described Orbán as “a formidable politician who deeply understands and respects power”.
Turns out, Varga doesn’t have a lot of power, so what is it about to respect for a man like Orbán? Having no legal rights that cannot be swept off, any subject of the autocracy is by definition lacking power.
Shortly after the Orbán-friendly interview, Varga’s company started running into problems. The media council and the competition authority blocked a deal with German-owned RTL, the most-watched commercial TV channel that wanted a stake in Varga’s online media business, because it would have strengthened its independence.
“I definitely underestimated how the government is going to pressure the media landscape,” said Varga. By now it’s clear, he said, that “they would like to have definitely a kind of Russia-style controlled media landscape.””
In the end of the interview, Varga still sounds bullish, saying it’s now a matter of principle for him not to sell.
“I have a moral obligation not to do this,” Varga said. “I am a successful business person and can afford it. It is not nice being attacked, but I think I don’t have any other option.”