BUDAPEST (Reuters) - The owner of Hungary's leading independent news website, index.hu, said on Wednesday it had fired its editor-in-chief, a month after the editor warned here that its independence from the government was at risk.
The dismissal of Szabolcs Dull increased concern among Hungarian journalists that Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist government is intensifying what they say is an attack on press freedoms in Hungary to win favourable coverage.
Index, which had set its so-called “independence barometer” to “in danger” to signal what it sees as outside attempts to influence its content, is by far the largest media organisation critical of the government.
Staff at index.hu said in a statement the sacking was “unacceptable” and that they “cannot regard it as anything but an open attempt at pressure, which will lead to the end of independent editorial work.”
The government, which did not immediately comment, has denied interfering in the media, but the dismissal makes another clash likely between Hungary and the European Union’s executive, the European Commission.
A senior Commission official expressed concern for the independence of index.hu on July 7, saying the values it was fighting for were “essential for democracy”, and Orban is already at odds with Brussels on several fronts.
The Commission has accused Budapest of eroding the rule of law and has initiated a legal procedure that could lead to financial sanctions against Hungary.
But at a summit that ended on Tuesday, EU leaders put off agreement on a mechanism for tying funding for member states to conditions on the rule of law, a compromise seen by political analysts as likely to embolden Orban.
In a statement, Laszlo Bodolai, chief of the foundation that owns the website’s publisher, Index.hu Zrt., said Dull had been unable to control internal tensions that arose from perceived attempts to influence the newsroom. Bodolai said that led to disarray and a drop in revenue as advertisers stayed away.
“The political independence of Index is not at risk,” he said in a letter to staff. He did not name a new editor.
Dull said he believed he was sacked because of notices he wrote on index.hu about attempts at outside influence, and also because of the warning he issued on Index’s independence gauge, a graphic it has published since 2018.
“I still think the staff’s worries were reasonable and as editor-in-chief I did what my duty and conscience dictated under the circumstances,” he told Reuters.
“Index is a strong fort which someone clearly wants to blow apart,” he was seen telling staff in video footage obtained by Reuters.
Longstanding concerns here about Index's independence deepened after pro-government businessman Miklos Vaszily acquired significant control over the website's funding this year.
Vaszily did not respond to requests for comment.
Agnes Urban, director of the media-monitoring institute Mertek, told Reuters Dull’s sacking was a “worrisome signal” that underscores fears for media freedom in Hungary.
Orban has used legal levers, ownership changes and advertising money to create more loyal media. Several independent media outlets have closed, and he imposed curbs on media activity after the new coronavirus hit Hungary.
“Press freedom could fall victim to the coronavirus,” said Miklos Hargitai, chair of the Hungarian Journalists Association.
Additional reporting by Anita Komuves, Editing by Mark Heinrich and Timothy Heritage