Are Hungarians Willing to Pay the Price for a Free Media?

The journalists who resigned from Index over threats to editorial independence are talking about crowd-funding an ‘Index 2.0’, but the record of successfully setting up such ventures is not encouraging.

Following the mass walkout by the editorial staff of Index, Hungary’s biggest news website, in protest at the sacking of editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull and other external interference, deputy editor-in-chief Marton Karpati announced on Facebook on August 3 that, “There will be another one”. But few believe that setting up an ‘Index 2.0’ will be straightforward, especially in Hungary, where the independent media is struggling to survive.

Karpati provided no further details of any ‘new’ Index, but Veronika Munk, deputy editor-in-chief, tells BIRN that any moves to do so would be constrained for as long as the majority of the editorial staff who resigned have to work out their notice. On July 24, about 90 journalists of Index resigned following the sacking of Dull, who had warned on June 22 in a piece published on the site that the editorial staff were “in danger” and the dial on a “freedom barometer” on the homepage had been moved to “in danger”. The resignations made international headlines and thousands of people took to the streets of Budapest to demand a free press and a “new Index”.

“Some 30 of our staff have been exempted from work, but the rest of us have to continue until the end of the month. Legally speaking, during our notice periods we cannot frame new projects,” Munk tells BIRN.

In many ways setting up a new independent news venture is a race against time. The longer it takes to establish a new brand and launch the site, the more the public uproar dies down and the potential support wanes. “I do hope we can stay together, but I admit the future is uncertain. One thing is clear: Hungarian society does not need another small media outlet, but a news site offering a wide spectrum of information,” Munk says.

Navigating the murky waters of censorship

Index has been a flagship of critical journalism in Hungary since its establishment in 2000. In an increasingly challenging media environment – Hungary is ranked 89th out of 180 countries on the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index – the site was read by more than a million people, both government and opposition voters. It was the only news outlet which could set the political narrative and influence public discourse.

Index also had an important function as a multiplier of independent journalism. Major investigative stories written by smaller media outlets would be regularly summarized and given publicity by Index, providing the stories with a level of national reach normally reserved for the public media.

Index’s Achilles’ heel was its dependence on a sales house – responsible for advertisements and revenues – which was acquired in 2018 by businessmen close to the government of Viktor Orban, who then used it to apply pressure on the editorial staff. Munk tells BIRN that, “it was not the classical censorship on the content that we encountered, but a constant pressure on changing our editorial structure. The publisher could not even explain why this would be necessary and showed no willingness to compromise.”

Hungary’s government has an impressive track record of killing critical media outlets, shrewdly concealing most as some kind of neutral business decisions.

The assault on the free press began with the conversion of the state media into a government mouthpiece right after Fidesz won the election in 2010. The next to fall was the news site Origo in 2014, now Fidesz’s flagship propaganda instrument, followed by the abrupt shutdown of the main leftwing daily Nepszabadsag in 2016, the centralisation of all regional daily newspapers, and the takeover and neutralisation of the renowned business weekly Figyelo in 2017. Hungary’s oldest daily, the conservative Magyar Nemzet, was a victim of the government clampdown in 2018.

The process culminated with almost all government-loyal media outlets being centralized in KESMA (the Hungarian acronym for Central European Press and Media Foundation) – a mega-holding of about 500 media outlets. The merger, which was clearly in breach of all the country’s competition laws, could not be investigated by the Competition Authority, as it was branded of “strategic importance” by the government. This move was later ruled legal by the country’s Constitutional Court.

A successful Voice

Journalists have reacted differently to these developments. Some subscribed to the government’s propaganda, switched sides, or compromised to protect their livelihoods. The braver ones tolerated unemployment until they found another – often smaller – news site to work for. Or they left the media profession for good.

Should the Index staff try to set up an Index 2.0 – surely under a different name – it would not be the first time that Hungarian journalists have decided to take matters into their own hands, declare political independence and try to live on the financial support of readers.

Index’s founder, Peter Uj, quit in 2011, citing political interference, and founded 444.hu in 2013, managing to build it up into the seventh most read news site, despite the government derogatively referring to it as “a blog”.

Likewise, after the closure of the almost 80-year-old daily Magyar Nemzet, a handful of its conservative journalists founded the weekly Magyar Hang (Hungarian Voice). “When Magyar Nemzet was shut down in 2018, we knew perfectly well that nobody would save us. It was up to us whether this was going to be the end or we could somehow carry on,” Zsombor Gyorgy, editor-in chief of Magyar Hang, tells BIRN.

Gyorgy says the team quickly put together a farewell edition of Magyar Nemzet, which was sold in record numbers (40,000) on the streets, with even leftist-liberals buying copies as a memento of the country’s oldest newspaper. “We knew time was crucial, so only three weeks after the shutdown, we launched Magyar Hang, a weekly. In the first three months, none of us earned a penny. We wrote and sold the newspapers ourselves. We literally begged for money,” he says.

Today, Magyar Hang has an editorial staff of 30, a circulation above 10,000 and monthly revenue of 15 million HUF [about 44,000 euros], almost entirely financed by readers, including 4,000 regular subscribers. Full-time journalists earn less than 700 euros, which is less than what a qualified cashier makes at supermarket chain ALDI.

Despite having a highly qualified and well-to-do readership, advertisements in Magyar Hang are rare, as most companies – including big foreign investors – refrain from any cooperation with the government-critical media in Hungary. “In the government’s eyes, we are traitors, they hate us,” says Gyorgy. “But you can live with that. What’s worse is that even at a local level, nobody is willing to talk to us. We used to do a lot of feature stories, but now everybody is afraid to talk.”

Show me the money

The relative success of Magyar Hang notwithstanding, Index is playing in a completely different league, warns Agnes Urban, a media expert at Mertek Media Monitoring and associate professor of Corvinus University. It is unprecedented for an entire editorial staff to resign voluntarily and start anew.

“You can sustain an editorial staff of 10, perhaps 20, from crowd-financing or regular subscriptions, but I can hardly imagine that it would work with 80 journalists,” Urban tells BIRN. “This is a moment of truth for Hungarian society – it will prove how important real information and critical media is for society, not just in words, but as far as money is concerned.”

The omens are not, perhaps, very good. The Hungarian public, following the global trend, has become increasingly reluctant to pay for content. Subscriptions to print newspapers have fallen drastically since 2000 and very few online news sites dare experiment with paywalls. One of them is the renowned business weekly HVG, which launched its paywall online service, hvg360, last September.

“It took us a year to prepare the project. In the first ten months, we reached 15,000 subscribers and we are still growing,” Tamás Szauer, HVG’s marketing director, tells BIRN, though admits that the core of its revenue still comes from the sale of the 45,000 copies of the print weekly.

“In the case of Index, a major crowdfunding or donation would be necessary to kickstart the project,” he reckons.

Magyar Hang’s Gyorgy says that the quality media in Hungary is basically financed by a very narrow layer of society, not more than a few hundred thousand people.

Media expert Urban agrees: “Let’s look at it this way: when we have an election, everybody has one vote. As citizens, it is our prime interest to help everyone get access to quality media and not just propaganda. You may call it the responsibility of the business and social elite of this country. So, all those who have the means have to contribute either as donors or subscribers, for the sake of the whole society.”

Some believe that the Index journalists should have carried on fighting a bit longer and their decision to quit was taken in the heat of the moment and without any formulation of a Plan B.

“Surely from my side it was not an emotional decision, rather a professional, cool-headed one,” Munk tells BIRN. “I have been working at Index for 18 years, started as an intern and ended up as deputy editor-in-chief. I wasn’t even surprised at the end… After the dismissal of our editor-in-chief and knowing the Hungarian media landscape, and what has happened here in the past few years, we did not have any other option than to quit. But don’t get me wrong: I am not an activist, and I don’t like when we are classified as an opposition newspaper. We are not. We are a critical news site, just as we were during the previous governments.”

Will that be enough to build a new audience and flourish in Hungary’s current hostile media environment? Only time will tell.

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