On Friday, more than 70 journalists at the independent Hungarian news outlet ‘Index’ resigned in the wake of the dismissal of their editor-in-chief, Szabolcs Dull. In an open-letter, posted on the ‘Index’ website, the departing journalists cited the threat to their “independent operation” as the motivation for their mass resignation.
The dismissal of their former editor-in-chief, Mr Dull, represents “clear interference” in the composition of their staff and as such, impinges upon their ability to report independently. The Hungarian government’s latest attempt to muzzle independent media represents the continuation of a policy of censorship, which started a decade ago with the election of their far-right president, Viktor Orbán. Since Orbán’s election in 2010, independent news outlets have been systematically bought-out or closed down in an attempt to wipe out journalistic independence. With the demise of ‘Index’, the country’s largest remaining independent news outlet, the Hungarian government now has unfettered control of the country’s media landscape.
The letter, published both in English and in Hungarian, states that the required conditions for the independent running of the news outlet had been “violated.” On Thursday, employees’ pleas for the reinstatement of Mr Dull as editor-in-chief were “categorically refused.” As a result, they state that the decision taken by László Bodolai, head of the board at ‘Index’, to fire the editor-in-chief, coupled with his unwillingness to reverse that initial decision, left them with no option but to resign en-masse. Veronika Munk, now former deputy editor-in-chief at ‘Index’, stated that due to the sacking of Mr Dull, she could no longer do the job “freely”; nor could she continue to truly uphold “professional journalistic principles.” She added that many of those who resigned alongside her, “think the same way.”
This latest move, taken by the Hungarian government, to censor independent media, is just one symptom of the country’s ill democracy. Back in December, Reporters Without Borders ranked Hungary as the second worst country in the EU for media freedom. The demise of ‘Index’, the last bastion of opposition to a completely censored, state-orchestrated press, equally represents the erosion of democratic principles within the country.
The muzzling of ‘Index’, is part of a wider government operation to corrupt or otherwise censor independent media outlets. In many cases, this has involved media outlets being bought out by pro-government figures; in other cases, outlets have simply been closed down altogether. This level of state censorship is an unmistakable symptom of Viktor Orbán’s tight authoritative grasp on information and on political life – in general – in the country. Orbán, through his erosion of media freedoms, has often found himself at odds with EU leaders. This latest move to censor the last major independent news outlet in the country is likely to spark more tensions between Hungary and the EU, who already perceived Orbán as a dangerous, anti-democratic threat to European cohesion.
The political interference at ‘Index’, the last independent news outlet in Hungary, poses a larger threat to Hungarian democratic life in its entirety. The move essentially quells freedom of expression and of information in the country and therefore contravenes the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights – a legally binding charter designed to uphold such rights. Consequently, a European level response is not only warranted but also required in order to confront the anti-democratic surge which has engulfed one of its member states. Inaction on behalf of the EU merely allows Orbán to tighten his authoritarian grip.
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