Concerns over the independence of the media in Hungary have been reignited after dozens of journalists from one of the country’s last independent news sites quit en masse, alleging the government was trying to interfere with, or destroy, their organisation.
In total 70 journalists resigned from Index after Szabolcs Dull, its editor, was sacked. Officially, he was removed for failing to deal with issues in the newsroom. But the editor’s supporters said the sacking was “clear interference” and an attempt to pressure the news site to toe a pro-government line.
Fears over the future of Index were ignited in March when Miklos Vaszily, businessman that backs prime minister Viktor Orbán, bought a 50 per-cent stake in the firm that controls Index’s advertising and revenue. Although Mr Vaszily denies wanting to exert any editorial influence, his critics claim that he helped transform Origo, another Hungarian website, into a pro-government organisation.
Once news of the mass resignation from Index broke, protesters took to the streets in Budapest on Friday evening.
Addressing the demonstrators Andras Fekete-Gyor, leader of Momentum, an opposition party, said the “journalists of Index had demonstrated the value of having a moral backbone in this country.”
But the protests may have little effect. Mr Orban and his party have a strong position in the Hungarian parliament, and in the past have proved impervious to the frequent accusations that they are undermining Hungarian democracy. The Hungarian government has also always denied that it poses a threat to the country’s free media.
Marianna Bíró, a journalist at Index told The Sunday Telegraph: "Today, the political power in Hungary denies the function of journalists. The media only has one weapon left in this massacre: decency.”
Balázs Pándi, another employee who walked out, said: This isn't the first time a cold shower has been deployed. The question is how long this will be tolerated.”
Index has become regarded as a bastion of independent journalism in a Hungarian media landscape increasingly dominated by print and broadcast media with close ties to Fidesz, the governing party led by Viktor Orban, the prime minister.
The hollowing out of independent media inside Hungary comes amid a push to spread Mr Orban's message abroad, uncovered today by The Sunday Telegraph.
An investigation found a slew of English-language websites promoting the message and illiberal philosophy of Mr Orban, raising fears that Hungary is following in the “disinformation” footsteps of authoritarian governments.
Alleged propaganda websites, with connections to the Hungarian government, masquerade as legitimate news sources, purporting to bring Hungarian and regional news to an international audience.
Remix News, one of the websites in question, is, for example, often linked to from the About Hungary Facebook page, which is run by the Hungarian state.
Based in Budapest it is, according to its own information, an organisation that offers “news and commentary from Central Europe”. But to its critics it is one of a number of websites with opaque backgrounds allegedly spreading propaganda supporting the government of Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, beyond Hungary’s borders while posing as legitimate news sources.
Their presence has prompted allegations that Hungary is following in the footsteps of autocratic regimes such as Russia, Iran and China by using bogus news websites to disseminate pro-government stories.
“Hungary has become a regional disinformation power, and certainly Hungary is expanding its own misinformation machinery,” said Szabolcs Panyi, a journalist working for Direkt36, a non-profit investigative journalism centre in Budapest. “I’m not aware of a similar country doing this apart from the likes of Russia and China.”
A quick click away from Remix is V4NA. A UK-registered company founded in 2018 by Hungary’s then ambassador to London it turns out stories each day, many of which share a similar theme to those found on Remix. Articles attacking migration, the EU and George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier whom the Orban government regards as an enemy of state, proliferate.
The stories reflect issues that lie close to the heart of the Hungarian government. Since coming into power in 2010 Mr Orban’s Fidesz party has become a resolute opponent of migration, a fierce critic of Brussels and Mr Soros, and a proponent of what the prime minister has termed “illiberal democracy”.
This has led to frequent clashes with Brussels and prompted widespread allegations that the Hungarian government is intent on eroding democratic norms and civil society in order to shape the country to its ideological designs—something it strenuously denies.
“Orban plays to an international field, and he needs international allies in his fight against the EU,” said Agnes Urban, a media analyst at the Hungarian media watchdog Mertek Media Monitor. “This pro-government narrative about Hungary helps communicate his anti-democratic views."
Barna Borbas, a Hungarian journalist who has written extensively about V4NA for the conservative newspaper Valasz Online, believes V4NA’s “goal is to make the messages and strategic goals of the Hungarian government more visible in Europe”.
This is perhaps not surprising given that Arpad Harbony, one of Mr Orban’s key advisors and man sometimes called the “Hungarian Dominic Cummings”, has a share in V4NA, while V4NA’s parent company is part of the Central European Press and Media Foundation, a media-holding containing a number of pro-government newspapers and radio stations in Hungary. V4NA failed to respond to an interview request from The Telegraph.
Remix is owned by FWD Affairs, a “strategic communications and media agency” in Budapest, founded in 2010 by Patrick Egan, an American political consultant. Although appearing to keep a low profile in Hungary he has spoken at a number of events linked to Fidesz, which are, according to one expert on Hungarian affairs who preferred not to be named, the “darkest chambers of governmental propaganda”.
In the past FWD Affairs has also carried out work for the prime minister’s office, winning, for example, a contract in 2015 “to support international communications activities”.
Along with publishing Remix it also handles the English-language editing of a Hungarian-state backed website called Transylvania Now. Although designed primarily to promote Romania’s Transylvania region, which was once part of Hungary and still home to a large Hungarian population, the website has political content, often critical of the Romanian authorities while supporting the Hungarian government.
Like V4NA, FWD is also a company that appears to shun publicity. Its website consists of one page, and offers no contact information other than a box in which to write a message. It also made no response to attempts by The Telegraph to contact it.