October 1, 2018 / 12:49 PM / 2 months ago

Hungary's top news portal closes briefly to highlight media freedom concerns

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - The largest source of independent news in Hungary briefly took down the front page of its online portal on Monday to sound the alarm over what it sees as its declining editorial freedom and to secure funding from readers to help protect its independence.

FILE PHOTO: Employees of Hungary's main independent website Index talk in the newsroom in Budapest, Hungary, September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo/File Photo

Journalists working at Index.hu fear the two investors who took control of the news portal last month may be linked to Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling right-wing Fidesz Party and may try to curb their editorial freedom.

“On Monday morning we did something unprecedented: we switched Index off for a time so that those who consider it important get a glimpse of what it would be like without us,” editor-in-chief Attila Toth-Szenesi wrote in an article.

He said the acquisition was “a matter of vital importance” because the new owners control the Index, a separate company, CEMP, which sells its advertising space, and another company which provides the editorial systems.

Toth-Szenesi fears the acquisition was somehow funded by associates of Orban through a system known in Hungary as the National System of Cooperation (NER). Under the auspices of the NER, set up in 2010 to counter liberal values and champion nationalist policies, some of Orban’s associates have won an increasing share of publicly funded business.,

“In Hungary today those who are able to lend billions to the buyers must belong to Orban’s National System of Cooperation,” Toth-Szenesi wrote, announcing a crowd funding campaign that he said would help reduce the outlet’s financial reliance on CEMP.

By 1200 GMT on Monday, the campaign had raised about 10 million forints ($36,000) from around 1,350 supporters.

MEDIA FREEDOM

Neither of the two new owners - Gabor Ziegler and Jozsef Oltyan - were available for comment on Monday. Ziegler has previously denied being a front-man for anybody else in the decision to acquire Index.

Oltyan is a member of a party in coalition with Fidesz, while Ziegler has been a staff member on Index’s business side for nearly two decades.

Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs declined to comment on the matter on Monday.

Dozens of newspapers, radio and television stations critical of Orban - who won re-election in April on a landslide - have changed hands in the past four years. Some subsequently closed down, while others quickly and dramatically changed their tune.

The government denies undermining press freedom or trying to influence the media or its owners through the advertising market.

In Hungary advertisers have tended to advertise increasingly in pro-government news outlets, Reuters research has found, allowing them to prosper while media that take a more critical stance towards the Orban government have suffered.

Orban has been scathing in the past about the Index website, which carries investigations into alleged government corruption and editorials criticizing his anti-immigration, anti-European Union rhetoric alongside straightforward news.

Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Gareth Jones

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