By Marton Dunai and Krisztina Than
BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Thousands of Hungarians marched towards Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s office on Friday in protest at perceived government attacks on media freedoms, as anger built at the sacking of the chief editor of the country’s leading independent news website.
Earlier in the day, three editors at Index.hu and more than 80 journalists – almost its entire staff – resigned over what they called an “open attempt to exert pressure” on the site after its owner refused to reinstate Szabolcs Dull.
Dull’s dismissal has increased concern that Orban’s nationalist government, in power for over a decade, is intensifying efforts to muzzle critical voices.
“We are not necessarily here because we liked Index but we are now at a point where accessing information is jeopardised,” said protester Istvan, 30, among the large crowd that set out from Index’s headquarters to Orban’s office in Buda Castle.
Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said his government was facing “untrue accusations” with respect to threats to media freedoms.
“How would the state intervene in the decisions of a media which is privately owned?,” he told a news conference on Thursday during a visit to Portugal.
“A STATE MARKET”
Index, which about a month ago set its self-styled “independence barometer” to “in danger” to signal what it saw as outside attempts to influence its content, is by far the largest media organisation that is critical of the government.
“Index was the last outlet that bothered the government to this extent,” Peter Uj, who co-founded Index in 1999, told Reuters. He quit in 2011 because of increasing pressure from Orban’s Fidesz party.
“Less conspicuously, the system gobbled up not only titles but also … ad agencies… The government controls three-quarters of the advertising market one way or another,” he said. “This is a state market.”
On Wednesday Laszlo Bodolai, chief of the foundation that owns the website’s publisher, Index.hu Zrt., said Dull had been unable to control internal newsroom tensions, leading to disarray and a drop in revenue as advertisers stayed away.
He said the political independence of Index was not at risk. He did not return Reuters’ calls requesting comment on Friday.
Dull said he believed he was sacked because of columns he wrote about attempts to extert outside influence and the independence barometer warning.
(Editing by Alison Williams and John Stonestreet)