After months of pressure from an increasingly authoritarian prime minister and a takeover by a government insider, the staff of Hungary’s last surviving independent newspaper, Index.hu, resigned en masse to re-launch their own medium online.
Calling their news portal “Telex”, the 70 journalists, developers and back office employees – two thirds of the Index.hu staff – promised editorial independence and interaction with readers, describing their new endeavor as “for the readers and by the readers.”
The name refers the international message-transfer service originated in the 1930s: “A telex service enables direct and secure communication between us,” said Veronika Munk, co-founder and editor-in-chief, discussing the new online medium on the Hungarian talk show Partizán.
While dramatic, the move was hardly a surprise. Index.hu editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull had feared a government overhaul of the publication in late March, when Miklós Vaszily, a businessman close to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, acquired 50% of the shares of parent company IndaMedia group. “Index is in danger”, wrote Dull in June on their website. A month later he was dismissed, “for not being able to control internal processes that were harming [Index’s] market situation,” claimed board chairman László Bodolai.
The staff interpreted Dull’s dismissal as a loss of their editorial independence and unanimously called for his reinstatement – to no avail. Two days later almost the entire staff handed in their resignations, saying they rejected becoming messengers of the government or economic actors.
“It was certainly not unexpected that our work would be undermined,” former Index journalist Tamás Fábián told Metropole. “There was an ever-present looming threat for a couple of months, but we were hoping it wouldn’t come to that.”
#don’t stay silent
“At the time of the walkout, I had no idea what was next,” remembered Fábián. But the staff stayed together and started a Facebook page, “Departíng Index Journalists”, which quickly gained 200,000 active followers within a week. The journalists started communicating with their readers and sharing recent news. Many continued working at Index until August 31, as they were bound by a legal notice period. As of this writing, Index.hu is still operating, although with a new staff.
The Facebook page was renamed “Telex.hu” at the beginning of September, complete with a manifesto and a plea for donations:
“Free press in Hungary is in a bad shape,” the manifesto begins, with “the number of independent outlets keeping a check on power… in a sharp decline,” as media are increasingly controlled by those “well-connected to parties and politicians.”
Supporters “have the power to change that,” the group asserts. “We firmly believe that people need impartial, fair news coverage in order to make decisions freely.” They are determined to pick up where they left off, they say, “keeping a check on power” by questioning and reporting, and keeping a distance from all political parties in and out of government.
September was all about fundraising, setting up a new office and website. In order to prevent Telex from being subject to ownership pressures like those at Index, the journalists established their own publishing company, Lesz Másik Kft. (“There Will Be Another One GmbH”). The journalists want to be self-governing, and free of political influence.
On September 23 Telex announced its new staff, a list of 70 names, all former Index employees, with the hashtag nehallgassunk –“do not stay silent”.
Convert Supporters to Subscribers
As of this writing, more than 34,000 people have donated. Even one of the largest Czech media groups, Economia, has pledged €200,000. “We were surprised by the overwhelming support,” recounted Fábián, “not just by the financial donations, but also so many have reached out offering help and advice.”
At first, all content will be free. But in the long-run Telex intends to convert supporters to subscribers. “Unfortunately there hasn’t been enough time to work out the business-model in its entirety,” continued Fábián. For now, it remains unclear whether that means longer features behind paywall or that subscribers can scroll without ads. They are committed to reaching the largest possible audience.
“Telex is in a difficult position, being up against a giant government-financed propaganda machine that offers content for free,” said Miklós Haraszti, Hungarian politician, journalist, and former OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Having watched media pluralism systematically dismantled since Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010, Haraszti was not surprised by the “restructuring” of Index. “Sadly, by now it’s business as usual.”
But the staff did surprise him. “Their quick, collective, radical reaction came as a revelation,” Haraszti said admiringly. “This gesture can only be compared to the samizdat in its power defying nature.” The samizdat were newsletters, privately produced and distributed in the Eastern Block countries as a form of resistance to Soviet sensorship. They were often hand-written, as typewriters and mimeograph machines as well as printing presses were inventoried and closely controlled by the government and monitored by the secret police.
Meanwhile in Germany, former editor-in-chief Dull has received the M100 Media Award for his advocacy of press freedom. “We must stand up to protect journalists like Szabolcs Dull from undue interference with their work,” wrote Dunja Mijatovic, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, who presented the award in Potsdam. Dull is expected to join his former colleagues at Telex as soon as his non-compete clause expires.
Telex.hu, as Index.hu had before it, will include some English-language coverage of Hungarian news, Fábián promised.
“We want to show the world abroad what’s going on in Hungary.”