Working as a reporter and deputy editor for the Hungarian publication Index was a pinnacle in Szabolcs Panyi's career as a journalist.
From 2013 to 2018, Panyi covered Hungarian politics, uncovered corruption scandals and won numerous awards for his work. People would recognize him on the streets or at protests, shaking his hand. He even saw a government official on TV reading a printout of one of his stories.
"That was the influence Index had," he told VOA. "Both personally and professionally, it was one of the best parts of my life."
During his time at the news website, Panyi said he never received external pressure that influenced his reporting. But rumors lingered about a "set date" for when the publication would be bought out by a pro-government businessman.
"We knew that it was just too popular and powerful to be simply shut down in a very obvious manner," said Panyi, who now reports for Direkt36, a nonprofit investigative journalism center in Hungary. "So, the government tried to find more covert ways to try to influence Index."
Fears of outside interference grew last month when editor-in-chief declared that its independence was "in danger" and under threat from "outside interference."
On July 22, Dull was fired and two days later more than 70 Index staffers and the editorial board resigned in protest — more than half of the publication's staff. Now, journalists and media freedom advocates worry about the state of press freedom in the country.
"Index was one of the flagship outlets for independent reporting in Hungary," Tamas Bodoky, executive director of the Hungarian watchdog and investigative news group Atlatszo, told VOA. "This is a huge blow for the remaining press freedom in Hungary."
Independent journalism has been in steady decline in Hungary since Viktor Orbán was elected prime minister in 2010. Media ownership is concentrated among allies of the ruling party, including via the KESMA conglomerate formed in 2018 that accounts for 40% of all news outlets. In December, only nominees from the ruling party were elected to the state Media Council, journalists say they have difficulty accessing information, and analysis of distribution of state advertising shows bias to pro-government outlets.
In 2013, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked the country 56 out of 180 countries in its annual press freedom index, where 1 is the most free. It has since fallen to 88.
Against that backdrop, Index was one of the few large outlets offering independent news.
The Hungarian government's International Communications Office told VOA, "The government does not engage in matters related to the media market."
In an editorial published last month, Dull warned that the editorial staff was in danger and raised concerns over an "organizational overhaul."
Plans by directors to restructure the staff were framed as a way to cut costs, according to a Facebook group formed by some of the former staff. The journalists, however, said the plans risked compromising editorial standards.
Top editors repeatedly lobbied for assurance of the site's independence but were given no answers from management.
"This is such a strong infringement on the editorial independence of Index.hu that we simply could not accept," the staffers wrote on the Facebook page.
Following changes to parts of its ownership in 2018, Index started publishing a barometer to alert readers to any potential interference.
Further changes came in March, when businessman Marco Vaszily acquired a 50% stake in the company that sells Index's advertising.
Vaszily is chair of pro-government television outlet, TV2 and was involved in the 2014 takeover of Origo, at the time Hungary's largest online news site. More than 30 Origo journalists later resigned over what they said was a pro-government shift in editorial content.
Laszlo Bodolai, head of the foundation that owns Index, denied the site's independence was at risk, Reuters reported. He said Dull's inability to control internal newsroom tensions led to a drop in revenue as advertisers stayed away.
Index did not respond to VOA's request for comment.
Bodoky, from the Hungarian watchdog group, said he wished the employees had stayed with the news outlet. Right now, he said, "the stakes are too high" for journalists to leave independent publications.
"I think they left the ship too early," he said.
The full circumstances of the resignations are unclear: the employees have non-disclosure agreements, which can only be waived by the publication's owner, they wrote on Facebook.
One journalist told VOA the agreements were signed recently and were not common in Hungary.
Loss for independent news
Index is the largest independent news outlet in Hungary, accounting for the reach of about half of all of the country's independent publications. The publication receives more than 1 million viewers every day.
Panyi compared the loss of the outlet to Americans losing both the Washington Post and the New York Times.
"This is a country of 10 million, which just lost its largest source of independent news," Panyi said. "It's a huge blow to media freedom in Hungary."
Independent outlets remain, but they have significantly smaller audiences than Index, Bodoky said. Pro-government news sources are overwhelming the media landscape, he added.
"If you are an average person in Hungary and you don't actively look for critical or independent reporting, then you get the government propaganda," he said. "You get it on the state-owned television channel, you get it on the commercial radio channels, in the daily papers and so on."
In addition to the lack of independent news outlets, Panyi said another element to the Hungarian media landscape is advertising. When state-owned companies take control over advertising for publications, it can give the state the power to determine which publications get advertising. This forces publications to make a difficult decision.
"Editor in chiefs and CEOs have to make the decision whether to accept money from the government, which will eventually save them because there's a huge hole in their budget," Panyi said. "But in return, they are cutting deals like they're not going to report on certain issues regarding the prime minister's family."
The changes at Index are part of a "moment of alarming symbolism," according to the Media Freedom Rapid Response consortium of rights groups.
In a letter to the presidents of the European Council and Commission, the group said that independent media in Hungary are under enormous pressure and cited a 2020 Media Pluralism Monitor report that found funds from the European Union, distributed through the prime minister's office, are used to finance pro-government media. The Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom is a research center funded in part by the EU.
The fight to restore press freedom will likely be "a long fight," Panyi said. But, he added, hope remains. He said Hungarians are still in search of unbiased news and independent journalism.
As for the staffers who resigned, they have no immediate plans other than a commitment to independent journalism.
"We sincerely hope that we will manage to stay together, work together, and keep doing what we have been doing for the past 20 years," the staffers wrote.