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Pro-Orban Owner of Hungarian News Portal Sacks Chief Editor

The establishment of one-man rule in the heart of Europe has enraged civil libertarians and Hungary’s opposition, who say Prime Minister Orban aims to establish an elective dictatorship.

The owner of Hungary's leading independent news website said on Wednesday it had fired editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull, a month after he warned that the media outlet's independence from the government was at risk.

Index has set its independence barometer to "in danger" to signal what it calls external attempts to sway its content, by far the largest media organization critical of the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Orban, a self-described illiberal, has led his nationalist government in numerous clashes with the European Union, which has initiated a punitive procedure over the erosion of the rule of law, including media freedom, in Budapest.

At a weekend EU summit, Orban obtained watered-down, rule-of-law conditions for receiving recovery aid in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, something analysts said would embolden him to harden his grip on power.

Longstanding concerns about Index's independence deepened after pro-government businessman Miklos Vaszily acquired significant control over the web site's funding earlier this year.

Vaszily has not returned repeated requests for comment.

In a statement, Laszlo Bodolai, chief of the foundation that owns the web site's publisher, Zrt., said that Dull had proven unable to control internal tensions after Vaszily's arrival and perceived attempts to influence the newsroom.

Bodolai said that disarray had led to a drop in revenue as advertisers stayed away, Bodolai said.

"The main thing is for everyone to show self-restraint," he said in a letter to the staff. "The political independence of Index is not at risk."

Dull said he was sacked because of notices he wrote on Index about growing attempts at external influence, and also because of the warning he issued on Index's independence gauge, a graphic it has published since 2018.

"I still think the staff's worries were reasonable and as editor in chief I did what my duty conscience dictated under the circumstances," he said.

Bodolai did not name a new editor but said he would appoint veteran journalist Pal Szombathy to be CEO of Zrt. after two previous chief executives resigned in quick succession in the past month.