BUDAPEST (Reuters) – A senior European Commission official has expressed concern for the independence of Index.hu, one of Hungary’s last major independent news websites and a leading critic of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government.
“What you are doing, the values you are fighting for, media freedom and pluralism, are essential for democracy,” Vera Jourova, the commission’s Vice President for Values and Transparency, said in a message to Index published on its web site. “You can count on my support.”
Editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull said last month that Index was at risk of losing its independence because of “external influence”.
He said Index wanted to remain free of government influence and undue pressure from businessmen and advisers with government ties.
Orban has extended his influence over many walks of life in Hungary during his decade-long rule.
Pro-government businessman Miklos Vaszily bought a major stake in a company with control of Index’s revenue stream in March, raising fears of interference with the web site to favour Orban.
Vaszily, who has not returned Reuters requests for comment, has denied he wants to muzzle Index, saying economic problems need to be fixed. But staff are on alert as Vaszily had previously turned their competitor, Origo.hu, into a government mouthpiece.
Jourova said Index’s business situation should not be used as a pretext to undermine its freedom.
“While readership and audiences have been record high, revenues have been heavily hit. Economic pressure should not turn into political pressure…I would like to express my solidarity with the staff of Index.”
Media freedom was a key issue when the EU warned Hungary in April to respect the bloc’s values as it fought against the coronavirus pandemic.
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Angus MacSwan)