Three editors of Hungary's leading independent news website Index.hu and around 60 journalists resigned on Friday over the ousting of their editor-in-chief, which they said was an "open attempt to exert pressure" on Index.
The journalists, representing about two-thirds of the newsroom, said in a statement on Index they decided to quit after the chairman of the board rejected their request to restore Szabolcs Dull to his position.
His dismissal has increased concern among Hungarian journalists that Prime Minister Viktor Orban's nationalist government is intensifying what they say is an attack on press freedoms.
"We have been saying for years that we believe there are two conditions for the independent operation of Index: there should be no external meddling into the content published on Index, or its composition and structure," the Index journalists said.
"His dismissal is a clear interference into the composition of the editorial, and we cannot regard this anything else but an open attempt to exert pressure."
Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told a news conference on Thursday in Portugal that his government was facing “untrue accusations” with respect to freedom of the media.
“How would the state intervene in the decisions of a media which is privately owned?," he said when asked about Dull's dismissal.
Index, which about a month ago had set its so-called "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.
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 tensions that arose from perceived attempts to influence the newsroom. Bodolai said that led to disarray and a drop in revenue as advertisers stayed away.
He said the political independence of Index was not at risk.
Dull said he believed he was sacked because of columns he wrote on index.hu about attempts at outside influence and also because of the warning he issued on Index's independence gauge, a graphic it has published since 2018. (Reporting by Krisztina Than and Marton Dunai;