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.
Aliku Ogorchukwu: Wife of Nigerian killed in Italy demands justice
The wife of a Nigerian street trader who was killed in Italy has told the BBC she is seeking justice following his “painful death”.
Aliku Ogorchukwu, 39, was reportedly selling handkerchiefs in the seaside town of Civitanova Marche on Friday when he was chased and beaten to death.
A 32-year-old Italian has been arrested on suspicion of murder and robbery.
A video circulating online shows a man on top of Ogorchukwu, punching him with his bare hands.
None of those who witnessed the broad daylight attack appeared to intervene.
“This is a form of wickedness I don’t know,” Ogorchukwu’s wife, Charity Oriachi, told the BBC’s Focus on Africa.
Ms Oriachi said she had received help in coming to terms with her husband’s death but was tired of “talk”. Now, she was only interested in justice, she insisted.
Her family had lived in Italy for a long time, she said, stressing that her husband had never sought any trouble.
The killing has sparked outrage in the local community, including Nigerians, who took to the streets over the weekend and are planning another demonstration soon.
The Nigerian government has asked Italian authorities to quickly “bring the perpetrator of the heinous act” to justice.
Suspect not released
The suspect – a white man named as Filippo Claudio Giuseppe Ferlazzo – has been ordered to remain in jail as the investigation continues.
His defence lawyer told the media the suspect had said he was sorry and that there was “no racial element” involved.
A police investigator said Ogorchukwu was attacked after the trader’s “insistent” requests to the suspect and his partner for spare change.
The partner, identified as Elena D, told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Ogorchukwu had touched her arm, but that did not bother her.
Ms Oriachi now wants to see the suspect “face to face”, to understand why he killed her husband, the family’s lawyer told the Associated Press.
Ukrainian widow confronts Russian soldier accused of killing her husband
In the very first days of this invasion a 62-year-old unarmed civilian was shot dead on a village street outside his Ukrainian home. His name was Oleksandr Shelipov.
Three months later and the captured Russian soldier accused of killing him is in Kyiv being tried for a war crime.
Standing up in court to confront the 21-year-old defendant on Thursday was Kateryna Shelipova, the widow of the man killed.
Did he repent his crime, she asked?
The Russian tank commander, Vadim Shishimarin, replied that he admitted his guilt and asked for her forgiveness. “But I understand you won’t be able to forgive me,” he added.
Kateryna Shelipova hadn’t finished. “Tell me please, why did you [Russians] come here? To protect us?” she asked, citing Vladimir Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine.
“Protect us from whom? Did you protect me from my husband, whom you killed?”
The soldier had no answer to that.
This landmark trial marks the first time a Russian serviceman has been put on the stand for war crimes since the invasion of Ukraine was launched in February.
And perhaps such raw encounters are what such trials are about, at least in part. Forcing a soldier – who ignored all the rules of war – to face up to exactly what he has done and the suffering he has caused.
Sgt Shishimarin has pleaded guilty and Ukrainian prosecutors are asking for him to be sentenced to life imprisonment.
On Wednesday, Ms Shelipova told me she actually felt sorry for the soldier, but she could not forgive him for this crime.
She heard the shots that killed her husband, then saw Sgt Shishimarin through her gate – holding his weapon.
Five minutes later she says she saw her husband’s body: “He was dead with a shot in his head. I started screaming very loudly.”
“The loss of my husband is everything for me,” Ms Shelipova said, adding: “He was my protector.”
‘It killed him’
Recalling the events of 28 February, Vadim Shishimarin said he and a small group of other Russian soldiers had become separated from their unit and hijacked a car in order to return to it.
“As we were driving, we saw a man. He was talking on the phone,” the defendant said.
He claimed that he hadn’t wanted to fire the fatal shots, that he was following orders – threatened by another soldier if he refused to do as he was told.
“He said I would be putting us in danger if I didn’t. I shot him at short range. It killed him,” the 21-year-old tank commander told the court.
Interestingly, his defence lawyer – appointed by the state – told me that no Russian official has been in touch with him, including from its defence ministry.
There is no Russian embassy in Kyiv these days, so no contact from there either.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman yesterday told the BBC that the Kremlin has “no information” about this case.
All in all, it feels rather like the young soldier has been abandoned to his fate by the commanders who sent him to war and continue to deny that their forces commit crimes here.
We also heard from a second Russian soldier who witnessed the killing in February and later surrendered to Ukrainian forces.
Ivan Maltysev, another slight and young-looking 21-year-old, told the court how the Russian soldiers spotted Oleksandr Shelipov while they were driving the stolen car.
Mr Maltysev claimed that Vadim Shishimarin was then ordered to shoot the victim because he was on the phone.
“Vadim didn’t do it. So the soldier, whose name I don’t know, turned round in the car and shouted that Vadim had to carry out the order, or we would be informed on.
“At this point, we were almost alongside the civilian and, under pressure, Vadim fired. He fired three or four rounds.”
Ukraine has so far identified more than 11,000 possible war crimes committed by Russia.
Moscow has denied its troops have targeted civilians, but investigators have been collecting evidence of possible war crimes to bring before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
This trial is Ukraine’s chance to prove, beyond doubt, that a Russian soldier killed a civilian with no regard for the rules of war.
Its prosecutors know they are in the spotlight, proceeding so quickly, and in the middle of a war.
That is why they are keen to be as transparent and thorough as possible – so that this is not seen as a show trial, but part of a vital quest for justice.
Stop matching lone female Ukraine refugees with single men, UK told
The UN refugee agency has called on the UK government to intervene to stop single British men from being matched up with lone Ukrainian women seeking refuge from war because of fears of sexual exploitation.
Following claims that predatory men are using the Homes for Ukraine scheme to target the vulnerable, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) told the Guardian “a more appropriate matching process” could be put in place to ensure women and women with children are matched with families or couples.
The suggestion from the global refugee agency follows reports that Ukrainian refugees, predominantly women and sometimes accompanied by children, are at risk in the UK of sexual exploitation.
Under the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme, British hosts must link up with Ukrainian refugees themselves, leaving tens of thousands of people to resort to unregulated social media groups to connect.
A government-backed matching service run by the charity Reset offers to match UK hosts with refugees but has been operating for just over a week. Those who want to move to the UK must have a sponsor before applying for a visa.
In a statement, the UNHCR said there was a need for adequate safeguards and vetting measures to be in place against exploitation, as well as adequate support for sponsors. “[The] UNHCR believes that a more appropriate matching process could be put in place by ensuring that women and women with children are matched with families or couples, rather than with single men.
“Matching done without the appropriate oversight may lead to increasing the risks women may face, in addition to the trauma of displacement, family separation and violence already experienced,” a spokesperson said.
Leading refugee charities raised their concerns about the Homes for Ukraine scheme in a letter to Michael Gove, the minister in charge of the scheme. Louise Calvey, the head of safeguarding at the charity Refugee Action, told the Observer it was at risk of being a “Tinder for sex traffickers”.
One 32-year-old woman from Bakhmut, Ukraine, who has been searching for an appropriate person to match in the UK, wrote that she had received suggestive messages from men on Facebook’s Messenger app. “I was approached by one older guy from London who said that I would have to share a bedroom with him, and was asked if I was OK with that,” she said in an email seen by the Guardian.
The Sunday Times reported this week that a journalist posing as a 22-year-old Ukrainian woman from Kyiv found that within minutes of posting a message on the largest Facebook group for UK hosts she was inundated with inappropriate messages.
Some men lied about having several bedrooms in their one-bed homes while another proposed sharing a bed, writing: “I have a large bed. We could sleep together.” Another sent a voice note that said: “I am ready to help you and maybe you can help me also.”
In its statement, the UNHCR also raised concerns about the repercussions should the original UK host prove a potential threat to the safety of the refugee, and the six-month minimum duration on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
“UNHCR believes that appropriate training and information are needed to ensure that hosts make an informed decision when applying to become sponsors. Housing a stranger in an extra bedroom for an extended period is not, for some people, sustainable,” the spokesperson said.
There is growing public anger over the length of time that Ukrainians are being forced to wait before being given visas from the Home Office amid the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, apologised on Friday for the time it had taken for Ukrainian refugees to arrive in the UK under two visa schemes, after figures showed only 12,000 had so far reached Britain.
Reports on Tuesday claimed Gove had been accused of bullying Home Office officials by Patel’s permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft.
Asked to respond to the UNHCR’s request for an intervention on sexual exploitation of Ukrainian women, a government spokesperson said: “Attempts to exploit vulnerable people are truly despicable – this is why we have designed our Homes for Ukraine scheme to have specific safeguards in place, including robust security and background checks on all sponsors, both by the Home Office and local authorities.
“Councils must make at least one in-person visit to a sponsors property and following guests arrival, they have a duty to ensure the guest is safe and well.
“We have also partnered with the charity Reset Communities and Refugees to fund and provide a matching service for sponsors and refugees to ensure that matches made are suitable, safe and successful. This service will vet eligibility, assess needs, and provide training for sponsors to ensure they
ensure they can support the people they host.”
Asked to confirm or deny whether there had been a complaint that Gove had bullied staff, the spokesperson added: “Humanitarian schemes set up in record time by the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities working closely together are helping thousands of Ukrainians find safety in the UK.”
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