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The many battles facing Hungary's investigative journalists

Reporters struggle to win over audiences in the face of what they say is a smear campaign.

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The many battles facing Hungary's investigative journalists

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The American media is enjoying a resurgence under Donald Trump. The president’s open warfare against television channels and newspapers has spurred a revival in interest in reporting, particularly the investigative kind, and also in support from paying consumers and donors.

In Hungary, journalists have also found that an illiberal government offers opportunities for uncompromising reporting but have struggled to win over a mainstream audience.

According to the 2016 Transparency International report, Hungary is one of the five most corrupt EU countries.

“So, paradoxically, it’s a good time to be investigative reporter”, Tamás Bodoky, editor-in-chief of the investigative portal, Átlátszó, smiles. “High-level corruption is so widespread that one doesn’t need to wait long to find a story”.

An agricultural engineer by education, Bodoky has worked with pan European consortia on deep and complex investigations. One of his stories even prompted European Anti-Fraud Investigation Office to open an official investigation into its subject.

Similar work is conducted by Direkt36 , which has run a series of exposes looking at senior government figures.

“We have only seven reporters, who basically only conduct long-term political investigations. We publish when we get the right material”, said András Pethő [pictured], a founding editor of Direkt36.

Inspired by the “Spotlight” movie and his own experiences in America— a story he worked on illegal arms trafficking in the US ended up on the cover of The Washington Post, he’s been struggling to adapt American standards into Hungarian journalism.

US and European journalism

“What differs between American and European journalism are two things. In the US, they constantly question themselves to separate gossip from the fact. And they also have, likely in the blood, a natural ease in their storytelling”, he observed.

Both journalists have in common the award of the SOMA Göbölyös statuette , the most prestigious Hungarian prize for investigative reporting. They also claim that they were pushed, or felt compelled to leave jobs with the mainstream media after the rise to power of the country’s prime minister Viktor Orbán.

In mid-2014, Pethő, lost his job at Origo , the country’s leading news portal, after an investigation into a senior figure in the government. Despite a successful court case to obtain information about the story, he says he was forced out because of political pressure, a charge the publisher denies.

It took him only six months to establish Direkt36. “It was a tough time as I was expecting my first child and couldn’t afford unemployment, but it was worth it”.

Bodoky’s story is similar. He complained to his employer, the popular Index portal about the editing of an article exploring links between businesses and the government. Told to accept the decision or leave, he chose the latter

A government media empire?

According to a recent report by the Mérték Media Monitor, a Budapest-based media think tank, in the last seven years Orbán has effectively created a media oligarchy by consolidating different outlets under the control of allies.

“It’s not as bad as in Russia or Azerbaijan because journalists are not jailed yet,” Bodoky said. “The government uses economic tools. Friendly oligarchs take over independent outlets turning them into government mouthpieces or simply shutting them out”.

György Schöpflin, a Member of the European Parliament from Orbán’s Fidesz party, admits that oligarchs help to “sustain media as tool of communication”. He also adds that “one should be paying more attention to the opposition media empire, which is even more important”.

He claims that, with the political left wing opposition crippled by the resignation of the socialist party leader , the media are effectively the pre-eminent force on the left.

But he denies a government campaign against the media. “It’s simply not true. If it was really in place, [critical outlets] would have been closed a long time ago. Hungary is not Turkey.”

There are indeed still publishers with editorial positions that challenge with the government stance, including the largest private television channel the RTL Klub and several weeklies. However, journalists are afraid that they’ll become the next government’s target of a clampdown, after NGOs and the Central European University.

“The smear campaign has started. Public media calls us as foreign agents all the time”, Bodoky said, suggesting that the goal of stigmatizing journalists as enemies of the nation might be to hit the financial liquidity of their projects. Átlátszó and Direkt36 are crowdfunding initiatives, supported by foreign grants (including Soros’ Open Society Institute).

Whatever the reasons, large traditional media still dominate the landscape, particularly in rural areas while audiences for investigative stories are limited

“What [investigative media] do is pretty amazing and gives hope that true journalism is not dead yet in this country,” Ágnes Urbán, an analyst at the Mérték Media Monitor commented.

“But their long-term existence is unsure. After five years, Átlátszó has some 4,000 ongoing supporters. Is it much or little for a country with nearly 10 million inhabitants?”

Brushing teeth

“What we do is obvious like brushing teeth. You can go without it for some time, but in the long run it starts to smell badly,” observes Pethő.

“But the truth is that [journalists] should have done much more for the last 20-25 years. I don’t want to generalize, but journalists haven’t earned public trust, they stayed too close to politics”, he adds.

Bodoky tells a story about a journalism student he taught who launched an investigation in his hometown into local corruption. When he published the story on his blog, his parents were summoned by the authorities and told to leave town.

“The boy asked me for advice,” Bodoky recalls. “I told him that best thing he could do is just let it go. That’s how things look in Hungary.”

By Dariusz Kalan