When Gergő Sáling was abruptly dismissed from his job as editor-in-chief of Hungarian news portal, Origo.hu, last June, at least half of Origo’s newsroom resigned in protest. Many claimed Saling had been sacked for refusing to stop an investigation into a government official’s travel expenses. Now, six months later, Sáling and his former colleagues are planning to launch a non-profit centre for investigative journalism, Direkt36.
Sáling, together with András Pethő, former deputy editor at Origo, and Balázs Weyer, Origo’s co-founder, is starting Direkt36 in response to growing political and economic pressure on the media in Hungary. “We chose this model because traditional media companies have been made vulnerable by the leverage that the government exercises over them, both as a regulator and a major advertiser. As a non-profit organization, we will have greater freedom to conduct independent accountability reporting,” Sáling said.
“We plan stories that will dig deep into public procurements, the use of EU-funds, a systematic reality check of politicians’ wealth declarations, the rise and fall of big companies, portraits of influential public figures and the use of state power against defenceless groups of society,” he said.
Direkt36 – its name was inspired by the country’s telephone dialling code – will launch a crowdfunding appeal this month and plans to publish its stories in collaboration with independent news portals in Hungary. It will also publish some stories in English.
When Sáling was sacked thousands of sympathisers protested outside Origo’s office. The dismissal was seen as just the latest in a series of political moves to suppress independent reporting.
As one news website, 444.hu, reported at the time, many believed Origo had succumbed to political pressure because of its articles about the government. According to 444.hu: “the last straw – even if it wasn’t officially mentioned when the notice was served – were the articles András Pethő published about a HUF 2 million hotel bill reclaimed by János Lázár a senior government figure.” Lázár denied that he was behind the sacking.
Hungary’s government has been accused of restricting press freedom
But Hungary’s government has been criticised for introducing laws that restrict media freedom. These include the controversial 2010 Media Act, which established a “Media Council” to fine media outlets for a number of nebulous offences, including failure to “provide balanced coverage”, publishing news that is “insulting to communities” or acting in contempt of broad ideals such as “public morality”. The Media Council, entirely composed of members appointed directly by the ruling Fidesz party for nine-year terms, is solely responsible for interpreting these vague restrictions. The restrictions include personal websites and blogs.
Peter Bajomi-Lazar, editor of the Hungarian media studies quarterly Médiakutató, argued, in a recent EJO article, that government interference is damaging Hungary’s press: “Interference that includes a controversial press and media law, party capture of the state media, a wide-scale use of ‘public service’ outlets as agents of pro-government propaganda, the politically motivated redistribution of state advertising, a special tax on advertising targeting RTL Group, one of the most ardent critics of the government, and a general lack of government transparency,” Bajomi-Lazar wrote.
Direk36 hopes to bring a new voice to Hungary’s media
Direkt36 plans to operate as a small, specialised unit. “We believe that our approach and method can make a difference and bring a new voice into Hungarian media that misses well-documented storytelling. Many times the articles miss the facts or they are simply facts without a storyline. We’ll try to marry these two things,” Sáling said.
In a joint statement, the co-founders of Direkt36 promised they would follow: “the best international examples, we will apply the practices of social sciences — like data analysis — in our reporting, and we will ensure that our stories are based only on thoroughly checked facts, and never on assumptions or accusations.”
Investigative journalism has taken root in Hungary, despite the challenges
In Nieman Reports, 2011, Shattering Barriers to Reveal Corruption, Tamas Bodoky, a freelance investigative journalist based in Budapest, said such reporting in Hungary is challenging: “Hungarian investigative journalism has no veterans. A talented reporter lasts only a few years at this kind of work and then, after being driven to the edge of isolation and moral and financial annihilation, he or she goes in search of “new challenges,” as the saying goes.”
But even with these difficulties, investigative journalism has taken root in the Hungarian print and electronic media, according to Bodoky. “A handful of nonprofit organizations, such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) and the József Göbölyös “Soma” Foundation, offer support to enable journalists to break away from their daily routines to take on investigative projects. Many newspaper editors want to publish such stories, but political and financial limitations make it tough to do so since infotainment is more popular and less expensive or risky than muckraking. And the nation’s deep political divisions—echoed in the allegiance of various publications to one political party or another—mean that news organizations that lean left mainly investigate issues that involve politicians and related businesses on the right while those tilting to the right examine what the opposition is doing,” Bodoky wrote. Another investigative website is Atlatszo.hu.
It is getting harder to tell the truth in Hungary
Sáling and his colleagues agree that it has become harder to tell the truth in Hungary: “this kind of journalism is indispensable for any healthy democracy. It’s possibly even more important in Hungary, a country that lies at the heart of Europe, bordering Ukraine, at a time when Cold War-like hostilities emerge between West and East. And it’s not just about Hungary. As the world economy is opening up, corruption is becoming globalized. We will do our share of cross-border investigations into international abuses and we will publish our major stories in English too.”
Sáling said he did not see the new venture as a particularly brave move: “We are journalists, we believe that this kind of control is important for a healthy democracy so we haven’t got too much choice,” he said. “There is still space for independent media in Hungary. It is good to be prepared for possible unfriendly steps from the powerful but you can still have questions, you still have access to documents and to important people.”
pic credit Direkt 36