Amid government crackdown, Hungary’s journalists look for new ways to work

They raided our offices as if we were mobsters. The irony of the situation is that the Hungarian police rarely raid mobsters with such force,” said an employee at one of two NGOs whose Budapest offices were stormed by about 20 officers of the Central Investigations Office–Hungary’s version of the FBI–on September 8.

The raid on Okotars and Demnet was part of a long-running legal investigation initiated by the government earlier this year into the organizers and beneficiaries of Norway Grants, a €13.5 million ($17 million) fund offered by the Norwegian government to support Hungarian civil society. The fund has a focus on organizations whose activities range from Roma advocacy and LGBT rights to investigative journalism. The government accused Norway of “political meddling,” and claimed some funds were being used to promote groups with “leftist political ties,” according to news reports.

The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs rebutted the accusation and condemned the attacks, according to news reports. “The accusations are clearly laughable and self-serving, this looks like a scenario out of Putin’s handbook,” the NGO employee, who spoke to CPJ, said. He asked not to be identified because of the police inquiry into alleged misappropriation of funds and illegal financial activity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s name is often cited in Budapest today, in particular following a much-quoted speech given by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at a summer camp in neighboring Romania in July, in which he cited Russia as one of the countries he admires most. Orbán went on to set out his ambitions to build “an illiberal democracy,” in which “fundamental values” would remain but the state would be founded on “a different, special, national approach” to democracy. In the same speech, Orbán further attacked NGOs, saying that civil society members were nothing “but paid political activists who are trying to help foreign interests here.”

Journalism is clearly among Orbán’s targets. From economic measures to direct political pressure, the government is using a range of methods to stifle independent voices.

The attacks on the NGOs managing Norway Grants were a chilling message to organizations such as Atlatszo, a watchdog focusing on investigative reporting on anti-corruption and transparency. Atlatszo’s activities are currently supported with a €105,000 two-year fund from Norway Grants, received through a Hungarian foundation, and providing a much-needed financial lifeline. The editor-in-chief, Tamás Bodoky, does not understand the government accusation that Atlatszo is an organization with opposition connections. “Investigative journalism always targets the incumbent government. We conduct no activities of a party political nature,” Bodoky told reporters.

Similarly, RTL Klub, one of the largest and most popular Hungarian commercial TV channels, owned by the major European RTL media group, is feeling the pressure. Earlier this year the government introduced an advertising tax on privately owned media companies which, according to Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Commission, is clearly aimed at driving the company out of business.

Under the new tax, the more profit a company makes the higher its tax rate, up to 40 percent. This means a heavy levy for a profitable company such as RTL, which is predicted to contribute 81 percent of the entire revenue raised by the tax this year, according to news reports. Officials at RTL say they suspect they are being singled out because of the station’s critical coverage of the government, compared to coverage by its main competitor, TV2, which is locally owned. “We’re the last major independent media company here and there’s an attempt to raid us from the market,” RTL Klub’s chief executive, Dirk Gerkens, told a press briefing. Because it operated at a loss last year, TV2 is not expected to owe any of the new tax this year, news reports said.

The government has also been accused by the press of using political pressure against critical outlets. As reported by CPJ previously, Editor-in-Chief Gergő Sáling, of leading news website Origo, was replaced abruptly in June after the website published an investigation about expenses claimed by Orbán’s chief of staff, Janos Lazar. Dozens of editors and journalists at the website resigned soon after Sáling’s departure, claiming retaliatory pressure by Lazar on the website’s owner, the Hungarian telecom company Magyar Telekom. Lazar denied the allegations, according to news reports.

Strategies on how to counter government pressures vary, but the good sign is that Hungary’s independent journalists are not giving up.

RTL is using its economic and business position to assert itself. “Really high-ranking RTL officials came to tell us to keep up the good work, and promised that they would give us all the support necessary,” a RTL reporter, who asked not to be named, told CPJ. In spite of the potential huge losses the channel is facing because of the tax, it continues to broadcast reports and investigations into government policy and politicians. Gerkens is also combative. “If there is war, there will be war strategy too,” he said in a recent interview.

In response to the deteriorating political and business environment, the independent media have launched several new initiatives as alternative methods to make operations sustainable. 444, a website mixing investigative content with tabloid-style features, has succeeded in attracting international venture capital. Atlatszo launched a crowdfunding campaign to attract 4,000 supporters with the aim of having its basic operations financed by its audience. Some of the journalists who left Origo created the news site Abcug, which takes no advertising, is financed by American businessman Robert Field, and focuses on underreported topics in the Hungarian media. And Sáling, and Origo’s most prominent investigative journalist, András Pethő, founded the non-profit Investigative Journalism Center. “Our goal is to focus on classical, deep investigative journalism and data-driven projects, and the financing of the center will follow the well-known models,” Pethő told CPJ.

The question now is whether these new initiatives will be able to survive. Ágnes Urbán, a media economist from think-tank Mertek, is optimistic. “In the online market, business models are much more diverse than earlier. Some still believe in traditional models, they use investors’ capital to become big enough to survive with revenues from advertising. Others build on institutional donors which might result in a sustainable business model for a small newsroom. The essential characteristic is that all these new initiatives try to stay outside big media empires and maintain an independent voice,” she said.

Similarly, Balázs Weyer, one of the founders of the Investigative Journalism Center and head of the Editor-in-Chief’s Forum, a professional association, says these initiatives show a new approach in the market. “Hungarian journalists experiment with new kinds of non-profit models, initiatives whose main goal is self-sustainability and not profit-making,” he told CPJ, adding that their financial background was less secure but, in a way, they were also less prone to outside interference which in Hungary comes through two main channels: advertisers and media owners. Weyer believes however that these initiatives will ultimately fail if the media cannot establish a stable audience ready to finance at least 70 percent of their budget.