Tamás Bodoky, editor-in-chief of Atlatszo, which advocates for information access. (AFP/Peter Kohalmi)
Tamás Bodoky, editor-in-chief of Atlatszo, which advocates for information access. (AFP/Peter Kohalmi)

In Hungary, an independent website defies censorship and pressure

A delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists, led by board member Kati Marton, traveled to Hungary in October on CPJ’s first fact-finding and advocacy mission to an EU member state. We went there in response to concerning reports of deteriorating conditions for the press, and met dozens of journalists, media lawyers, managers, rights defenders, and policy analysts. Those we spoke to described an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship, and how critical reporting and alternative views are suppressed through a variety of means, including legal and economic measures that stifle and discourage independent coverage.

But there were signs of hope. Enterprising journalists are defying authorities’ attempts to interfere with editorial policies and silence sensitive stories. The editorial team of one such news website, Atlatszo–the name means “transparent”–specializes in investigative journalism and advocating for information access. In Budapest, CPJ visited Atlatszo’s offices, housed in an old department store.

In a follow-up interview, Atlatszo‘s managing director and editor-in-chief, Tamás Bodoky, spoke to me about the website’s beginning, its goals, and outlook for the future.

Nina Ognianova: How would you describe Atlatszo?

Tamás Bodoky: Atlatszo is a nonprofit investigative journalism outlet that promotes transparency and freedom of information in Hungary. It produces investigative reports, accepts information from whistleblowers, files Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and starts freedom of information lawsuits in cases where requests have been refused.

NO: When did you start Atlatszo and why?

TB: We started Atlatszo in 2011 because the mainstream media in Hungary have become a tool of political and economic interest groups, and it is often not the journalists but the media owners and politicians who decide what can be published. The government handles the media as a propaganda tool, public service media are controlled by political appointees, and the media law [Media Act] passed in 2010, gives almost unlimited power to the politically controlled National Media and Infocommunications Authority. Commercial media companies become more and more cautious, journalists are forced to avoid sensitive topics. The result is a very limited freedom of the press in Hungary. There are many taboos, many important stories that remain untold, and numerous corruption cases go undisclosed, even if there are whistleblowers who provide evidence.

NO: What do you see as Atlatszo‘s main purpose in the media market in Hungary today?

TB: Atlatszo‘s main role is to dig deeper into stories avoided or overlooked by other media, to cooperate and network with other nonprofit investigative outlets around the world, and to promote freedom of information and access to public data in Hungary. Investigative journalism is facing similar problems worldwide. The role journalism plays in a functioning democracy–informing the public and holding the powerful accountable–is at risk. At the same time though new, innovative nonprofit models have emerged, which rely on in depth collaboration with other news organizations, journalists, universities, etc., and which use new communications technologies to provide citizens with critical information that impacts their lives. This is the model that Atlatszo strives to implement in Hungary.

NO: What are some of the stories Atlatszo has covered that have been ostracized by the mainstream media?

TB: Some of the stories we have done so far this year include uncovering cases of election fraud, misuse of public funds, government corruption and tax fraud, and state control of the media. Such topics often involve our filing of FOIA lawsuits. After winning the lawsuits for the documentation, we are able to do the stories.

NO: How difficult is it to obtain sensitive information through a FOIA request in Hungary?

TB: Sensitive information is often withheld, the legal procedure might take more than a year to complete.

(Note by CPJ: In 2013, in apparent response to Atlatszo‘s persistent filing of FOIA requests as part of its journalistic investigations, Hungarian authorities passed a restrictive amendment to Hungary’s Freedom of Information Act, which allowed state institutions to reject requests they deem “excessive.” The amendment did not define, however, what the institutions would consider to be excessive.)

NO: Have you affected policy through your work?

TB: Our first legal achievement was to get reporters’ privilege–the journalists’ right to withhold the identity of confidential sources–recognized by Hungary’s media law. In 2011 the Hungarian police attempted to force us to reveal a confidential source. We appealed to the Constitutional Court of Hungary, which decided that the protection of journalists’ sources is not sufficiently guaranteed by the 2010 Media Act. Acknowledging that Atlatszo‘s claim was right, the Constitutional Court prevented the police from forcing journalists to reveal their sources. A few months later, the Hungarian parliament approved an amendment of the Media Constitution, which provides higher protection for journalists’ sources.

NO: Some have described Atlatszo as an opposition website. Do you consider yourselves opponents of the powers-that-be?

TB: We are strictly nonpartisan, do not consider ourselves to be part of the political opposition. On the other hand, the governing parties try to label any critical media to be part of the political opposition.

NO: Who are your staff? How big is your audience?

TB: Currently we have four full-time reporters, one full-time editor and manager (myself), a part-time editor, three lawyers, a couple of project-based freelance journalists, and several part-time project management, administration, and IT staff.

As for our audience, when we started the website in 2011 it was unfunded as a WordPress blog, but after a few months we upgraded the design to a unique newspaper layout and, in 2014, to a responsive, mobile-friendly design.

The website now has a regular readership of approximately 500,000 unique visitors monthly. Our Facebook page now has more than 40,000 fans. It is growing fast, I think, because people are interested in our stories.

NO: Most recently, Atlatszo has been under pressure because Hungarian authorities raided the offices of several non-governmental organizations that distribute Norwegian grants to independent organizations in Hungary. Atlatszo is partially funded by Norwegian grants. What is the latest development in this and what are your plans for alternative financing?

TB: Our strategy is to turn to our audience and increase crowdfunding of Atlatszo. This is quite successful. For instance, we have gathered 1,500 subscribers in the past few months.

NO: Have you had any other forms of pressure from either authorities or another entity in Hungary?

TB: Most of the pressure comes from pro-government media outlets that launch smear campaigns against us, labeling us as the “Soros army” [a reference to American-Hungarian financier George Soros,] or as “foreign agents,” and which accuse us of acting on behalf of the left-liberal political opposition.

NO: What are some of the top stories you are currently working on? Have the actions of authorities against Atlatszo made you think twice about tackling any of those?

TB: We have become more cautious but keep on working. Currently we are investigating numerous election fraud allegations, the financing of hate groups in Hungary, and the Tax Authority scandal.

NO: What is the space for press freedom in Hungary?

TB: I think press freedom is in danger in Hungary, but I am an optimist and think that we will overcome this situation.