Space for independent journalism will continue to shrink in 2017, says Direkt36’s András Pethő

January 20, 2017

Second in a series of articles about Hungarian civil society.

András Pethő, an award-winning journalist and co-founder of Direkt36, an investigative journalism NGO, says 2016 was a successful year.

It was certainly an eventful year. Part of an international media consortium tasked with reviewing the Panama Papers, Direkt36 published a series of articles on the hidden assets of Hungarian politicians, members of parliament, and other stories involving corruption in Hungary.

“At the same time, when we look at the whole media landscape we have in Hungary, I would say that things have become even worse. The space for independent media and independent journalism kept shrinking,” he says.

Pethő was working as a lead investigative journalist at Hungary’s most popular online daily, Origo.hu, when the site’s editor-in-chief, Gergő Sáling, was forced to resign. News reports at the time attributed his resignation to government pressure on the publisher after a string of articles highly critical of the government, including a series penned by Pethő about the elaborate lifestyle of then-Prime Minister’s Office undersecretary János Lázár.

That summer, shortly after the site’s editor-in-chief resigned, Origo.hu’s entire news staff quit in protest. This coincided with the government’s crackdown on Norway Fund recipient NGOs.

“I think these stories and these lawsuits played a part in the 2014 decisions to crack down on media and civil society,” says Pethő. “The government doesn’t appreciate it when sensitive stories make it out to the public. Their goal is to have media organizations who are friendly with them and follow their agenda so that they can get their own message across.”

Origo.hu was eventually sold by Magyar Telekom to a company owned by the cousin of Hungary’s National Bank governor, György Matolcsy, whose largesse via the central bank’s Pallas Athéné foundations helped the company become Hungary’s largest online digital media publisher.

So, Pethő is speaking from experience when he talks about a “shrinking space for independent journalism.”

Loss of media plurality

This trend, he says, continued through 2016 with further consolidation in the national media market.

“In 2016, Népszabadság was shut down. We all see what’s going on at Origo, which has become part of this media machine that promotes the government’s agenda. And there are fewer and fewer outlets that are independent from the government. If you look at what’s going on with the countryside, you can see that more and more newspapers have come under the control of businessmen with ties to the government. This is what I’m talking about when I say that the space for independent or critical media has been shrinking.”

Pethő says the closure of Népszabadság in October 2016 and the manner in which its staff was manipulated was “humiliating” and “brutal.”

Severe media imbalance

With an increasingly consolidated pro-government media empire in Hungary and shrinking culture for independent journalism, he says the country’s media landscape is “not healthy.” His predictions for Hungarian journalism in 2017 are not optimistic.

“Obviously, the goal of the government is to build a media machine that carries its propaganda and serves its interests. They consider the media a political weapon. The idea, I guess, is to make this weapon more efficient before the election in 2018.”

Referring to a global trend of independent non-profit journalism, Pethő thinks there are signs of hope. Átlátszó.hu, Hungary’s first non-profit journalism NGO, helped pave the way for this journalism model in Hungary, he says.

The reason he and a few former colleagues from Origo decided to set up Direkt36 was “ because this is the model that gives you the biggest freedom to do journalism.”

Practicing journalism on a purely market basis in Hungary is damn near impossible. A few media outlets, such as Bertelsmann-owned RTL Klub television station, are doing great. But RTL Klub is a television media company, not exclusively a news organization.

“It’s much more difficult to operate news organizations because they are an expensive business,” says Pethő, adding that “when you have an advertising market that is heavily distorted and influenced by the government and state-owned companies, then it’s pretty difficult to survive.”

But there are other factors that affect a journalist’s ability to work in Hungary, aside from the generally hostile regulatory and financial environment. For example, legislation adopted in 2016 dramatically increased the cost of having freedom of information requests serviced by state-owned companies or government institutions, which has become an extremely long and drawn-out process taking months, even years.

First, assuming the FOI data handler is even willing to provide the information, applicants must pay prohibitively expensive fees. In other cases, when the servicer refuses to service the request outright, the subsequent court battles are very time-consuming and labor-intensive. Often by the time the court eventually rules in favor of ordering the release of data (and the exorbitant fees are paid and the data published), the story has died.

“Fortunately, there are NGOs such as Transparency International and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union that provide legal assistance to journalists. But if you have to take to court every agency you file FOI requests with, these NGOs simply don’t have the capacity to represent you everywhere, and simply don’t have enough time,” Pethő says.

As far as his predictions for 2017, he’s “sure there won’t be any shortage of good stories to investigate.”

But his outlook for Hungarian journalism as a whole is grim.

“I’m afraid these trends are going to continue — the shrinking of space for independent journalism. But at the same time I’m optimistic. I think you have to be. You have to keep doing this work. We have a lot of supporters and it’s very inspiring to see that a lot of people think this kind of work is important. I hope a lot of Hungarians will keep this kind of journalism alive.”