In Hungary, acting as watchdogs is new for journalists since it was only in the early 1990’s that the media emerged from tight political control. In these 20 years, as we have transitioned to democracy—albeit with political parties maintaining a measure of control over the news media—some reporters have used investigative journalism to disclose dubious dealings of the political and economic elite. Spotlighting these crimes, however, has not led in most cases to consequences for the perpetrators, though it has for many journalists who have been censored, persecuted, sued or fired from their jobs for doing this type of reporting.
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.
Even with these difficulties and abbreviated lifespan, investigative journalism has taken root in the Hungarian print and electronic media. 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.
Resources for Investigative ReportersIn the past few years, the rightist media conglomerates have increased their power and influence—and so investigative journalism has focused, for the most part, on dubious activities involving leftist politicians who controlled the government until the spring of 2010. In fact, this circumstance played a major role in the conservative party’s landslide victory in parliamentary and municipal elections.
All of this means that investigative journalism doesn’t serve the public interest well. Instead, it has become a toy of political and economic interest groups; it is not the journalists but politicians and the media owners with the circles of power behind them who decide the topics that can be covered and which stories can be published. Taboo topics vary among publications. Information is leaked as a way of discrediting political opponents or business competitors. Political operatives will leak minor corruption cases to reporters and editors with whom they are close while at the same time they engage (often together with their political opponents) in large-scale corrupt financial dealings and join forces with their foes in muzzling any media outlet that begins to investigate these big-time operations. This is one reason why numerous corruption cases go undisclosed.
It’s hard to know precisely when during my 15-year career as a journalist I became an investigative reporter. At first I wrote about science and technology, but even then I was more interested in concealed stories than in press conferences. There were plenty of secrets and lies on that beat; copyright organizations supported by multinational entertainment industry companies employed crooked means, with the assistance of the Hungarian police, to criminalize file exchanges and sharing services. Between 2004 and 2006 the National Office for Research and Technology distributed $250 million of taxpayers’ money annually for research and development partly on the basis of political considerations instead of scientific achievement and professional merit. Earlier, in 2002 and 2003, taxpayers’ money from a different government agency had been funneled through secret channels that were aimed at the surveillance of and eavesdropping on Internet communications.
From such stories, it was a small step for me to start investigating major corruption scams. Readers could see that I wasn’t afraid to go after dangerous subjects so they sent me a lot of tips, information and leaks. In the 1990’s, Hungary was a place where the oil mafia could operate freely in selling fuel bought from dubious sources without paying taxes and customs duty. The oil mafia was closely associated with the political elite. I interviewed a former member of the oil mafia who sold fake documents in the name of an oil broker company with strong political ties and wrote a story about it in 2008. Since that time my colleague on this story gave up her career as an investigative journalist because she’d gone too far in trying to disclose the political ties of the oil mafia and found herself isolated and discredited even by fellow journalists.
In another case, the “wind blew in through my open window” a tax authority document used to blackmail the leader of Hungary’s largest bank in 2007. The blackmailers tried to extort approximately $60 million from him. I could not get this article into the publication where I worked at that time; I sold it to another media outlet, which was willing to publish it. Similarly, in 2009 I received a significant leak that led me to follow the complex route of approximately $150 million; the path began with the state-owned electric company, went through a network of hidden offshore companies and into a hotel on the Croatian seashore, a wine cellar in Hungary, and other private enterprises.
I’ve dug into major corruption cases involving environmental pollution as well. As the red sludge disaster in 2010 painfully demonstrated, Hungary does not pay enough attention to preventing environmental crime. This became evident as I uncovered corruption in the institutions in charge of environmental protection. I wrote a series of articles disclosing corruption and malpractice related to the licensing of a power plant that was going to be built on a Unesco World Heritage site and also unveiling the economic and political lobbies behind a hydropower plant to be built on conservation land in the Zemplén Mountains. The nature conservancy areas near Budapest have constantly been under the threat of being used for the unscrupulous expansion of gated communities; a story I did disclosed that investors wanted to take control of such a community in Magdolna Valley and its municipal budget. The plan was vetoed at the last minute by the then-president of Hungary.
The most wide-reaching consequences of my investigative work arose from a series of stories I wrote about the brutal violations the police committed during the anti-government demonstrations and riots in 2006. Riot police illegally used telescopic batons and rubber bullets against the demonstrators; many innocent people were beaten up and suffered devastating injuries. I found evidence that handcuffed people were physically abused at police stations and that the police used false witnesses to bring to court some young people who did not take part in any violent actions. By using a hidden voice recording inside the courthouse, I showed that an attorney threatened people who testified against police officers. I also interviewed a riot police officer who told me that political pressures led to the police violence during the riots.
Tamás Bodoky’s articles about unrest and police brutality in Hungary were published in a 2008 book. The title of its English translation is “Trespasses.” Cover photo by Szabolcs Barakonyi.
One reason why this series received considerable attention—and the crimes had consequences—was that the then-opposition political powers considered what happened to be important. This meant that I was regularly invited to be on their TV news program.
Despite the numerous awards I have received for my investigative reporting, the recognition has not enabled me to work without confronting economic and political pressures. For nine years, I worked for Index.hu, one of the most read news portals in Hungary; during the last four years, I was allowed to focus fully on investigative journalism. However, I had to quit after I wrote about a Spain-based company with close connections to the Hungarian government that was involved in a major real estate swindle in Hungary. This company bought farmland for very low prices, had the land reclassified using corrupt practices, and gained immense profits from these operations.
However, the company did not stop there. It applied for and almost received approximately $75 million in government subsidies for the construction of a MotoGP racing track at Sávoly that would never have turned profitable, according to independent analysts. I filed a lawsuit against the state-owned Hungarian Development Bank when it denied access to the feasibility study for the proposed racetrack on which the government would guarantee its loan. In information leaked to me, I learned that high officials in the finance ministry had issued a written warning that this construction was risky and illegal and disadvantageous for the state. The socialist government backed off at the last moment, after I succeeded in calling public attention to the case. Even though this particular company had close ties with the then-opposition conservative parties and influential oligarchs, my editor in chief cut important parts of my story without any justification. Afterward he refused my request for a guarantee in my job contract that such intervention with my stories would not happen again. I had to quit.
So now I am a freelancer who publishes articles in various publications. My goal is to establish a nonprofit center for investigative journalism where I and other reporters can publish investigative stories independent of political and economic interests and without bias. The public interest would be foremost, as happens at American institutions such as the Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica that are models for this planned project. Already there are several such nonprofit efforts in the Balkans, including the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
Threats to Investigative Journalism
As in other countries, investigative journalists in Hungary rely on a wide variety of tools to access concealed information. Although not everyone feels they should be used, there are classic methods such as the secret recording of images and sound, infiltration and undercover operations. I prefer to file freedom of information requests and lawsuits, if necessary, against those who withhold public data.
Often concealed information is leaked. When this happens, all of the consequences of publishing the information are borne by the journalist. At the same time, under Hungarian law, documents related to activities by government authorities, offices, institutions and companies managing, using or involving state property are to be made accessible. So if officials withhold information, reporters can file a lawsuit. With the help of the HCLU, I’ve filed and won several lawsuits and obtained concealed government data.
There is censorship—and first and foremost self-censorship—related to political and economic pressures. But investigative journalism is threatened even more acutely by the shortage of financial resources. Media owners regard investigative journalism as an expensive and dangerous practice and reporters who escape the daily routine of reporting news to spend weeks or months working on one story are not valued. Freelance journalists cannot survive at even a subsistence level if their primary concern is quality over quantity.
Gaining access to important databases remains problematic. While journalists can get free access to the Hungarian business register, there is a hefty charge for using the databases of the land registry offices. Access to information about foreign business services is also difficult, again due to relatively high fees. International cooperation is not a strength of Hungarian investigative journalists. Only a few of them have a network of connections or experience working across borders. In fact, cooperation rarely occurs among investigative journalists in Hungary and those in other European Union countries though corruption and organized crime in Hungary thrives on its cross-border connections.
Our personal safety as investigative journalists is always a concern. With the help of the OCCRP, I received basic training about what to do if I become the target of physical threats during my work. Unfortunately, I’ve had to use the skills I learned there. Threats of legal consequences come our way, too, and these often succeed in scaring journalists away from investigating sensitive issues; in Hungary, not only the publication but the journalist can be sued for slander and defamation. I recently won a lawsuit filed against me for libel and defamation. Another is still pending. My articles also triggered a lawsuit against Index.hu, my former employer. Although I have never been ruled against, often the threat of a lawsuit is enough for Hungarian media companies to proactively post the demanded correction.
The practice of bribing journalists is also a major problem. Many companies offer journalists trips or gifts and a financial bonus for publishing or not publishing some information. It is most challenging to deal with the more frequent financial and existential pressures that come from inside the editorial office or from the owners of the publication.
There is some promising news in the advancement of the digital media in Hungary. Websites and blogs broaden the possibilities for investigative journalists. When the mainstream media refuses to publish a story, journalists can still publish it online. With the popularity of social networks and viral marketing, stories often reach large audiences. But digital media can be dangerous, too. While the number of blogs dealing with public affairs is increasing rapidly, the authenticity of their information often is questionable. Many of the articles and posts are biased or are filled, by intent, with disinformation.
Nevertheless, it is no longer possible to stifle critical voices. Attempts to do so—such as the Hungarian government’s recent and widely criticized new media law—are doomed to fail. The digital revolution has liberated investigative journalism from the restrictive oversight of mainstream media owners. The old media has to adapt to this new environment even if for now the old reflexes of control and constraint are still being exercised.
Tamás Bodoky is a freelance investigative journalist based in Budapest, Hungary. Bodoky has won several prizes for his investigative stories, among them the Göbölyös Soma Prize, the Hungarian Pulitzer Memorial Prize, and the Iustitia Regnorum Fundamentum Prize.