From Hungarian taxpayers’ money spent on neighbouring countries football clubs to Russian spies operating in Hungary, the inaugural round of the IJ4EU grants, which support cross-border investigative journalism in the EU, funded many Hungarian journalistic projects in 2018. The International Press Institute (IPI) talked to the journalists who did the leg work, and their insights revealed the specific difficulties they had to face and the hurdles that journalists, and investigative journalists in particular, are up against when working in Hungary.
Szabolcs Panyi, who works for Direkt36, an investigative journalism center, was part of a multi-country project reporting on the creeping shadow of Russian influence in the countries of the former Eastern bloc. “By now it is widely known how friendly the Orbán government is with Moscow, and this leads to quite a lot of misinformation and conspiration theories. I wanted to show a more balanced reality”, he told IPI. Panyi’s reporting was part of a cross-border project involving journalists from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic and led by the Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism (Re:Baltica). In Hungary, the findings were published in Hungarian and English, many of them in conjunction with 444.hu, one of the few remaining independent news sites in the country.
Panyi uncovered the fallout of the Skripal poisoning in Hungary, which turned out to be a sort of make-believe diplomatic spat between Moscow and Budapest – staged to satisfy the EU but not to really hurt either of the two countries. It was not an easy job to figure out what was really going on.
“The Hungarian government hardly ever answers independent journalists’ questions, and the country’s secret services never communicate with the public. They don’t even publish yearly reports”, Panyi explained. “Having specialized on the subject for years, I have sources that could help me”.
When asked about the impact of his stories, Panyi pointed out that this is not the kind of investigative reporting that has a direct and inmediate effect. “Thanks to this project, my articles were also published in Russian and in Baltic languages, and I do know that it has reached many of the international experts dealing with Russia.”
Another grantee working in a multi-country venture was Anita Kőműves, who covered Hungary in a project exposing the militarization of patriotism in Central Europe. Her reports, published in English on VSquare, a regional network of independent media outlets in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, covered both the government-funded rebirth of the Hungarian arms industry and how the Ministry of Defense spends money on programmes dedicated to teaching schoolchildren how to “defend the nation”.
“I managed to demonstrate to the Hungarian public that the government doesn’t just talk about patriotic education, they actually spend quite a lot of money on it”, Kőműves told IPI. “The budgets of the supposedly civil associations whose main job is to make the military more popular have grown inmensely.”
It’s a good indication of the low expectations of Hungarian journalists that Kőműves was pleasantly surprised by the Ministry of Defense providing the data she needed for her work. “I filed freedom of information requests about the civil associations they fund, and I considered it a great achievement that they actually answered me before the project ran out”, she said.
Another journalist who was pleasantly surprised by the Hungarian authorities was Zoltán Sipos, who works for Átlátszó Erdély, the Transylvanian edition of Átlátszó, a non-profit news site. “I know how terrible the authorities have become in the past few years providing public data, so I wasn’t expecting the Hungarian Football Association to be much of a help. But after a bit of armwrestling they did provide us with what we needed”, Sipos told IPI.
What Sipos and colleagues at Átlátszó Erdély and Átlátszó needed was to find out how much Hungarian money was being spent on football outside of the country’s borders, and how exactly that money was being spent. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a well known football fanatic, who has used public funds to build stadiums not just all over the country, but even one next to one of his properties in the small town of Felcsút.
Over the past few years, Hungarian money has been lavished not only on (frequently mediocre) teams and football academies in Hungary, but also in surrounding countries with small to sizable Hungarian minority communities, such as Slovenia, Ukraine, Romania, Croatia, Serbia and Slovakia.
“We were the first to show the big picture of how this whole system works, where and how the money is spent, and who actually profits from all this. We soon found out that one of the main beneficiaries was Lőrinc Mészáros [Orbán’s childhood friend, who started out as a humble gasfitter but is now the country’s richest person]”, Sipos explained.
These findings were outstanding enough to be be picked up by almost all independent media outlets in Hungary, but were of no interest to Hungarian authorities supposedly tasked with safekeeping the money of Hungarian taxpayers. But Átlátszó Erdély’s articles did make a splash in the countries where the money is being invested. “A Romanian politician has asked the local tax authority to investigate the Hungarian government’s subvention of the Sepsi OSK team”, Sipos noted. “And, according to our Ukrainian colleague, their attorney general’s office is also looking into the Hungarian money flowing into Ukrainian football”.
The cross-border, illicit flow of money was also the subject of the project led by Boróka Parászka, another Transylvanian journalist. In reports published on Átlátszó and broadcast through the Hungarian section of the Romanian public radio broadcaster, Parászka and her colleaguges uncovered the “cancer tourism” phenomenon between Romania and Hungary. Romanian cancer patients who don’t trust or are underserved by their public health system end up in the Hungarian public system or at private clinics, spending a lot of money on treatments that they should in theory recieve for free, and in many cases are tricked into paying for services that they don’t even need.
The delicate subject matter made the job of the journalists almost impossible. “The Hungarian authorities refused to hand over any data, and the Romanians only gave us some after a legal battle”, Parászka told IPI. “There was a lot of material on corrupt doctors that we couldn’t publish for legal reasons, and it was very difficult to get sources to talk, even anonimously”.
But despite the difficulties, she is optimistic about the future. “We are working with some advocacy groups and it looks like we can exert pressure on the Romanian Ministry of Health to give us the contracts with private medical service providers.”