In Hungary, telling the truth is getting more and more difficult. Here’s our plan to change that
Early last year, Origo, a Hungarian news organization known for most of its history as tough but fair, started to pursue a story about a senior government official’s extraordinarily high travel expenses.
In any society with a vibrant media, this kind of accountability reporting is a basic component of journalism. Hungary, however, is different. The space for independent media has been shrinking rapidly for the last few years as a result of pressure from political or economic interests (or both). As a consequence, the Hungarian people now have less and less access to the kind of hard-hitting journalism that holds their leaders accountable.
The top editors of Origo experienced this challenge first-hand. As the news portal’s travel expense investigation progressed, pressure grew on the editors to drop the sensitive story. The journalists did not comply with these requests.
This standoff ended with the dismissal of Origo’s top editor in June 2014. His deputy, who pursued the travel expense story, resigned in protest, as did the entire politics section and dozens of other reporters. Altogether, more than half the newsroom decided to quit in protest of what they saw as the end of Origo’s editorial independence.
This was our story. Gergő Sáling is the dismissed editor-in-chief. András Pethő is his former deputy. Balázs Weyer is a co-founder of Origo and has spent much of his career developing the portal into a dominant player in Hungary’s media landscape. The three of us decided to join forces after what happened at Origo in an effort to continue the kind of independent journalism we believe in.
Now, we are pleased to announce the launch of Direkt36, a non-profit center for investigative journalism in Hungary. We chose this model because traditional media companies in Hungary have been made vulnerable by the leverage that the government exercises over them, both as a regulator and a major advertiser. As a non-profit organization, we will have greater freedom to conduct independent accountability reporting.
We’re experienced in digital journalism. Gergő and Balázs, as former leaders of one of Hungary’s major online news organizations, gained invaluable skills — not only in editing sensitive stories but also in developing web applications. András, in addition to reporting for Origo, has also worked for the BBC World Service. And he recently spent 8 months with the investigative unit of The Washington Post as a visiting reporter.
We will operate Direkt36 as a small but effective special unit. We are not driven by the ever-shrinking news cycle. We are not interested in “he said, she said” stories. We do not swim with the stream. Our mission is to conduct systematic journalistic investigations that can have an impact on Hungarian society by exposing problems like corruption and other forms of power abuse. We plan to produce stories that no other news organization will.
We bring a unique approach to journalism in Hungary, a country in which investigative journalism in the Western sense — methodical, systematic examination of issues — has not taken roots widely. Following the best international examples, we will apply the practices of social sciences — like data analysis — in our reporting, and we will ensure that our stories are based only on thoroughly checked facts, and never on assumptions or accusations.
This kind of journalism is indispensable for any healthy democracy. It’s possibly even more important in Hungary, a country that lies at the heart of Europe, bordering Ukraine, at a time when Cold War-like hostilities emerge between West and East. And it’s not just about Hungary. As the world economy is opening up, corruption is becoming globalized. We will do our share of cross-border investigations into international abuses and we will publish our major stories in English too.
How you can help
We are in the process of setting up the organization. Our website is under construction and our first stories are already in the making. This, however, will not be an easy ride. It’s safe to assume that many powerful people, potential subjects of our stories, will not welcome our project.
As a non-profit start-up, we also face financial challenges. As such, we are counting on material support not only from Hungary, but from the international community. Those who support our mission can get in on the ground floor. In late January, we will begin a crowdfunding campaign to get things moving.
In the meantime, supporting Direkt36 is easy. If you have a chance, please spread the word about what we’re doing, and become part of the Direkt36 community we’re building. You can do so by “liking” our Facebook page and following us on Twitter and Medium. You can also share this story.
We hope you share our passion for independent journalism, and share our commitment to keeping Hungary’s press free and vibrant.