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Hungarian Journalists Launch Independent News Site Amid Tightening Government Control

NOEL KING, HOST:

Hungary's nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban often does what President Trump does. He calls factual reporting fake news. Orban and his allies now control more than 80% of the media outlets in Hungary. Joanna Kakissis reports this is very troubling for independent journalists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Earlier this month at a small office in Budapest, Tamas Fabian huddled with his colleagues around a computer and counted down. Their crowdfunded news site, Telex, was about to go live.

(CHEERING)

KAKISSIS: They cheered and hugged as their stories hit the web.

TAMAS FABIAN: (Through interpreter) I couldn't believe we were able to launch Telex at all because just two months before, disaster had struck our previous workplace. We still feel like bursting into tears when we think about what happened there and how it all ended.

KAKISSIS: Just a few months ago, the staff of Telex worked at another outlet called Index, the most widely read news website in Hungary. Szabolcs Dull, then editor-in-chief, says readers relied on Index for definitive news reporting, most recently on the pandemic, as well as scoops that pro-government media ignored.

SZABOLCS DULL: (Through interpreter) Like when the mayor from the ruling party got caught with a sex tape or when Hungary's ambassador to Peru was accused of pedophilia. The government was annoyed it could not suppress these stories. Prime Minister Viktor Orban called us a fake news factory.

KAKISSIS: This spring, one of the prime minister's allies bought a controlling stake in a company that's in charge of Index's revenue.

DULL: (Through interpreter) His consultants wanted to outsource our work to outsiders. Of course, I opposed it. Then I got fired.

KAKISSIS: In July, more than 70 Index journalists quit in protest. They flanked managing editor Veronika Munk at a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VERONIKA MUNK: (Through interpreter) Our editor's firing was a red line for us. We are united. And we would really like to stay together in some form.

KAKISSIS: This all felt familiar to Andras Petho who worked in a newspaper that also lost its editorial independence while run by the same pro-Orban businessmen.

ANDRAS PETHO: We came under pressure from our own management to drop certain stories, to remove certain stories from the website. And we said, no. Then the editor-in-chief was forced out of his job. And then I resigned. And many other people resigned.

KAKISSIS: Like the Telex journalists, Petto and his colleagues also crowdfunded to finance an independent news startup, Direkt36, a non-profit that specializes in investigative reporting.

PETHO: Since we are a non-profit, there are no financial or business interests behind us. The government cannot put pressure on our owner. They cannot buy us.

KAKISSIS: But, he says, they do try to discredit his team.

PETHO: They try to force you into a corner where you are labeled as an opposition force. We see that, you know, this is happening in other countries as well, even in the U.S.

KAKISSIS: Media scholars say nationalists like Viktor Orban see journalists as either for them or against them. Bank Boros, a senior analyst at a government-funded think tank in Budapest, explains why he believes that's the case.

BANK BOROS: When it comes to politics, there are no independent outlets present in Hungary. So you can identify which media outlets are pro-government and which are anti-government. And there's no in-between.

KAKISSIS: This view has angered European Union leaders who say independent journalism is essential for democracy. Media startups like Telex say they sense the public feels the same way. They say they've received thousands of donations, enough to operate for at least a year.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.