The fall of popular independent online news portal, Origo.hu
The Origo.hu online news portal was one of Hungary’s most widely read and reputable news sites that operated relatively free from political pressure. That was until a change in relations between the owners and the government led to the entire staff resigning overnight, leaving the portal struggling to re-establish itself on the domestic media landscape.
The drama took place last June when Origo.hu’s editor-in-chief Gergő Sáling unexpectedly left his job. It soon became obvious that the reasons behind his rapid departure were political in nature. This in turn triggered a series of events that resulted in most of the staff resign. At the same time public concerns were raised about the extent to which the government in office would put pressure on the independent media in an effort to sway public opinion.
The immediate reason for Sáling’s departure was the repeated efforts of Origo.hu journalist András Pethő to obtain the details of official trips made by Minister in Charge of the Prime Minister’s Office János Lázár. Lázár, the “strong man” of the Fidesz government, has had any number of run-ins with Atlatszo.hu and civil society in general over the past year.
The journalist was looking into the nature of some of Lázár’s foreign trips, the costs and who else was in attendance. The Prime Minister’s Office declined, stating that Lázár’s negotiations involved matters of national security which could not be revealed to the public. What was made clear is that Lázár was accompanied by the same person and that together they produced astronomical hotel bills. Responding to the public outcry, Lázár decided to return the amounts in question to the treasury from his own pocket, but when the court recently stated that the documents of the trips still have to be disclosed, he said he would appeal to a higher court.
Another important part of the story is that Origo.hu is owned by Magyar Telekom, the local subsidiary of German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom. Relations between the government and the telco sector have been tense ever since Viktor Orbán’s government introduced a special tax on the sector cutting into margins and making operation significantly more difficult and unpredictable. By 2014, through extensive negotiations and diplomacy, the terms became more amicable, which is what reportedly led to the government striking a deal with the three mobile telecoms operations in the country on extending their frequency license. One of the reported aspects of the Hungary-Deutsche Telekom talks was Lázár demanding a less inquisitive approach from the Telekom media outlets, which the owner was to either tone down or sell altogether.
The owner apparently complied as shown by the deal on the frequency license as well as the increase in the number of advertisements from state agencies, which remains a crucial source of revenue for any and all Hungarian media outlets on all platforms. It is also not uncommon for people near the top of the political hierarchy to make calls to senior editors in the media, in order to orient editorial decisions. Whether an outlet obliges usually hinges on how dependent they are on state advertising revenues. This is why Lázár allegedly stated he was “saddened” by Origo.hu inquiries into his expenses, and although any such political pressure was at first deflected with relative ease thanks to the strong financial backing of Deutsche-Telekom, at the end of the day economic interests seemed to win the day. Lázár denied his alleged role in the story, and this denial was supported by Origo.hu, which stated that Sáling’s departure was by mutual agreement and that the reasons were professional and in no way political.
Origo.hu quickly started to unravel, first the entire domestic then the entire photo department collectively quit. Established members of staff continued to abandon what they now viewed as a news portal compromised by political interests. Many of them found employment with rival independent outlets, while those at the center of the affair, led by Sáling himself, have founded Direkt36.hu, which provides a new investigative portal on the Hungarian scene, with in-depth analysis and stories.
Origo.hu continues to operate, but it is clear that it is moving in a new direction, focusing more on entertainment and avoiding issues that may be challenging to people in high places.