Atlatszo turns 10 years old – journalists remember their favourite investigations and stories
Ten years ago, on Independence Day on July 4, 2011, we launched Atlatszo, with no capital or investor, relying on the donations of our readers and with a single journalist. Our mission was to promote investigative journalism, freedom of information and the protection of whistleblowers in a non-profit organisation. We’ve come a long way since then, with a growing staff and many authors over the past decade – and to mark the anniversary, we asked some them to recall the favourite article that they wrote here.
Babett Oroszi: I like this article the most because it was the one that first showed the amount of public money that István Tiborcz had received. It started the deeper investigation of Elios in the press, which later laid the foundations for the OLAF investigation. Until then, it was impossible to know how Ráhel Orbán (daughter of Viktor Orbán) could afford Swiss tuition fees and how his husband, István Tiborcz became a billionaire. If this material had not been produced, if my colleague András Becker had not asked me to work with him on this subject, then maybe we wouldn’t find out how Tiborcz has become one of the richest Hungarians. The article was a team work, while I was collecting the data, András discovered that the tenders were prepared by Tiborcz’s business partner – and then he turned the whole thing into a readable text.
The so-called Elios scandal has put István Tiborcz, the Hungarian prime minister’s son-in-law in the centre of public attention in the past few weeks. The controversies and corruption accusations connected to the street light modernisation programs put Tiborcz into the limelight, but independent media has been covering this story for years.
András Becker: Then came the articles one after the other, and slowly everything came out – there were interpellations, investigations, but these were all handled by the system. The only thing that could not be settled was with OLAF, so the Tiborcz tenders were taken out of the EU accounts instead. Poor Peter Polt had to investigate again, then stand up in public and tell that no crime had been committed. My last article on Elios is about this shameless ‘investigation’. It demonstrates point by point that there is no logical explanation for the fact that the investigation was closed for lack of criminality – other than complicity. The article had no consequences – the fact that the prosecutor’s office turned a blind eye is understandable, but the independent media went along with it without a word.
István Tiborcz, the Hungarian prime minister’s son-in-law entered the exclusive club of the 100 richest people of Hungary. Moreover, with his 33 years, he is the youngest of the richest Hungarians. According to the list, Tiborcz is worth 35 billion Hungarian forints (approximately 109 million euros at today’s exchange rate).
Katalin Erdélyi: This is one of my favourite articles, for many reasons. The months of undercover research on the private jet and luxury yacht of the government elite hat no one has ever written about had been very exciting. It was a thrill to put together the little pieces of the mosaic. Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible without the work of my colleague Dániel Németh, so the credit goes to him too – as do the prizes we received for the article. After the publication of the article, pro-government media outlets suspected a foreign intelligence conspiracy, and Fidesz politicians were confused that we had busted the Prime Minister while he was flying a private plane. The yacht and the plane are still in the news today, and that our article has become an important basis for other pieces, both in our own and in other independent papers.
Atlatszo has been tracking two luxury vehicles all summer and, in doing so has documented where the leadership of the governing party and their business partners spent their summer vacations.
Antónia Rádi: Billions of dollars funnelled through offshore companies, repressive post-Soviet regime leaders in positions of power, a bloody murder, and the diplomatic manoeuvres that went with it. It is hard to imagine a more exciting subject. That’s why I worked so enthusiastically as an assistant to the OCCRP international investigative team on the story of the Azerbaijani slush fund. My task was to track down Hungarian interests in the money laundering scheme that spans the globe from the British Virgin Islands to Denmark and Baku. It turned out that nine million dollars had been sent to Hungary to the bank account of an offshore company as close as possible to the Azeri government. All this happened at the same time when the Hungarian authorities extradited Ramil Safarov, the axe murderer, to Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani Laundromat uncovered by the OCCRP was a money-laundering scheme and slush fund used by Azerbaijani elites to disguise the origin of billions of dollars, purchase goods and services, and make secret payments to companies and individuals in the European Union. It was also used to directly enrich powerful, well-connected Azerbaijani politicians.
Ildikó Kovács: This series of articles was practically my first assignment at Atlatszo – and considering the consequences, I think Attila Mong and I did a very good job. It was not a quick process, we had to investigate the allegation that someone had been cheating with EU subsidies from several angles. Firstly, we had to go through hundreds (or maybe thousands?) of pages of documentation; secondly, we had to compare the allegations with other sources as best we could; and thirdly, we had to visit the private clinic concerned in Csepel in person. For me, the most exciting part was digging up price lists from years ago to prove that the people involved, who were later found guilty by the court, had indeed overpriced laptops bought from EU money.
In its latest annual report, the European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF highlights a case study based on a series of investigative articles by Atlatszo.hu.
Márton Sarkadi Nagy: As a young journalist this was my first serious story since joining Tamás Bodoky’s team. In hindsight, it is clear that it could have been covered more thoroughly and in a more readable way. Yet the series of articles that gathered evidence of the controlled liquidation of the national airline in 2012 was a story that the entire Hungarian media walked right past. It was a sign to me that even without the help of traditional publishing backgrounds and leaking politicians, it is possible to find important stories with thorough work. Government documents that came to light years later proved that the story was right, but this was also strongly indicated by the fact that the main character’s private investigator turned up in my entourage after publication.
The person in charge of overseeing Hungary’s recently collapsed national airline MALÉV’s assets, Jenő Varga (appointed by the state liquidator company) may be behind the very company (actually a micro-entreprise) which initiated the liquidation of MALÉV.
Brigitta Csikász: Exposing of EU subsidy abuses has grown into a lengthy series of articles, which, to be honest, even I couldn’t imagine at first. But there was always a next, forgotten case with a sloppy investigation in Hungary. It was astonishing that the criminal proceedings that had been launched on the recommendations of the European Anti-Fraud Agency (OLAF) had mostly gone unpunished. In fact, only one or two people distant from government circles were charged or even punished. These cases showed that these embezzlers of EU funds, such as the main defendant in the fake doggy-fitting machine case who received a suspended prison sentence, were expendable.
The man who embezzled EU funds totaling HUF 45 million (€140,000 at today’s exchange rate) received a suspended prison sentence, while his three accomplices in the fraud received fines ranging between HUF 150,000 (€470) and HUF 1.5 million (€4700).
Eszter Katus: This article was important to me not only because it was one of my first major, two-part piece for Atlatszo, but also because it highlighted why people living in rural areas often feel like second-class citizens. Locals say that if the levels of toxic, carcinogenic substances in the soil and groundwater had been more than 10,000 times the limit in Budapest, the authorities and politicians would have acted by now. However, 200 kilometres away from the capital, nothing is happening, despite Greenpeace’s claim, and our research that the number of cancer cases in the region is significantly higher than the average. However, together with our authors from all over the country we are working to ensure that the things that someone would hide are brought to light, even in the remotest corner of the country.
Now bankrupt chemical manufacturer company Budapesti Vegyiművek (Budapest Chemical Works, BCW) has been producing and packaging pesticides and insecticides since the 1960s in Hidas, Baranya County. Chlorobenzene derivatives were generated as a waste by-product from the manufacturing process, the hazardous waste was stored in 200-liter metal barrels near the factory.
Gabriella Horn: Me and my colleuge, Ákos Baranya found farmers who had lost their livelihoods and hopes, animals locked in pens instead of fresh grazing land in the summer heat, on the land leased by the Hortobágy National Park, after the land privatisation in 2013 took away the pastures of farms that had been functioning well for 20-25 years. The applications of the former tenants were often rejected on fabricated grounds, and although farmers can make up for the lack of grazing land for a while, this cannot be financed in the long term. Moreover, they have also lost EU subsidies. New tenants not only lacked experience, but in many cases did not even have animals. According to locals, those who had good connections with local political elites benefited from the redistribution of land leases.
Several experienced Hungarian farmers were unable to lead their livestock to fresh grazing land at the start of this year, as their access to land was drastically and surprisingly cut.
Zita Szopkó: The reason I like this article is because I think it’s important to deal with topics from the countryside. The Moto GP track construction in Hajdúnánás shows the absurdity of how the government is pouring nearly a hundred billion HUF into an investment whose return is highly doubtful, and with an earlier attempt that failed miserably. I am glad that I was able to speak to the people affected, who have been struggling with the lack of information and with decisions being made over their heads. I wrote this article in April, but no real progress has been made since then, despite the fact that the expropriation of lands are scheduled to be completed by autumn. And I also have a more personal reason: I started working at Atlatszo about six months ago, and this was my first „serious” investigative piece.
After the failed Balatonring project in Sávoly more than ten years ago, the current government is once again trying to build a MotoGP track in Hungary. The 500-hectare circuit will cost HUF 65 billion, in Eastern Hungary, near a small town called Hajdúnánás. The first upcoming Hungarian Grand Prix will take place in 2023.
Orsolya Fülöp: For weeks I have been wondering whether the Danube at the Paks NPP should be measured to see ifthe summer heat wave had caused the Danube to warm up above the limit. After a little excitement, we managed to find out the geographical coordinates, get the measuring equipment, etc. but we were not prepared for the fact that we would have to navigate across a Saharan sea of sand to reach the Danube in Paks. It was an unforgettable moment as the four women, covered in a cloud of sand, pulled the stuck car out of the desert. The measurement was successfully taken, the crossing of the border was documented, and we happily set off for another 5 kilometres in the hot sand. Since then, I have treasured the Holy Water Thermometer on the kitchen wall, fortunately it also measures air temperature very well.
The water where the cooling water from the Paks nuclear plant enters the river Danube rose to above 30 °C during the recent heatwave, according to our measurements. We decided to go there and check the temperature ourselves because the nuclear plant was reluctant to give us the official data.
Attila Bátorfy: We created so many great things at Atlatszo that it was really hard to choose, but together with Tamás we decided that there was nothing else like Coronamonitor. This project illustrates what we think public service journalism is, and it is also the one that has shown where we have come in data journalism in recent years. The 2.9 million unique page views since its launch is a considerable number, but its value is best demonstrated by the dozens of people both at home and abroad, who have come to us for epidemiological data because they have not received it from anyone else. In more than a year, we have produced nearly a hundred charts and maps, and written about the same number of articles from the data. I don’t know how much of the data visualisations of Atlatszo will be preserved for posterity, but the Coronamonitor will certainly be remembered.
Data journalism section Atlo of Atlatszo launched a subpage dedicated to daily statistical updates, graphs and maps of the current status of the coronavirus outbreak in Hungary.
Áron Halász: When the refugee crisis was sweeping over us I tried to give a face to the people who were shown as a dangerous mass. Perhaps I did something to help show the obvious: asylum seekers are no worse or better than anyone else, they are rather traumatised people, with minimal civilian and almost no state support, trying to do something in a crisis situation. For me, the most important moment of the refugee crisis was walking with the crowd on foot from the East to Germany, which I got into by accident. Days after the scandal of a people smuggling truck drowned on the Austrian motorway and the increasingly bitter and unmanageable closures of the Keleti railway station – hundreds of people set off with their families on the M1 motorway. I went with them with a half-drained camera and phone, eventually returning from Salzburg the next day.
In 2015, Atlatszo.hu devoted extensive coverage to Hungary’s involvement in the migration crisis that is defining European politics to this day. One of the most crucial occasions was the day when a large group of refugees decided that they wouldn’t wait any longer for help and set off towards the west on foot.
Kornél Brassai: I prefer those articles where exploring a topic requires more than just a computer and internet connection. This is the most adventurous piece of writing I have ever done, requiring serious fieldwork, starting from the study of a single piece of data and document. Although the politician associated with the private jet was not caught in the end, the story of the plane itself provides an interesting insight into the intertwining of political actors and business circles.
Atlatszo has discovered another private jet used by members of the Hungarian government, their family members and by the business elite close to Viktor Orban. The mid-size private jet is owned by HUN-JET Kft.
Zsuzsa Zimre: As a journalist, I think the most I can achieve is to make a difference, big or small, as a result of my articles. A change in a bad practice or an investigation into a possible corruption case, although this is rarer. This is what happened in the case of the cycle path project in the settlement of Tát, where it was discovered that only 700 metres of cycle path were built from 166 million HUF, the rest was painted on a road that was already in a very poor state. I came across the story through a photo circulating on Facebook. As a result of the article, Ágnes Vadai (vice president of the Hungarian oppositon party, DK) contacted Péter Polt, Chief Prosecutor of Hungary, and the NAV launched an investigation into whether a crime had been committed.
The new, EU-funded cycle path between the settlements of Tát – Mogyorósbánya – Péliföldszentkereszt looks potholed and fragmented in photos shared on Facebook. We went to check out what kind of bike lane was built from 166 million forints.
Szilvia Zsilák: In the „Felcsút of the East”, what happened in PM Viktor Orban’s village was repeated: while Miklós Seszták, who has ties to Kisvárda, was Minister of Development from 2014 to 2018, more than HUF 20 billion of public money came to the city. The drone is one of the most useful tools for investigating cases as nothing else can show so spectacularly how much the political elite has gathered for itself or for municipalities dear to its heart. The oversized stadium flown into the suburbs, the thermal water equestrian rehabilitation centre, the English-language indoor tennis academy, the waterslide park, the exotic slum, are a perfect illustration of the inequality in the distribution of public funds in the country. Kisvárda is a textbook example of the pointless spending of taxes paid by EU and Hungarian citizens.
Atlatszo visited the native city of Miklós Seszták, Hungary’s former minister of national development (2014-2018), which has received more than EUR 61 million (HUF 20 billion) of public money in state and EU subsidies in the recent years for a handful of dubious projects.
Zoltán Sipos: The Hungarian government’s aids amied at Transylvania has provoked ambivalent reactions. These funds play a very important role: the vast majority of Hungarian organisations in Transylvania could not survive without them, and they also have a major impact on Hungarian public life in Transylvania: the Hungarian governments have always favoured projects that are close to their own goals and interests. This article summarises the support of the then opposition party, RMDSZ. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first article in the history of the Hungarian press in Transylvania to use its own database to prove that Fidesz is using public funds to influence the Hungarian political field in Transylvania. This was also an important step towards the creation of an independent investigative project in Transylvania, Átlátszó Erdély.
Fidesz has a long-standing relationship with the Hungarian political-civic faction Hungarian National Council of Transylvania (EMNT) and Hungarian People’s Party of Transylvania (EMNP), led by the well-known Laszlo Tokes. According to a recently spread rumour Fidesz, as a leader of the Hungarian government offers not only moral, but also financial support to the EMNP.
Tibor Sepsi: Effective protection of sources is one of the most important legal precondition for investigative journalism. If the people who speak on condition of anonymity, could not rely on the fact that the press is not obliged to disclose their sources in general, and in criminal cases only if the authorities justify strict conditions, many important stories would not reach the readers. That is why I think that the most outstanding legal case of the first ten years of Átlátszó is still the Brokernet case, which started with one of the first articles of the portal, continued with the police and prosecution decisions obliging the editor-in-chief to reveal the source, and ended with the decision of the Constitutional Court, which was also based on our constitutional complaint, creating guarantees for the protection of sources.
Acknowledging that atlatszo.hu’s claims were right, on the 19th December 2011 the Constitutional Court of Hungary decided that the protection of journalists’ sources is not sufficiently guaranteed by the new, widely criticised 2010 media law.
Tamás Bodoky: The Paks fault line case is more than just an important story, I feel it is a textbook example of why Atlatszo is needed. The geological research that laid the foundations for the expansion of the NPP, which cost 8 billion HUF of public money, was misrepresented, its worrying results were concealed from the public and partly from the competent authorities, and the silence of the experts on the subject was bought during the site authorisation process. We first learned about the story from an insider in the form of a leak, the concealed research results were obtained through a public interest data request and the prospect of a lawsuit, and although the earthquake risk of the Paks NPP site has since been confirmed by the Austrian Environmental Protection Agency, there is still silence on the subject.
A tectonic fault line runs under the site of the planned Paks II nuclear plant in Hungary. Moreover, a geologist found traces of earthquakes that happened less than ten thousand years ago and reached the surface, right next to the site of the nuclear plant.
The original, more detailed Hungarian version of this article (with more authors who talk about their favourite works, that are only available in Hungarian, thus, we couldn’t include them here) is available here.
Cover photo: Dániel Németh