Why is investigative journalism important? NGOs recall their most memorable stories from the past ten years of Atlatszo

Átlátszó turned 10 years old this year. To celebrate the anniversary, we asked some Hungarian NGOs what they think were the most important and memorable stories and investigations of Atlatszo in the past decade.

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Katalin Szitás – Political Capital: Many of us felt that Tamás Bodoky was very brave when he launched Atlatszo in 2011. It was difficult to predict how viable such an initiative could be in Hungary in the medium, let alone in the long term. Then came the stories, the investigations, and more and more of us read Átlátszó, it slowly became part of our daily routine to look at the site, more and more news stories made an impact on other news sites as well – so it worked.

For me, one of the most memorable cases was the one about the open voting in Forró in 2014. Chain voting had long been known as a common practice of electoral fraud, and even a phone photo of the ballot paper was considered “common” at the time, but the fact that Átlátszó caught the County municipality of Borsod in the act of simply turning the voting into an open ballot was a step up.

Public work for the right vote: open elections in Borsod county

We have discovered an unusual method for checking votes in Sunday’s local election in the settlement of Forró in Borsod County.

The law on electoral procedures does not make voting in polling booths compulsory: anyone who wants to can vote outside. But that was not the case here. Atlatszo’s camera recorded voters presenting their ballot papers to some members of the counting board, as if to prove that they had cast their ballot in the right place (hardly a justification for using the conditional mode).

The case uncovered – apart from being part of a project with Political Capital – was particularly shocking because, despite video evidence of abuse of the right to vote by the most vulnerable, nothing happened. The results of the polling station were not annulled, the vote was not repeated, and ‘of course’ those responsible were not sanctioned.

From this point of view, investigative work may seem useless – but it is not. The fact alone that we have even become aware of this phenomenon is of great value, but it also has an impact beyond that: civil and political actors know where they must send (party) delegates and what they must pay attention to.

Miklós Ligeti – Transparency International Hungary: We consider the coverage of the Elios case as one of the most outstanding professional achievements of Atlatszo. Many people – and not without reason – are dissatisfied with the prosecution of corruption in Hungary and with the professional performance of the investigating authorities. We ourselves often criticise the authorities for the delays or complete lack of prosecutions, which contribute to the fact that high-level corruption often goes unpunished in Hungary. The state authorities repeatedly try to cover up this deliberate misrepresentation with the ridiculous defence that the authorities do not read the newspapers, so to speak, and are therefore not officially informed about corruption scandals that have already come to light in the press.

The story of how Orban’s son-in-law became rich, told by seven major Atlatszo investigations

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…

This attitude leads many to assume that investigative newspaper articles exposing corruption can in themselves trigger the work of the authorities, so all that needs to be done is to write “indictment” above the exposing articles and the crime is closed. As irritating as the authorities’ blatant partisanship is, those who believe that journalists can do what prosecutors cannot or will not do are mistaken. It is not the job of the journalist.

András Becker’s groundbreaking work, in which he describes with a thoroughness that puts expert lawyers to shame the obvious and indefensible omissions made by the authorities in their handling of the Elios case, is an exception to the rule just described. Of course, the analysis of this article can never become an indictment. However, it is probable that

future investigators and prosecutors, when they reopen the Elios case files in a better age, will also rely on the work of András Becker to understand what happened during the public lighting investments and how their own predecessors in office let those responsible get away with it.

This is how authorities sabotaged the fraud investigation against Orban’s son-in-law

István Tiborcz, the Hungarian prime minister’s son-in-law entered the exclusive club of the 100 richest people of Hungary. Moreover, with…

Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ): We think that the most important project of Atlatszo so far is the creation and operation of the KiMitTud public interest data request portal, which has made FOI requests popular in Hungary by providing a transparent system. Atlatszo’s contribution to enabling anyone to access data of public interest is unparalleled. launches FOIA request service

On 29th May launched its ‘Ki Mit Tud?’ service which allows anyone to send freedom of information requests to…

One of our favourite articles also focuses on this topic, and more specifically on how much it upsets the public official that anyone can demand that he or she disclose data of public interest. The article describes the exchange of letters between Katalin Erdélyi, who requested data through KiMitTud, and the deputy notary of Győr, which was of course made public in advance due to the specificities of the data requesting system.

After the requesting journalist informs the public official of their basic obligations regarding freedom of information (that they is obliged to reply to anyone who identifies him/herself with only an e-mail address), the public official becomes upset that what he has written in his official capacity is available publicly.

This mentality and the basic lack of knowledge of freedom of information by those in public office is, of course, a daily experience, but this article, by showing that the law is on the side of the public, may encourage the reader to make a good data request.

Ágnes Urbán – Mérték Media Monitor: It was already noticeable after the launch of Atlatszo, in 2011, that it was creating a new model in the Hungarian media. At that time, there was no talk about the closure of independent newsrooms, but the adoption of the Media Act foreshadowed the transformation of the media system. It was more a possibility than a foregone conclusion that only committed and supportive communities could keep newsrooms alive. In online journalism, we have not seen such an example, and many did not believe that this would be necessary in a business model based on advertising revenues. The innovation of Atlatszo has since been adopted by many others, and it now seems to be the key to survival for an independent newsroom.

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Atlatszo, Hungary’s first investigative journalism non-profit is financed by nonpartisan and non-governmental sources; we do not accept money from state institutions, political parties and affiliates. Institutional donors cover 50% of our budget, the rest is crowdfunded. Atlatszo is a watchdog NGO and online newspaper for investigative journalism to promote transparency, accountability, and freedom of information in Hungary.

Other editorial offices should also be grateful that Atlatszo got involved in source protection right from the start. In a major operation, the police seized hardware from the editor-in-chief’s apartment, which Atlatszo took legal action against. This led to the amendment of the so-called media law and the strengthening of source protection for journalists. This was just one of the great achievements of the past decade, and the paper has produced many stories that will be remembered for a long time.

Constitutional Court decided in favour of journalistic source protection

Acknowledging that’s claims were right, on the 19th December 2011 the Constitutional Court of Hungary decided that the protection…

Gábor Bakos – Energiaklub: I can think of three memorable stories from Atlatszo from the past years: one is the joint action of Energiaklub and Atlatszo, when we measured the overheating of the Danube river in the summer at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. The other is the article on luxury yachts and private jets, which was perhaps the first to show the travel habits of the Hungarian government elite. The third was the case of the military vehicle stationed at the residence of the nation’s number one oligarch, Lőrinc Mészáros, which even as a citizen who was broadly aware of Hungarian public affairs, surprised me a bit.

Water temperature near Paks nuclear plant was above 30 °C, dangerous for life in the river Danube

The water where the cooling water from the Paks nuclear plant enters the river Danube rose to above 30 °C…

I think that in Hungary today we hardly see any journalistic work that gives us a picture of the world we live in. And it would be very good to have a picture of our own lives and our own reality. It’s no coincidence that I mention the word ‘picture’ so often: thinking about it now, I think it’s the material with strong imagery, including drone footage and video, that sticks with me most. Maybe it’s not just me, because these works are reaching more people on social media, for example, which is very much needed in today’s Hungarian media situation. That is why I think the work of Átlátszó is important.

Miklós Merényi – K-Monitor: Since I have been working at K-Monitor, I have been reviewing Atlatszo for our press database from the very beginning. I have taken more than 1800 articles from you, so I must have read at least that many of your articles. It’s hard to pick the most memorable material: I often think of the mood video uploaded to the article about Szijjártó’s yachting trip, for example, which is so mind-blowingly cool that you want to be there. Also burned in was the drone footage of the empire of Mészáros, it really was something you could write down but you really need to see.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó manages the crisis in Belarus on a luxury yacht in the Adriatic

The Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs is spending this summer seemingly feverish, just visit his Facebook page to make sure:…

Yet I consider your data visualisation materials to be the most important. I know how much work there is to do with these articles, but they are also an incomplete documentation of the systemic transformations of recent years. If I have to highlight one, it should be the material on the media market, but equally cool is the Bethlen Gábor Fund map, the compilation on the richest Hungarians or the land auction map from 2017.

Data visualization: mapping the results of state land auctions

The Hungarian government auctioned off an incredible amount of state-owned land in 2015 and 2016. The state put up 290,000…

Bernadett Nagy – Hungarian Helsinki Committee: We would like to highlight two things from the content of Átlátszó: one is the KiMitTud platform, which is not an article, but it is still a product of Atlatszo and it is very important for our work. It is accessible to everyone and a very effective tool for controlling the functioning of the state. Our other favourite is the container prison material, because it shows an important slice of the problems that have a strong impact on the prison system in Hungary. It is good to have you!

András Lukács – Clean Air Action Group (Levegő Munkacsoport): There were several articles that I read with great interest. The first one that came to my mind was the case of András Horváth, the whistleblower, in which the Clean Air Action Group was involved too. The reason why we stood up for it was that the systemic VAT fraud was also a source of enormous pollution: a lot of trucks went back and forth across the border to carry out this tax fraud. Atlatszo has been instrumental in bringing this case to the attention of a wide public. I used the material in Atlatszo many times before and since then too.

Whistleblower Claims Corruption in Government Enables Large-Scale VAT fraud in Hungary |

Whistleblower Claims Corruption in Government Enables Large-Scale VAT fraud in Hungary

László Majtényi – Eötvös Károly Institute: When Atlatszo was launched, I publicly celebrated it in an article. Of course, I was happy because I was and am committed to transparency in the state as a theoretical writer on the problems of the public sphere and as an ombudsman for freedom of information. I seem to remember ending my piece with ‘Go Bodoky, go Atlatszo’. Or vice versa. I was sure you would do well and I was not disappointed. What I wasn’t sure of was that you’d last this long. Even in the face of headwinds, secret service and police harassment, constant attacks from the tabloids, your unbiased representation of constitutional values, incorruptibility, moral soundness and excellent journalistic and theoretical professionalism have characterised all your articles that I have come to know.

The invitation is to recall memorable moments of Atlatszo. There were many, ranging from the journalistic courage exposing the emptiness, revocability and counterproductivity of the source protection rules of the Fidesz media law. But I would rather turn the invitation around and look to the future this time. I think it is surely time for the Hungarian electorate to put an end to the corrupt and secretive power of Fidesz. Let us assume that this change will happen in the foreseeable future. I expect Atlatszo to act with the same fierce determination as before in the matter of exposing future left-wing oligarchs, future county lords and their political connections, influence, parties, and in the matter of protecting the transparency of the operation of the state, when the time comes. I am afraid that there will be journalistic tasks of this kind, and I strongly suspect that you will not disappoint me in the future.

Translated by Zita Szopkó. The original, Hungarian version of this article can be found here. Cover photo: Civilizáció/Facebook.

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