Treetop walkway, illegal battery waste, public procurements – our top stories from a turbulent 12 months

It was never going to be an easy year. According to a Transparency International report in January 2023, Hungary was perceived as having the worst public sector corruption record in the EU. Press freedom continues to lag. According to Freedom House, democratic institutions like the electoral process, civil society, and judicial framework and independence have all declined. Inflation has seen prices soar and everyday people struggle.

Internationally, the image isn’t any better. The EU froze around $30 billion in funds for the rule-of-law offenses The country’s government is viewed as a Russian-leaning bully in affairs related to the Ukrainian war. One would be hard-pressed to find any good progress in a country that had, at one point decades ago, been considered full of promise. We continued to work throughout the year to uncover abuses of power and disinformation, and to give a voice to those who are effectively being silenced. Here are some of our top stories from the last 12 months.

1. Systemic abuse at a nursing home

In January, we uncovered the systemic abuse of patients at a nursing home in the southern village of Nagymagocs. We obtained videos that showed caregivers humiliating those in the institution, including slapping patients and throwing objects at them. In another video, staff laughed as they questioned and repeatedly insulted a confused patient. Reports of sexual abuse also surfaced but broke down without fail due to the inadequacies of the internal complaints mechanism.

In response to our findings, the police launched an investigation into the alleged abuses.

2. Expensive trips of Hungarian politicians

In February, we submitted an FOI request for the expenses of the trips taken by Hungary’s high-ranking politicians on private luxury jets. We found out that delegations spent millions on catering and internet – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs particularly enjoyed expensive tastes, spending over HUF 12.4 million on a trip to Cairo and Mana’a.

And yet, even with the soaring expenses, the price of fuel was never invoiced – which means that, unless fuel became free overnight, these expenditures are significantly higher than what the MoD reported.

3. The infamous treetop walkway without trees

March marked the beginning of the farcical treetop walkway story. The Mayor of Nyírmártonfalva won HUF 64 million in EU funding for the project, which aimed to build a 50-meter-long treetop walkway for the throngs of tourists in Nyírmártonfalva who thought to themselves: “if only there was a treetop walkway here.”

Alas, alack – in the process of building a treetop walkway, they cut out all the trees. And what’s a treetop walkway without trees, if not an ugly structure, erect in isolation over a scorched field, that swallowed millions of EU money?

4. The equestrian programme that no one asked for

Behold, the Csekonics Programme: hidden contracts, nepotism, unqualified experts. The government spent HUF 3 billion on the equestrian programme that no one asked for in hopes that the Hungarian equestrian team qualifies for the Olympics. Horses and stables were bought, although this process was less than transparent. Riders were selected – many of whom appeared to be related to management in the Equestrian Federation.

We wait with bated breath to see the country’s great equestrian triumphs.

5. Overpriced food packages for the poor

We found that products included in a package for the poor were significantly overpriced. Milk, for example, was valued at HUF 516 in the EU-funded package – significantly higher than its HUF 159 market value. The 2017 HUF 9.5 billion framework contract’s overpriced products meant that money could have been saved had those most deprived just bought these products on the market.

6. Vineyards bought by the daughter of the PM

In Northeastern Hungary’s wine country, eldest Prime Ministerial daughter Ráhel Orbán bought 34 hectares of vineyards, pastures, and orchards for HUF 273 million. Bizarrely, some of the land was previously owned by her mother and leased by a company owned by her husband. A true family affair.

7. Illegal battery waste

We received photos of an abandoned industrial park in Iklad that showed a large number of lithium-ion battery cells being stored. This was despite the fact that the plant does not have the capacity to store battery waste – it can only store plastic, rubber and textile waste. Bags teeming with a black dust material were labelled with Korean characters, and the smell of chemicals was pervasive around the derelict buildings.

After our visit, police arrived on-site to investigate the illegally stored and potentially harmful waste. The site could be a symptom of a larger country-wide problem as Hungary surges forward to become a leader in EV battery production – the shocking incapacity to handle battery waste management.

8. Secret waitlist registers

Several reports were made to Atlatszo from across the country about secret waitlist registers. These act as additional waitlists to the official registry upheld by the National Health Insurance Fund Management (NEAK), which means patients often wait, in pain, for months for operations. At the same time, official statistics claim that wait-times are only a few days – the secret waitlist allows them to make this claim.

Patients came to us with horror stories about predicted two-year-long waits. The complaints couldn’t be dismissed as the impatient tantrum of a few people – a medical professional confirmed that most doctors and procedures had a secret waitlist. The resulting statistics: very few patients on the official waitlist, but very long wait-times.

9. Expensive farms in Tihany

Many areas in Tihany are labelled as agricultural areas, where strict parameters rule the size and type of permitted buildings. But agricultural spaces in the region, a favorite of the Hungarian political elite, do not resemble agricultural areas anywhere else. Mansions with terraces and private swimming pools have been cropping up despite the 2022 ban on construction in agricultural zones. Pools, for example, are not permitted in these aras – and yet, with aerial pictures, we found that the Hungarian elite has been preparing for a refreshing dip in luxury.


10. Systemic corruption in public procurement procedures

For nearly half a year, we conducted a detailed investigation into 446 public procurement procedures won by Tömb 2002 Kft with the public database of Hungary’s e-procurement system, a feature requested by the European Commission to improve rule of law in the country. The investigation was one of the most in-depth statistical analyses performed on Hungarian public procurement.

We found patterns that indicated bid rigging. Tömb 2002 Kft took part in a total of 79 restricted procedures, and won 58 of them – a 73 percent success rate. With some public buyers, the company achieved a 100 percent success rate – incredibly unlikely. These ranged from contracts with public entities across the country and urban management companies. Despite the suspicious patterns, there had been no investigation into the company.

11. Migrant traffickers near the Hungarian-Serbian border

Residents of Asotthalom fear for their safety as human traffickers take advantage of the porous fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border. Despite the government’s claims that the barrier is impenetrable, the area has been rife with migrant traffickers, who pick up the migrants near Ruzsa for transportation.

The locals fear for their safety – the car wrecks on the roadside and audible shots nearby don’t help – but police have said that they are understaffed and that the Serbian authorities do little to help.

12. Political network in the USA with Hungarian taxpayers’ money

In a move that could be considered undeclared lobbying, the state-funded Danube Institute think-tank is using taxpayer money to fund select American public figures. This is only the latest move in a long process that has seen Hungary attempt to increase its influence on American policymaking by strengthening ties with the American right-wing. Millions have gone into lobbying and soft-power generation – the Danube Institute, linked to the conservative Heritage Foundation, is only the latest move.

The think-tank, by its own telling, advocates for “conservative and national values and thinking” under the privately-owned trust Lajos Batthyány Foundation (BLA). According to the US Southern Poverty Law Center, the Institute has contracted 22 foreign visiting fellows, whose activities have gone beyond the realm of scholarly research – instead, they have been using Hungarian public money to change US media coverage of Hungary for the better.

At the same time, these figures are not registered as foreign lobbyists. According to the SPLC, American journalist and institute director Rod Dreher’s activities would qualify him as an unregistered lobbyist. Other unregistered figures as Michael O’Shea – who received money from the BLA to write about Hungary in the US – and Christopher Rufo, who received funding to give lectures on “critical race theory and LGBTQ propaganda” and to write two articles in the Hungarian Conservative or the Hungarian Review. The aim, apparently, is to show the American right a possible path to success.

Compiled by Vanda Mayer