Freedom of information in 2023: Atlatszo fought hard and won some important cases

Accessing data of public interest is not easy in Hungary. Despite the law, the authorities either do not respond to the FOI requests, or send the information in a not user-friendly form. As usual, we met both situations last year, so we had to go to court in many cases to get the answers, and we also spent many hours processing the huge amount of the data obtained. We won lawsuits on several important issues and exposed the truth about how public money is spent. Here are our most important findings from 2023.

At the end of 2022, the government decree that allowed authorities to respond to data requests within 45 days (+ 45 days extension) instead of the 15 days (+ 15 days extension) set in the Freedom of Information Act, finally expired. It made our work much easier in 2023 when the authorities had to return to the normal deadlines.

Yet the various state and local government bodies wanted to keep public data secret, just as in previous years. But as usual, we fought for the information and won in many cases. In this article, we collected the most important examples.

1. Nationalisation of the Alföld Printing House

The Library Supply Nonprofit Ltd (KELLO), owned by the Hungarian state, bought Alföldi Nyomda Zrt. in 2020, but the purchase price was not disclosed, so we requested information from the Library Supply Nonprofit Ltd. through a FOI request. This is the company that has been the sole provider of textbook ordering and delivery to schools since 2013.

We went to court to obtain information about the purchase price. We won the case in the first and second instance, but KELLO did not accept the decision and filed an appeal with the highest judicial body, the Curia. However, after one and a half years, Curia also ruled in our favour, so the state-owned company had to disclose the purchase price. It was HUF 4.5 billion (approx. EUR 12 million).

2. Bike park without cyclists

Not far from the centre of Hatvan, a town in North Hungary, is the cycling adventure park with a promenade above it, built with a net investment of 140 million HUF. The trail was part of a complex EU project that cost a net HUF 884 million, including a bridge, cycle path, and project management. The maintenance period lasted until 6 July 2021, after which it was closed for another year. In autumn 2022, it was finally shut down. In a FOI request, we asked the municipality how many people have used the trail during its lifetime. The response showed that the adventure park had a total of 55 visitors, which means that one cyclist cost EU taxpayers HUF 2.5 million (EUR 6,500).

3. Expensive flights with “free” fuel

After a successful data request, we received some data from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) on the cost of military flights of leading politicians between January 2021 and September 2022. The MoD sent us a link to a watermarked scan of a table – and every row was on a separate page. Better yet, the link died after two weeks. We worked hard to create a table from the scanned documents.

Data from the Ministry of Defense (MoD) showed that Hungary’s highest-ranked politicians frequently fly in luxury – but the trips’ invoices often don’t include costs like fuel. All the better for the delegations – who can, and have, instead spent extravagant amounts on on-board catering. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó’s delegation to Cairo, for example, consumed HUF 5.5 million (EUR 14,400) worth of food and drinks and used HUF 6.8 million (EUR 17,900) worth of internet. Discrepancies also cropped up around the Prime Minister’s trips to the USA and Croatia. President Katalin Novák’s trip to Brazil cost almost nothing, and former President János Áder travelled to Bulgaria for just HUF 125,000 (EUR 329).

4. Government ads in the propaganda media

We first sent an FOI request on the „public service” advertisement campaigns to the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office in October 2022. They responded by saying that “we do not keep the data in the breakdown requested.” Then, following another FOI request, it took them 45 days to send us a list of campaigns, so we received the data by 19 December 2022. We had to submit another FOI request for the actual spending, and the reply came: they won’t send us the spreadsheets, but we could look at them in person. We could not use the phone or camera in the ministry building, we could only take notes.

The campaigns are stored in 13 folders, and we collected data from there. We looked at the media plans, which show how many ads each media outlet placed and where. According to our totals, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office spent HUF 19.6 billion (EUR 51,5 million) on what they call public service announcements in 2022. Of the advertising linked to political campaigns, HUF 16.6 billion (EUR 43,6 million) went to pro-government media.

5. Overpriced food for the poorest

The Hungarian government, through the Directorate-General for Social Affairs and Child Protection, has been distributing EU money to people in need. For months, the Directorate General has kept secret exactly what is put into the increasingly expensive food packages for people in need. We won the FOI lawsuit at the first instance at the end of 2021 and at the second instance in May 2022. We received the requested spreadsheet with prices very soon afterward, so it became clear that there was a brutal overpricing.

To offer oil for 1 333 HUF in 2017, which was 489 HUF at retail at the time, is simply outrageous, as is the pricing of other products. In 2017, Metro sold 1.5% Riska milk for HUF 159 gross. In public procurement, the price of milk jumped to 516 HUF—more than three times the price of the market offer.

6. Secrets of the Integrity Authority

Hungary’s new anti-fraud body, the Integrity Authority is funded by public money. But it was not set up voluntarily by the Hungarian government, they were forced to do so by the EU: this was one of 17 commitments to fight corruption and waste of public money that the European Commission made conditional on Hungary continuing to receive EU funds. But the way the organisation works is interesting.

We were curious about the contracts made with three companies, including the favorite security firm of the government. We did not receive a written reply from the authority but were asked to go in person to their offices, where Ferenc Biró, the organization’s chairman, refused to disclose the contracts. It turned out that no other bids were invited, and Ferenc Biró selected the contracted partners on his own. As to why they did so, the answer was that “there was no time or manpower” to carry out the procedures in the quarter in which they started their operation. After we published a story about the case, suddenly a miracle happened: within a few hours we received the contracts that had been withheld.

7. Teachers missing from public schools

Teachers in Hungarian state schools had until the end of September to declare whether they accepted the new status that came with the law adopted in July, which brought several changes to their lives. As the deadline approached, the war of numbers intensified, with the government repeatedly communicating that they were not worried about teachers leaving in masses, while teachers’ unions and other stakeholders have long been sounding the alarm that the already significant teacher shortage would be further exacerbated.

In mid-October, we sent an FOI request to the 60 school district centres to find out exactly how many teachers had left their schools between January and September. We received the requested information from 59 school districts 30 days after our data request.

Data show that in 2023, 4 314 teachers in schools under the control of school districts had left their profession. Most of the teachers resigned in July and August, 66.4% decided to leave during this period.

8. Landfills on fire in the countryside

For more than seven months, we have been trying in vain with FOI requests to find out from the relevant authorities how often waste fires have occurred in Hungary in recent years. In several negative replies, the National Directorate General for Disaster Management has said that they do not collect such data. However, with the help of our reader, we finally obtained the data from a public, online, but unsearchable database – run by the National Directorate General for Disaster Management.

According to the data collected, there have been 350 fires at landfills, waste storage sites, waste treatment plants, waste processing plants, and illegal dumps in Hungary between July 2017 and July 2023. In 2022, there were 87 incidents when waste went up in flames, an average of one waste fire every four days. In 2021, 55 incidents of major waste fires in the country were recorded, 41 in 2020, 57 in 2019, and 72 in 2018. We showed the fires on data visualisation.

9. Questionable equestrian programme

At the end of March, we reported that the Hungarian Equestrian Federation had received HUF 3 billion in state funding under the Csekonics Equestrian Programme to help Hungarian riders compete successfully in Olympic qualification competitions. The Federation has entrusted the majority of the specific tasks to the Lovassport Nonprofit Ltd to which it has transferred HUF 2.8 billion. The company is 100% owned by the Hungarian Equestrian Federation.

We tried to ask questions at the Federation, but they did not respond to our letter. We also asked the non-profit company managing the state subsidies for the contracts they had signed under the programme, but they refused to answer. We decided to sue for the data, which we won in the first instance in May 2023. According to the judge, the document was clear evidence that the Lovassport Nonprofit Ltd. was performing a public task and was therefore obliged to disclose the data. The company appealed the decision, and Atlatszo filed a counter-appeal. The case was decided at the second instance in autumn, with the Metropolitan Court of Appeal upholding the judgment of the Metropolitan Court of First Instance.

10. Lawsuit against the PM’s Office

In May 2021, Direkt36 reported that the government-friendly think-thank organisation, the Antall József Knowledge Centre Foundation (AJKC) had received over HUF 4 billion in public money from the Orbán government over the years, from which the head of the institution, Péter Antall (son of the late Prime Minister József Antall), received a very high salary, and travelled abroad with his colleagues, where they mostly stayed in lavish hotels and also spent on private hospitals and expensive suitcases.

The Prime Minister’s Office responded to the newspaper’s questions by saying that an investigation would be launched to find out whether the AJKC had used the public money it had received “efficiently and in a way that was appropriate to its purpose”. Almost half a year later, they announced that the investigation was closed, and “the state will not continue to support the Antall József Knowledge Centre from public funds”.

After that announcement, we requested the due diligence report from the Prime Minister’s Office in a FOI request to see the findings. They refused to release the report, so we sued the PM’s Office for it. After the first and second instances, we also won the case at the Supreme Court and finally got the document last November. It includes horrendous travel and accommodation expenses, as well as a contract with the company owned by the wife of the head of the knowledge centre, Péter Antall.

Written and translated by Katalin Erdélyi. The original, Hungarian version of this story can be found here.