In April, Matej Voda reported on new coronavirus legislation in Hungary that could lead to the arrest of journalists. Parliament revoked the emergency law in June, but media freedom remains under threat in the country.
Last week, it emerged that the Hungarian government is gathering information about foreign travel by journalists. A team of reporters at the new independent media outlet Telex obtained an email sent in June by József Magyar, deputy under-secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Hungarian embassies in EU states. In it, he requested details of foreign study programs and training courses attended by journalists, and which local media they had interacted with while away.
“Independent media has been under attack since 2010 and the pressure from the government is rising. This story is a good example of the mood around the independent media in Hungary,” Telex journalist Tamás Fábián told me in an email.
The reporters who brought the leaked email to light are former employees of Index, once a leading independent Hungarian news site. In July, more than 70 journalists resigned from the publication after the dismissal of editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull. The threat to Index began in March, when Miklos Vaszily, a businessman affiliated to Prime Minister Viktor Orban, took 50% ownership of Indamedia, the company that manages Index’s advertising and revenue.
In September, former Index staff launched a crowdfunding campaign to set up Telex, which has already been a target of pro-government media attacks, including that it received €200,000 in funding from billionaire philanthropist Zdeněk Bakala — a man who has been referred to as the “Czech Soros.”
When asked by Telex why the requests were made, the foreign affairs ministry replied that it “does everything necessary to avoid foreign influence in Hungarian internal matters.”
In a television interview last week, communications secretary Tamás Menczer denied that the ministry was collecting information on journalists. He did, however, comment on the disclosure itself, saying that “it looks like the minister of foreign affairs hasn’t fired enough people, because documents are still leaking.”
According to Dalma Dojcsak, a lawyer at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, which provides free legal services to journalists, this reported surveillance is simply “business as usual.”
“Since, in Hungary, the law allows for members of the cabinet to basically gather information on any citizen, without effective legal oversight from the court, this thing that happened to the journalists is obviously happening on a regular basis but was not leaked before,” she said.
Over the years, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has clamped down on the independent press. Journalists have reported being denied access to government events and their requests for information being dismissed by the authorities. Others say they have been verbally insulted by officials and their sources intimidated.