Pro-Orban Forces Test Powerful New ‘Sovereignty’ Tool Against Independent Media

5 mins read
Viktor Orban
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gestures as he addresses an annual press conference in Budapest on December 21, 2022, prior to the government's last meeting of the year 2022. (Photo by Attila KISBENEDEK / AFP)

It’s a naked truth of today’s Hungary that tangling with Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s political machine risks leaving journalists dangerously exposed.

No state support or public ad revenues. Little or no facetime with even lowly ruling Fidesz party officials. And, now, no way to avoid fears that a new and seemingly unaccountable bully institution is breathing down their necks.

A dizzying array of plucky independent news providers has arisen in response the 14-year supermajority in parliament that has allowed Orban and his Fidesz allies to govern with little oversight while consolidating the media sector in friendly hands. But the advent in February of the Sovereignty Protection Office has presented them with a fresh, and perhaps existential, challenge.

Its creation has been challenged by the European Commission and criticized by the United States, and its activities were blasted by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission as “not subject to any State oversight” and with “absolute — and unchecked — discretion” to defend an ill-defined national interest that is anyways already safeguarded.

Legal scholars and political analysts warn it is “the tip of the iceberg” of “regime preservation” and evidence of Orban’s increasingly autocratic effort to “create a perfect setting of intimidation.”

The only confirmed target so far of Sovereignty Protection Office President Tamas Lanczi is Peter Magyar, a whistle-blowing politician whose surprise defection in March shook Fidesz and energized Orban’s detractors ahead of next month’s municipal and European Parliamentary elections.

But no sooner had Magyar been tarred with Lanczi’s brush than one of Hungary’s most influential and hard-hitting independent media outlets came under similar suspicion, under assault by a pro-government attack-dog institution called the Civil Solidarity Foundation-Civil Solidarity Forum (COF-COKA).

At a press conference in mid-April that was well-attended by state and other friendly media, COF-COKA shared its dim view of investigative news nonprofit Atlatsz’s Ki Mit Tud? (Who Knows What?) project, a portal that has facilitated tens of thousands of freedom-of-information requests for Hungarians seeking answers from public institutions.

The group accused Atlatszo of “distracting” state employees and wasting public money. It questioned the FOI requests’ effectiveness and said they “mostly serve the interests of opposition parties.” Crucially, it appealed to Lanczi’s office “to deal with this phenomenon,” citing Alatszo’s use of “funds coming from abroad” and alleged “espionage,” in part because findings by Ki Mit Tud? are “made available for browsing by anyone…[and] can even serve foreign interests.”

It also underscored the threat from Orban’s frequently invoked nemesis, billionaire George Soros, the subject of a notorious “Soros mercenaries” list for which ex-editor Lanczi’s former publication was eventually forced to apologize.

“Our work can in no way be taken as an attack but according to our convictions,” COF-COKA said, adding that pursuant to its self-appointed “watchdog” role, it had created an “NGO-Locator” to track and counter Atlatszo’s project. COF-COKA also said it would be watching a handful of other NGOs that it said were unfairly “hunting” politicians and private individuals.

Atlatszo founder Tamas Bodoky and his editors had picked up independent Hungarian journalism’s biggest annual prize, the Hungarian Press Award, just a month earlier.

Peter Uj, editor in chief of independent news outlet, called the award a recognition of Atlatszo’s dedication to “successfully and self-sacrificingly carr[ying] out the social task it has undertaken, setting an example not only for the post-democracy press, but also for the post-democracy citizenry.”

Tamas Bodoky (second from left) and staffers receive the National Association of Hungarian Journalists' annual Press Award in March 2024.
Tamas Bodoky (second from left) and staffers receive the National Association of Hungarian Journalists’ annual Press Award in March 2024.

Speaking to RFE/RL weeks later, Bodoky described routinely fending off more than a year of accusations and threats from COF-COKA that he dismissed as “complete bullshit conspiracy theories” aimed at discrediting Atlatszo. He noted Atlatszo reporting in the past that labeled COF-COKA as a “public money magnet” and tied it to tens of millions in taxpayer-funded contracts.

The Sovereignty Protection Act empowers Lanczi to unleash the intelligence services to spy on just about anyone he chooses, with no obligation to notify those individuals or entities.

Bodoky said last week that Atlatszo had received no notification, “so we don’t know.”

“[But] when this pro-government NGO says something, it isn’t accidental,” he said. “This is something the government wants to hear.” Bodoky called COF-COKA’s statements “a propaganda opening to signal an investigation into free media organizations and others” in hopes of whippping up “popular demand” for such an investigation.

“We’re living in constant fear of if or when these propaganda attacks will turn into official investigations and harassment,” he said.

Whether or not the Fidesz-controlled intelligence services are investigating, the intended impact of the COF-COKA’s widely circulated accusations seems clear. Bodoky says it invariably chips away at readership among pro-government Hungarians, discourages potential sources from talking to Atlatszo, inspires public organizations to “blacklist” it and withhold information, and “makes us think twice before applying for a grant about how this will be framed in the propaganda media.”

Independent Hungarian journalists and outside experts quickly recognized the potential threat to a free press of the Sovereignty Protection Act that Fidesz lawmakers rushed through parliament in November-December, creating the office.

Once COF-COKA launched its assault, a number of other independent news outlets came out in support of Atlatszo, saying in an open letter that “oppressive powers have tried many times to banish Hungarian journalism to nothingness forever, but as the recognition of Atlatszo shows: this never succeeded.”

“I do think it’s visible that the law and processes are being ‘tested’ right now,” Blanka Zoldi, a signatory and editor in chief at Lakmusz (Litmus), a fact-checking platform for “disinformation stakeholders” that is partly funded by the European Union, told RFE/RL via e-mail.

Hungary’s independent-minded journalists have proved resilient and creative in response to official marginalization and shoestring budgets. Their influence was on full display in February when President Katalin Novak was forced to resign after unearthed a court ruling showing she’d pardoned an accessory to child sex abuse thanks to a tip from “one of our readers.”

Atlatszo is funded about equally between crowdfunding and projects and grants from outside groups including Soros’s Open Society Foundations, the European Union, the London-based Sigrid Rausing Trust, the Netherlands-based Limelight Foundation, and the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy — all of which it publicly acknowledges.

It made its name on tough reporting that spared neither political left nor right, documenting abuse and police brutality as leftist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany clung to power in the 2000s and a decade later chronicling Orban and his governing elites’ use of private planes and luxury yachts for soccer matches, vacations, and meetings abroad.

Andras Kadar is a lawyer and co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, one of the country’s oldest and most influential human rights groups. He said his organization, which along with Globsec, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TaSz), and K-Monitor was one of the four other entities put on notice by COF-COKA in April, called the allegations against Atlatszo “absolutely ridiculous” and “a very typical tool of the illiberal regime.”

He also said he was confident that Atlatszo “will not change its modus operandi as a result of the attacks, and trust that no other independent media outlets and journalists will do so either.”

“They have been doing a crucial job in a very hostile environment for quite a long time now,” Kadar told RFE/RL, “but cases like that of the presidential pardoning scandal have shown that even under such difficult conditions, their work can have tremendous impact.”