The Website That Shows How a Free Press Can Die

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From the beginning of his premiership in 2010, Viktor Orban has steadily eroded the checks and balances in Hungary’s once-promising democracy, especially the independent media.CreditCreditAkos Stiller/Bloomberg

By Patrick Kingsley and Benjamin Novak

BUDAPEST — Hungary’s leading news website, Origo, had a juicy scoop: A top aide to the far-right prime minister, Viktor Orban, had used state money to pay for sizable but unexplained expenses during secret foreign trips. The story embarrassed Mr. Orban and was a reminder that his country still had an independent press.

But that was in 2014. Today, Origo is one of the prime minister’s most dutiful media boosters, parroting his attacks on migrants and on George Soros, the Hungarian-American philanthropist demonized by the far right on both sides of the Atlantic.

And if Origo once dug into Mr. Orban’s government, it now pounces on his political opponents.

“Let’s look at the affairs of Laszlo Botka!” a headline blared this month in a salacious take on the only mayor of a major Hungarian city not aligned with Mr. Orban’s party, Fidesz. “Serious scandals, mysteries surround the socialist mayor of Szeged.”

If little known outside Hungary, Origo is now a cautionary tale for an age in which democratic norms and freedom of expression are being challenged globally — and President Trump and other leaders have intensified attacks on the free press.

In many ways, Hungary has foreshadowed the democratic backsliding now evident in different corners of the world. Since winning power in 2010, Mr. Orban has steadily eroded institutional checks and balances, especially the independent media. His government now oversees state-owned news outlets, while his allies control most of the country’s private media sources, creating a virtual echo chamber for Mr. Orban’s far right, anti-immigrant views.

The story of Origo’s transformation from independent news source to government cheerleader offers a blueprint of how Mr. Orban and his allies pulled this off. Rather than a sudden and blatant power grab, the effort was subtle but determined, using a quiet pressure campaign.

Origo’s editors were never imprisoned and its reporters were never beaten up. But in secret meetings — including a pivotal one in Vienna — the website’s original owner, a German-owned telecommunications company, relented. The company, Magyar Telekom, first tried self-censorship. Then it sought a nonpartisan buyer.

But, ultimately, Origo went to the family of Mr. Orban’s former finance minister.

“When Orban came to power in 2010, his aim was to eliminate the media’s role as a check on government,” said Attila Mong, a former public radio anchor and a critic of Mr. Orban. “Orban wanted to introduce a regime which keeps the facade of democratic institutions but is not operated in a democratic manner — and a free press doesn’t fit into that picture.”

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A screen grab from Origo, one of Hungary’s oldest news websites, which does not hide its allegiance to the country’s far-right prime minister.

On the surface, Hungary’s democratic institutions seem to be operating normally. The judiciary is nominally independent. Elections are held. Newsstands are stacked with dozens of private publications.

“We would never sink so low,” Mr. Orban said in a September speech, “as to silence those with whom we disagree.”

But below the surface, the system has been degraded. The Constitutional Court is stacked with judges appointed by Fidesz. The judiciary and the prosecution service are headed by two of Mr. Orban’s oldest supporters. Both the electoral system and the electoral map have been altered to favor Mr. Orban’s party.

Other than a handful of mainly online outlets, the Hungarian media has been either silent about or supportive of these moves.

According to Freedom House’s press freedom index, Hungary’s media was judged the 87th freest in the world in 2017, down from joint 40th in 2010, when Mr. Orban entered office.

The index now labels Hungarian media as only “partly free,” while Hungary’s wider political system, once classified as a “consolidated democracy,” has been downgraded to “semi-consolidated democracy.”

And the fate of Origo, Mr. Mong said, is “very symbolic” of that transition.

In 2013, Origo was Hungary’s most-read news website, renowned for its hard-nosed investigations into the likes of Lajos Simicska, a friend of Mr. Orban who had long financed his party.

By then, Mr. Orban’s appointees controlled the state media, as well as Hungary’s two main media regulators. He had given regulators more power to fine and punish independent news outlets, or to drive them off air, yet Origo did not seem cowed.

The site had been created in the late 1990s by Magyar Telekom, the country’s leading telecoms company, to lure subscribers to its fledgling internet service. Over time, though, Origo evolved into a journalistic force with its own identity.

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Mr. Orban, center, and the head of his office Janos Lazar, second from right, taking their oaths during the inaugural session of the new Parliament in Budapest in May.CreditSzilard Koszticsak/MTI, via Associated Press

But as Origo thrived, its parent company faced challenges.

Since the start of the cellphone era, Magyar Telekom had been Hungary’s leading telecommunications company. When Deutsche Telekom, the German telecoms giant that also owns T-Mobile, bought a majority stake in the company in 2005, Magyar Telekom was considered a marquee purchase.

But things changed with Mr. Orban’s election in 2010. He levied an “emergency” tax on the telecoms sector, in a bid to reduce government debt after the global financial crisis. The tax was also seen as part of a wider backlash against foreign firms that had bought up large sections of the Hungarian economy after the fall of communism.

For Magyar Telekom, it meant an additional $100 million tax bill. Company executives feared more bad news in 2013, when Mr. Orban’s government was due to renew its frequency licenses. Ahead of a September deadline, negotiations would determine how much of the market would be assigned to Telekom, and at what price.

The talks were not going well. Months before the deadline, René Obermann, Deutsche Telekom’s chief executive, became embroiled in a shouting match with Mr. Orban at a private meeting in Germany, two people briefed on the exchange said.

Throughout the year, Magyar Telekom executives met with Janos Lazar, Mr. Orban’s second-in-command, to negotiate the license renewal and a multimillion-dollar contract to install broadband internet throughout rural Hungary. Initially, Origo was not a topic of discussion.

But that changed in the early summer at a secret meeting in Vienna between Mr. Lazar and two senior company executives, according to three people with knowledge of the discussion. Mr. Lazar said that Origo’s journalists had historically struggled to grasp the government’s perspective on certain matters and proposed a remedy: a secret line of communication between Origo’s editors and the highest levels of government.

Mr. Lazar was careful not to frame the request as a quid pro quo for new licenses, or as a form of censorship. But the Magyar Telekom executives took it seriously.

By autumn, Origo had signed a contract with a media consultancy run by Attila Varhegyi, the former director of Mr. Orban’s party. As a consultant, Mr. Varhegyi had played a major role in turning Hungarian state media into a mouthpiece for Mr. Orban and now his attention had pivoted to the private sector.

Under the deal, Mr. Varhegyi’s firm could call Origo’s editor with suggestions about coverage.

That same month, the government extended its license agreements with the country’s three mobile telephone operators.

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A protest against Mr. Orban’s media policies in Budapest in April.CreditZsolt Szigetvary/MTI, via Associated Press

Magyar Telekom was awarded the biggest share.

Both Magyar Telekom and its parent company declined to comment on the Vienna meeting and Mr. Varhegyi. But in a general statement, Magyar Telekom said: “Dialogue between the government in office and the management of Magyar Telekom is a matter of fact, but its aim has never been to limit publicity or the freedom of press.”

Mr. Varhegyi and Mr. Lazar turned down several interview requests and ignored requests for comment.

Outraged, Origo’s editor in chief resigned, refusing to participate in the deal. But his replacement, Gergo Saling, appeared undaunted.

By January 2014, Mr. Saling’s team had even begun an investigation into Mr. Lazar’s foreign travel expenses. Requests by Mr. Varhegyi’s firm to slow the project down were ignored.

But Mr. Saling was living on borrowed time.

The investigation was embarrassing to Magyar Telekom: Mr. Lazar had overseen the company’s license renewal and discussions were still underway over the contract to install broadband in the countryside.

Mr. Lazar complained about the story in a meeting with two Magyar Telekom executives in February 2014, according to two people with knowledge of the discussion, and his disapproval was quickly relayed to Origo’s management. It was one of several attempts by Magyar Telekom management, and Mr. Varhegyi’s firm, to sway the investigation, both before and after the broadband deal was announced later that month, according to four people familiar with the controversy.

Undeterred, Mr. Saling’s journalists continued to scrutinize Mr. Lazar’s travel. They eventually began court proceedings to request specific travel records, and published several embarrassing stories about the minister’s movements.

But by the start of summer, Mr. Saling’s superiors had run out of patience. Mr. Orban had won re-election in April. Mr. Saling was fired in early June, nominally by mutual agreement.

The decision was ultimately made by Miklos Vaszily, Origo’s chief executive. But it came only after months of pressure on Mr. Vaszily from Magyar Telekom’s management and Mr. Varhegyi’s firm, according to three people at the company.

In protest, several of Origo’s best reporters resigned.

For Magyar Telekom, Origo had become a public relations liability and a political hindrance, and executives wanted to sell.

Throughout 2014, Magyar Telekom held talks with prospective buyers but decided against a private sale. The Lazar scandal had caused a public outcry, as critics accused the company of bending to political pressure. Executives wanted the deal to be beyond reproach, so an open bidding process was announced in June 2015 and overseen by Ernst and Young, an international accountancy firm.

The winner was named in November 2015: a firm called New Wave Media, which outbid two rival companies.

New Wave’s profile immediately raised eyebrows. Their bid was financed by funds controlled by two banks, one owned by Mr. Orban’s government, and another owned by Tamas Szemerey, a cousin of one of Mr. Orban’s former ministers. In addition, New Wave was part-owned by Mr. Szemerey’s longtime business partner, company records show.

Mr. Szemerey had made earlier attempts to buy Origo directly. But by his own telling, Magyar Telekom executives had discouraged such a direct attempt, on the grounds that he would be perceived as too close to the government.

Yet Mr. Szemerey ended up helping to pay for Origo all the same.

There was no evidence of favoritism: New Wave had simply made the highest bid. But bolstered by money from the state, New Wave could afford to pay whatever it took to avoid the outlet being sold to businesses not aligned with the government.

“We did not want it in the hands of Soros, or in the hands of people outside Hungary, or people who wanted to influence Hungarian politics against the Hungarian government,” Mr. Szemerey said in an interview.

Magyar Telekom and Deutsche Telekom declined to comment on Mr. Szemerey’s contacts with Telekom officials, but said the deal had been conducted transparently.

Though nominally still private, Origo now became a vessel for the government. Bought in part with government money, Origo now published news that echoed the government’s stance — in particular on migration, Mr. Soros and the European Union, whose officials have frequently criticized Mr. Orban.

Before, Origo had struggled financially. Now it was flush with government advertising revenue, which more than tripled after the sale. In 2017, the son of Mr. Orban’s former finance minister became New Wave’s chief executive, and government advertising revenues kept rising, even as Origo’s coverage became even more aggressively pro-Orban.

At the time, the 2015 sale of Origo could have been considered an outlier. Then, Origo became one of just 31 outlets owned by Mr. Orban’s allies, according to research by Atlatszo, an investigative news website.

Today, there are more than 500.

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