The Origo.hu online news portal, which for years was owned by Magyar Telekom, was one of Hungary’s most widely read and reputable news sites, operating relatively free from political pressure since 1998.
That was until a change in relations between the owners and the government led to the most of the staff resigning, leaving the portal struggling to re-establish itself on the domestic media landscape.
The drama unfolded in June 2014 when Origo.hu’s editor-in-chief, Gergő Sáling, unexpectedly quit, triggering a series of events that resulted in the mass resignations.
Sáling resigned after Origo.hu journalist András Pethő was repeatedly blocked in his efforts to obtain the details of official trips made by János Lázár, Minister in Charge of the Prime Minister’s Office. Lázár, the “strong man” of the Fidesz government, has had multiple run-ins with critical NGOs and civil society in general since 2014.
Pethő was seeking official records for some of Lázár’s foreign trips, including the cost and who else was in attendance. The Prime Minister’s Office declined, stating that Lázár’s negotiations involved matters of national security which could not be revealed to the public.
Sources had indicated that Lázár was accompanied on the trips by a specific person and that together they had run up hefty hotel bills. Responding to the public outcry, Lázár decided to return the amounts in question – about 2 million Hungarian forints, or nearly US$ 7,000 — to the treasury from his own pocket, but when a judge recently ruled that the documents must be disclosed, he said he would appeal to a higher court.
Magyar Telekom, the local subsidiary of German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom, owned Origo.hu until last December, when it was sold to New Wave Media Kft. Relations between the government and the telecom sector had been tense ever since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government levied a special tax on the sector cutting into margins and making operation significantly more difficult and unpredictable.
By 2014, through extensive negotiations, the terms became more amicable, and the government struck a deal with the country’s three mobile telecoms operations to extend their licenses. One of the reported aspects of the Hungary-Deutsche Telekom talks was that Lázár demanded the telecom either rein in or sell its media outlets.
The telecom apparently complied, as shown by its license renewal and an increase in the number of advertisements from state agencies, which remains a crucial source of revenue for Hungarian media outlets on all platforms. Hungarian journalists say senior editors are often pressured by officials to slant coverage, and outlets heavily dependant on state advertising are more likely to oblige.
After Saling’s resignation Origo.hu quickly started to unravel, as first the domestic staff and then the photo department quit. Departing staffers said they viewed the news portal as compromised by political interests. Many of them found employment with rival independent outlets, while those at the center of the affair, led by Sáling, have founded Direkt36.hu, which provides a new investigative portal on the Hungarian scene, with in-depth analysis and stories.
Origo.hu continues to operate, but it is moving in a new direction, focusing more on entertainment.