Direkt36 is a Budapest-based investigative journalism center that follows the Pro Publica model of in-depth research and partnership-based distribution to maximize readership. They interpret accountability broadly; they believe in the responsibility to show the public how decisions are made, and to show who really holds the power. András Pethő co-founded Direkt36 with Gergely Sáling and Balázs Weyer in 2015, when Origo, Hungary’s then-leading online newspaper came under political pressure. Their new project soon became an investigative force to reckon with. Blanka Zöldi joined shortly after, and today, András and Blanka frequently collaborate on long term investigative pieces.
The Direkt36 team has broken countless stories to promote accountability in Hungary, including stories on Hungary’s complex relations to Russia, the government’s lobbying efforts representing the interests of German automakers in the EU, and the the curious history of the Orbán family’s private wealth. Many of their stories are available in English. András was part of the Panama Papers investigation, and recently, András and Blanka represented Direkt36 as the only Hungarian team to participate in the global investigation of the FinCEN files led by ICIJ and Buzzfeed News. (If you like their work, please consider supporting them here.)
We talked to András and Blanka about the many faces of political pressure on Hungarian journalists; what a jaw-dropping moment looks like in an investigation; what it was like to collaborate with foreign journalists in secret international investigatigation, and why they both chose Hungary over Brussels or Washington, DC. Listen to the podcast here, or read an edited transcript below.
For a relatively young organization, you have had some great successes both in Hungary and abroad. Where did the idea of Direkt36 come from and how did you get here?
András Pethő: Direkt36 was born out of necessity. We were forced to do this, because we used to work at Origo, a large, commercial news organization. It was still a large news site, and by most measures, it was the most popular news website in Hungary. I spent more than 10 years there. That’s where I started my journalism career.
It was a great place to do journalism for a long time. We had the freedom to cover sensitive stories, to do investigations. I was really happy there. But then around 2013-14, we just realized that we didn’t have the freedom anymore, the same kind of independence. And then we came under pressure from our own company, the publishing company, the management. They wanted us to drop certain stories. And when we resisted that pressure, there was a really tense situation in the newsroom. The editor-in-chief was forced out of his job. This was June 2014 and we knew this was because of political reasons, because of censorship. So we resigned.
That was when we started having conversations about what to do next, and that was when we had the idea to set up our own organization. Set it up in a way that can be more resilient against financial or political pressures. We also had this concept that we wanted to focus on investigative work. Because even then, even though it was a much better situation for the Hungarian media, we could already see the signs that this was the kind of journalism that was missing, or there were not enough resources to this kind of reporting.
Blanka Zöldi: My career at Origo lasted only a couple of months, because I joined exactly at the time when the company came under political pressure and I was also one of the journalists that resigned during that summer and then joined Direkt at the beginning of 2015, when it was founded.
And honestly, on a personal level, I am grateful for that crisis, because I think that gave us that really good opportunity to think a little bit about what could be done better. I think I would be a little bit less happy working in the kind of very fast newsroom where you have to produce lots of stories that are not so relevant and not so important, which can get lost in the daily cycle. I feel that this gave us actually the possibility to work on important, in depth and long term projects here at this center.
You’re bringing up something that has especially become relevant recently with Index and Hungary’s shrinking media landscape on the news. What was your thinking around creating a resilient organizational structure, or processes?
András: Well, one important piece of that is the type of organization that we decided to set up. Previously we had worked for a commercial news company, and we’d see there that political pressure is very often exercised through business means, through contracts, through advertising, you name it. So it was pretty clear to us that if we had gone to another news organization that is owned by businessmen and investors, pretty soon we could end up in a similar situation. Hungary is a small country, and a lot of the businesses are exposed to the government, or the government has some kind of leverage over them.
This is what we wanted to avoid. So we set up Direkt36 as a non-profit organization. We consciously tried to create a more diverse revenue stream for the organization from the very beginning.
When we launched, we got grants from bigger foundations, international foundations, and those were super helpful, but we also from the very beginning, we started to build a community, a membership around the organization.
We knew that in the long run that could give us a path to sustainability. It also gave us legitimacy, and more independence. So we launched the project with a crowdfunding campaign and slowly, over the years, we built that into a wider community. Now, in the last couple of years, we could cover most of our expenses from the revenue that is coming from our members.
How do you guys decide which topics to focus on? Abuses of power are plenty abundant in Hungary, and you seem to have a pretty sharp focus on a couple of issues. How do you decide which ones to focus on?
Blanka: Well, every time I tell somebody that I work at an organization which investigates abuses of power and corruption, they are always like wow, you must be super busy. And that’s true, we have a lot of possible stories to pursue. When we are choosing stories, we have to focus on what is in the public interest, on topics that will be interesting people, and topics that are possible to do. We are just looking at the people who hold power, and we try to see whether they are doing a proper job or not. I think this is the short summary.
I recently heard Átlátszó founder Tamás Bodoky say in a podcast interview that there isn’t really an appetite among Hungarian readers for investigative journalism about corruption; that it is a bit of a struggle to make people care about this kind of stuff. What is your thinking about all this? Where do you see demand for the kind of journalism you produce?
András: Tamás is probably right if we’re talking about the classic accountability stories on following the money to expose how public funds are spent; Then you prove for the thousandth time that an oligarch or a businessman close to the government got another contract or built another business. Yes, there might not be an appetite for those kinds of stories. Because it’s boring, to be honest, it’s been happening for years.
But I think our approach is a little different in the sense that we spend quite a lot of time on finding out what’s happening behind the scenes. I also think holding the powerful to account is not necessarily about how money is spent or it’s not necessarily about corruption.
It’s also an important responsibility for journalists and the press to show what’s going on behind the scenes, to show how decisions are made, to explain who holds the power.
And I find that those stories are quite popular. Because when you show a hidden world to the public and that’s a world that’s full of fascinating characters. I mean you can say a lot about the Hungarian government, but you cannot deny that it’s full of interesting people, just think of the prime minister. He’s a fascinating figure. He’s defining this age of the country, he’s the guy that’s going to be in the history books I’m almost certain.
I think it’s our job as journalists to find out what he’s doing. We see that when we’ve done stories about him, and his maneuvers, like how he has built this special close relationship with Putin, you know that was a really popular story, because we could dig up a lot of previously unreported details. When we published stories about how he had this epic fight with his former friend and ally, Lajos Simicska, that became our most popular story to date.
And then just recently, our colleague Szabolcs Panyi did a great piece on the history of the German-Hungarian relations. Again, that was not necessarily about corruption, that was not necessarily about money exchanging hands. But it required a lot of investigative muscle to produce that — and we should know, because it took a lot of time. And it paid off, it’s been our most popular story this year so far.
Recently, Blanka posted an iconic picture on Twitter, standing with 28 boxes of paperwork that you finally received after 3 years of litigation on an information request. I saw you say in a recent interview that the boxes contained about 100,000 documents. I would love to learn a little bit about your process. You receive 28 boxes, and what happens next?
Blanka: Well, you get really excited when the boxes arrive, you dig into them by hand, trying to get out the documents… and then hunt for the name of the company that is owned by Viktor Orbán’s father.
We knew what documents we were looking for in this kind of documentation. For example documents on the quality of the building materials that are used in different road constructions or railway constructions, etc. So you know what you’re looking for, but still it’s obviously a very very long process.
In this case, I paged through the entirety of all the boxes with the help of my colleagues. And in one of the first few boxes, we found new evidence of the Orbán family’s involvement in these larger projects, which became the basis of our latest article. But in the meantime, we also realized that there might be some more, hidden stories in project documentation. So we scanned all the documents, and now we are going to get some help to make them searchable with an OCR method. We are still expecting to find some more interesting stories in the boxes.
Do you remember any jaw-dropping moments as you were reporting a story? Like a scene that I imagine from The Wire, where somebody is going through some financial document, and the whole story unfolds right there?
Blanka: Yeah. At the very beginning of the Orbán family investigation project we received some information from different sources, and also from readers, that hey guys, pay attention to this construction, because we heard that Orbán’s father is supplying building materials for it. And in the case of an ongoing construction it’s actually quite easy to find proof if a company is really involved, because you just go to the site, stay there and you wait for the trucks, which will have company branding on them.
And I remember one specific investigation, which was a complicated job, connected to a power plant where the soil needed to be recultivated, next to an unused power plant, and they needed some materials from Orban’s father’s mine to get there, like new soil.
I didn’t have a driving license, so I took my bike on a train and I went quite close to the power plant, but I had to bike to the site. And I was really excited to see if there would be any trucks coming there. I was still biking to the power plant when I noticed the trucks, right there in front of me. And they waved at me when I said thank you, like you know, as if saying thanks for not hitting me on the road, and they were the exact trucks I was following. I was super happy because I had my proof for the day.
And then what happened? How do you craft a story from there?
András: Well that was just one piece of information for the story. So when you are building an investigative project, sometimes it starts with a question. I want to know this, I want to get the answer to this question.
Sometimes, it starts with a tip. This was actually a project that started with tips. One of my sources was telling me, a source was in the construction industry, that now that the Orbán family’s companies are supplying products to big constructions, public construction projects. That was not evidence, just a piece of information, so we knew that if we go to the Orbán family, or we go to Orbán himself, they are not going to give us information.
We knew that this kind of information was not available through public records, at least those that are available online, because they were suppliers, not main contractors. But we knew that the source was credible and provided more information, so we were quite confident that there was a story there.
You see a wall in front of you, and you have to figure out a way to get through that wall. Where are the cracks in the wall? How can you go around the wall?
So you all are pretty deeply into covering the prime minister’s family. I don’t imagine that he’s very happy about that. To what extent are you on the government’s radar? And what does that relationship look like?
Blanka: We always try to contact the prime minister before we publish a story that involves him. Just to ask him what he thinks about his father’s involvement in these state projects, for example, especially considering that during his first term as prime minister, he still explicitly asked his father not to participate in state projects.
And apparently that has changed. And we just wanted to know from Viktor Orbán — what exactly has changed? But for a very long time we didn’t get proper answers from him, either they did not answer our questions, or they gave some very simple answers. “The prime minister doesn’t deal with questions of business,” suggesting that he has nothing to do with all these stories.
You should know that in Hungary, right now, it’s quite difficult to actually get close to the prime minister, to ask questions from him in person. For a very long time there were absolutely no press conferences. Now, a couple of years ago he started to hold press conferences again, only one a year, where he says that he would answer all the journalists’ questions.
I tried to register for these press conferences, but I got rejected every time, because the press office said that there was not enough space in the room for me to get in.
So it was difficult, but then we learned that actually it’s easier to ask Viktor Orbán in Brussels, because we got a tip from foreign colleagues that he usually holds an international press conference after the European Council’s meeting, with a little bit less tight rules. We heard that all the journalists tend to have a real possibility to get in a question there, and normally the questions are answered.
So we started to buy cheap plane tickets to go to Brussels to this press conference and finally I had the possibility to confront Viktor Orbán. He tried to speak his way out of this situation, pretending that he didn’t understand our question, and he said that he would be “very surprised if his father was a contractor or a subcontractor of a state project”.
This was interesting, because at that stage of our investigation, we didn’t have evidence yet either. But a couple of months later, when our first freedom of information request was answered, we could prove it with documents, that even at the time of that press conference Orbán’s father was a subcontractor in one of the projects.
So it’s really worth trying as hard as you can to go after politicians and force them to answer the questions, because as Orbán just started to talk about the businesses of his father, he got into a contradiction.
András: To me it feels like on the one hand, they are ignoring us, or they’re ignoring our questions and they don’t let us in to the events. But we also hear it from our sources that they talk about us in some of their conversations. Of course, because they don’t really like us, they don’t necessarily say nice things about us, but I think that means that we are on the radar and they know about us and they care about what we are doing.
Who reads your pieces and how do they reach important audiences?
András: We publish our stories through partners, through organizations that already have access to a wide audience. That’s mainly 444, a popular news website in Hungary. We publish with other outlets as well, and we also quite actively try to encourage other news outlets to pick up our stories and that works as well.
I think we had this idea from the beginning, since we don’t publish on a daily basis, so we have more time to prepare our news stories, and we already felt that there was an interest that what’s going on in Hungary, so we decided to translate our stories as well and I think it proved to be a good decision or investment. The stories that have some kind of international implication, like those stories about the Russian connection, or just recently the German relations story, we got quite a lot of reactions and response to those stories.
Now we cannot really travel, but we used to go to conferences or meetings to Brussels for example, and I had this really positive feedback from EU officials, non-Hungarians, who approached me or asked and it was clear that they were following our work. So that’s great.
On that note, I know that you were part of the investigation led by BuzzFeed News in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, about how dark money runs the world economy as it is laundered through banks like Deutsche Bank and HSBC and others right under the eye of the U.S. government. I know that Direkt36 was the only Hungarian organization participating in this investigation. It sounds like a big deal.
András: The first project that I was involved in was in 2014 and so even before we set up Direkt36. I’ve worked on the Panama Papers that was made into movies and documentaries and so that was a huge project. But we’ve been part of other projects and we’ve been to the hidden world of financing and banking and you know that sector. And the latest one, the FINCen Files, was part of that series as well.
Blanka: It’s actually really interesting to participate in these projects as a small country. You see these really big global stories with the involvement of Deutsche Bank etc, but when you get access to a huge amount of data then obviously you get very excited and you immediately search for the most prominent Hungarian politicians that their offshore accounts would be revealed in the data.
What happens in real life is that most of the time there is not such a big fish. But what is important here is that we actually understand the processes and we can see how these global processes are also translated into the Hungarian reality.
Listening to the Suspicious Activity Podcast on the FinCEN investigation it also sounds like this collaborative reporting was a very interesting clandestine process starting with a shadow conference in Hamburg.
András: I couldn’t go to the meeting in Hamburg, but I went to similar meetings in the past when we were doing the Panama Papers project and the Paradise Papers and others.
Yes, it’s kind of a miracle, because journalists are the most gossipy people on Earth and you’re going to have hundreds of journalists in a room. And it didn’t leak, or at least you know when something leaked it wasn’t just more pieces of information. The glue, the thing that holds it together, is the story. It’s like when you have a fascinating material, that you can find amazing stories in it, you just don’t want to screw it up, and you know that if you don’t follow the rules, if you are not disciplined enough, then you can put the whole project at risk. And, of course, most probably you won’t be invited to the next one. So I think that’s what probably disciplines these gossipy journalists.
I wanted to ask both of you about one more thing. András, you recently had a fellowship at Harvard; I also know you were at the BBC World Service before, and you had worked at the Washington Post. Blanka I know you speak French and Spanish fluently.
What made you stay in Hungary? In both of your cases, it would have been a very relevant question to ponder moving abroad.
Blanka: Yeah, not only did I ponder, I did actually move abroad. Back in 2015, for personal reasons, because my boyfriend got a job offer in Brussels, and I thought okay, why not try, I can be a journalist there as well, a foreign correspondent, whatever. And I actually started to write for an English-language publication about the Hungarian economy and analyzing investment opportunities for companies, and decision makers and big international organizations.
It was a cool-sounding job. I missed the experience of being able to dig out new information to work on something that matters. And this made me decide to move back to Hungary. People often ask if I have second thoughts, or regret getting back to Hungary. But I don’t. It’s a good feeling for me to know that I didn’t feel comfortable not doing this job. So that was an encouraging experience.
András: In my case (and please don’t take this the wrong way), last year was the second time that I spent a longer period in the US and it wasn’t really hard to leave, let’s put it that way. I think there is a lot going on in the US, it’s clear for everybody who follows the news, there are a lot of problems, a lot of struggles. And actually, it’s not the most secure and stable time for journalists there right now. Sometimes I worry more and have more concern for my American colleagues than about us here. Seeing all those attacks against journalists, and knowing the gun problems and everything that’s going on in the US.
But the other reasons are those experiences that I had early in my career when I was in London at the BBC. That was amazing, I learned a lot, later I could work as part of another fellowship with the Washington Post investigative unit.
But if I had to choose between telling an American story or a Hungarian one, why would I tell the American story? There are amazing journalists there who can tell those stories much better than I did. I have a more personal interest here in these stories. Somebody has to tell them and I hope I can add value here. And for all the problems that we have, I like this country.
Contributed by Lili Török.
Illustration by István Gábor Takács.