Independent journalism as precondition for democracy

Published: 3 February 2022

“Independent journalism is the foundation of democracy and when journalism is in trouble, democracy is as well,  András Pethő, co-founder and editor of Direkt36.

While journalism is under threat across the world, journalists are courageously taking on investigations, sometimes at enormous costs to bring information of public interest to citizens. They bring to light the shadiest practices and speak truth to power. Recently, publications regarding two global investigations, the Pandora Papers and the Pegasus Project hugely impacted the international community. Direkt36, a Hungarian grantee partner of Civitates, played an important role in both these investigations. 

The Pandora Papers is an investigation into the shadowy offshore financial system that reveals the workings of a secret economy that benefits the wealthy and well-connected. The “papers”, some 12 million confidential records, were obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists which shared them with a large network of international media partners, including Direkt36 in Hungary. The scope of the Pandora Papers is far broader than anything ICIJ and its partners have seen before. The leak comes from 14 different financial service companies that set up and manage companies in tax havens and includes beneficial ownership information from current and former presidents, prime ministers, and heads of state as well as more than 100 billionaires, celebrities, top athletes, and business leaders.

The Pegasus Project is another international investigative journalism cooperation that revealed governments’ espionage on journalists, opposition politicians, activists, business people, and others. They were selected as possible targets of surveillance using Pegasus spyware developed by the Israeli company NSO Group. NSO markets its spyware for surveillance of “serious crimes and terrorism”, however in 2020, a target list of 50,000 phone numbers leaked to the French non-profit group Forbidden Stories and analysis revealed the list contained the numbers of leading opposition politicians, human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, and other political dissidents.

In order to find out what goes on in a newsroom working on these investigations, we sat down with András Pethő, co-founder and editor of Direkt36.

What was the role of Direkt36 in these two investigations?

When ICIJ or other organisations have big global investigations at hand and foresee these will lead to relevant stories in countries, they will ask journalists from these countries to cooperate. When you are invited to join on such an international project, basically your job is to find the most exciting and most relevant local stories. For ICIJ it would be hard to reveal any Hungarian stories as they don’t know the environment, the language, who is important and who is not. The method of ICIJ is based on the idea of what they call radical sharing; whatever you find during investigations, you should share with others, as it can be useful for the larger team of media outlets working on the investigation. When we as part of the Pandora investigations identified one of the Hungarian oligarchs – who also had close ties to the government – we also discovered that he had offshore companies and through these owned some Swiss business, it was useful for us, to be able to ask our Swiss colleagues to find out more about this.

What is the impact that the collaboration of Direkt36 in these two investigations had in Hungary?

Both projects made a big splash in Hungary as they dominated the headlines for some time. The Pegasus project gained even more attention as Hungary was the only EU country listed as being a client of the NSO Group to purchase Pegasus. Everybody in the Hungarian media was covering this story, even the pro-government media felt they couldn’t keep quiet. Usually, they ignore stories that put them in a negative light. In this case, they tried to portray the Pegasus investigation as if it had been part of an international conspiracy against the Hungarian government.

The story reached a new level when a politician from Hungary’s ruling party acknowledged that the government bought and used Pegasus spy software. The government still has not confirmed that they used it against journalists and opposition figures, but they don’t deny it either.

While Direkt36 published the first stories in July last year, we keep working on the Pegasus Project and publish more regularly. It is a huge story, one of the biggest ever for us. I am proud that we were – and still are – able to deliver these stories while working under immense pressure; we couldn’t afford to make mistakes and everything we published was thoroughly fact-checked and rigorously edited. The content we published wasn’t seriously challenged by anyone and I think that is a great achievement, especially given the sensitivity of the whole Pegasus Project. The project partners all had to follow unusually strict safety protocols, and for us security was particularly important. We learned during the investigation that two of my colleagues at Direkt36 had been targets of a Pegasus surveillance themselves.

Why is it important for you to work on such stories?

The impact that these international collaborative stories can make is so much bigger than a single national story. The combination of the global perspective and the strong local relevance is a combination that elevates every investigation. It is amazing to see how hundreds of journalists around the world can collaborate and then when their stories get published; the impact they have is enormous. It is exciting, intellectually, but of course, it is also very rewarding as thanks to these projects we have amazing stories to tell. Our big advantage compared to other Hungarian media outlets is that we are not under the pressure to publish daily or weekly but can publish when we are ready.

How did the security aspect impact your organisation and people?

Even before we learned that two of our colleagues were targeted by Pegasus, we had been careful. We never talked about sources, and already used encrypted communication channels. We also took part in security workshops. Of course, against a tool like Pegasus, there is no real protection unless you go totally off the grid. So, we took those precautions, as we knew that we might be under surveillance. When we learned that Pegasus was targeting two of our colleagues, we had to rethink our way of working; we turned to experts on operational security for better precautions and we’re even more careful than we were before. It was especially hard for the colleagues whose phones were hacked. They were shocked. At first, I myself was not constantly worried but then it became part of my thinking all the time. Everything I say or write is a kind of automatically going through a filter, like a constant risk assessment in my head.

What were the biggest challenges that you encountered in these investigations?

Largely the same challenges that we face here in Hungary in general. It is especially hard to get access to information from the government. That was not so much different in the international projects. By now we have reached the point that there is basically no state agency, not even hospitals, that will answer our questions. Often it takes years and a hard legal battle to get any data or records. On top of that, Direkt36, together with a handful of other media outlets, is denied access to the government’s press conferences which is not really helping either. At the same time, pro-government media is attacking us and spreading lies about us, saying that we work for foreign intelligence agencies.

What will be your next big project?

Well, we don’t know when the next Pegasus Project or Pandora Papers will come, but the collective of journalists and media outlets from different countries that we are connected to now is also very helpful to find other potential stories. When it comes to finances, core funding is crucial for this kind of work. It gives us the possibility to focus on stories that really matter. For obvious reasons, you cannot apply for a grant with a sensitive project like the Pegasus Project. In most of these bigger investigations, you cannot tell in advance in which direction they will develop, you must follow the facts.

Luckily there is more awareness around the need for and importance of independent journalism. Its clearer to donors now that independent journalism is the foundation of democracy and when journalism is in trouble, democracy is as well.

As daunting as it is to be a journalist and to be in this business, we have fascinating stories to tell. I think that if you need a purpose in life, journalism is a good place to find it. The stakes are high, but it is one of the best jobs you can have as telling stories that haven’t been told yet can change things and really make a difference.