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Democracies are fragile, independent media are vital

In fragile democracies and autocratic countries, independent media are under great pressure: the fact that they often have little money is not even their biggest problem. Editor in chief Eric Smit learned this lesson from his Hungarian colleague Ákos Maróy. Follow the Money wants to support media in other countries; in this article, Smit explains how we are going to do that. Our members, too, can lend a hand.

When I met Hungarian tech entrepreneur and journalist Ákos Maróy in Helsinki in May 2015, Follow the Money’s future looked bleak. A year earlier, inspired by the success of De Correspondent, we had decided to switch to a paid membership model as well. But a few months later, a potential investor turned out to be no longer interested in financing that plan.

There we were: five years after founding our multimedia platform for investigative journalism, money was running out and there were no funds to start over with a different business model. Within five months, we had to bring in other financiers, with a well-thought-out plan, or we would be done for.

So, I gratefully accepted the invitation to a conference on the future of journalism in Helsinki, organised by Google. At Newsgeist, I would meet influential people in European journalism: especially people who were trying to attract online readers with new narrative forms and publishing concepts. Ákos Maróy – co-founder of the independent Hungarian research platform Átlátszó (transparency) – was one such person.

There was another, more pressing side to survival as a journalistic platform: dealing with a government that is throttling freedom of the press

When he and I got into a conversation during a break in between the many workshops, the topic of 'making money with journalism' came up. Not surprising, since all the Newsgeist conference attendees were discussing that. Most were seriously concerned about falling ad revenues. Google, our host, was one of the big tech companies to capture this cash flow – at the expense of newspaper publishers.

Ákos understood the publishers’ concerns, he himself had to deal with that issue, but he couldn’t help smiling a little. To him, there was another, more pressing side to survival as a journalistic platform: how to deal with a government that is throttling freedom of the press?

I could hardly imagine having to deal with this issue. Due to our years of focus on financial markets, cheating bankers, fraudsters, and healthcare cowboys, I had not formed a proper picture of the situation in Hungary. I decided to delve into it, but little came of it. Follow the Money demanded all my attention. This didn’t change until a few years later, when Ákos was in the Netherlands and I invited him home for a meal. That evening, I decided to turn our conversation into an interview, so that others could read what Ákos had to say.

Constitutional and moral U-turn 

The story of the loss of democracy in Hungary is inextricably linked to the rise of Viktor Orbán. In 1989, just before the fall of communism, he was a long-haired activist addressing a crowd of 250,000 people on Heroes’ Square in Budapest. Initially, Orbán was a driving force behind the nascent democracy in Hungary.

Ákos shared wonderful stories of those early days. About the typewriters and photocopiers, previously locked away, that could now be used freely. About people who previously had to ask permission to make a photocopy, and who were suddenly given the opportunity to create their own newspaper. About the excitement and inspiration that came with the newfound freedom, and about the belief that everything would be different now.

​Two decades later, democracy in Hungary was already on the decline. Thanks to the same Viktor Orbán, its new ruler, who had made a constitutional and moral U-turn and was hard at work (with the help of European money – Hungary joined the European Union in 2004) establishing a corrupt oligarchy.

​It was mainly for this reason that my new friend started the Átlátszó platform, together with an investigative journalist: to check power. From the outset, they focused on Orbán’s government, and met a lot of resistance from the authorities. Átlátszó’s lawyer was called upon so often that he eventually joined the platform.

Since then, Hungary, a country with nearly 10 million inhabitants, has had a total of three small independent journalistic media outlets

The arrival of Átlátszó, and the establishment of the research collective Direkt36 in 2015, could not reverse the downward trend in Hungary. In October 2016, the critical newspaper Népszabadság was brought down by Orbán loyalists. In 2020, it was the leading journalistic platform Index’s turn. When a new owner – a friend of Orbán’s – was fired, most of the editorial staff left. The Index team set up a new platform: Telex.

Since then, Hungary, a country with nearly 10 million inhabitants, has had a total of only three small independent journalistic media outlets. The vast majority of Hungarian media outlets do not criticise the Orbán regime, on the contrary: they are part of its propaganda machine. And the negative trend has not been reversed. Worse, it has not even halted.

Democracy under pressure

Unfortunately, this is also the case elsewhere. Democracy is under pressure worldwide, most visibly in the United States, where on January 6th, 2021, the Capitol was stormed by a mob, and a coup was narrowly prevented. It was an event that would have been unimaginable ten years ago, but my long conversation with Ákos, at home at the dinner table, had somewhat prepared me for it.

I was born twenty-two years after the Second World War, and along with many others I have enjoyed peace and democracy throughout my life. I barely realised that democracy is not a given, in fact, not in the least. It’s actually only been around for a short time, and it’s vulnerable. This applies to Hungary and indeed to all other places on earth where democratic principles were embraced, or were introduced by outside pressure. After all, not all democracies arose on their own. Sometimes they needed backing.

Eight out of ten people on Earth have recenty experienced a decline in press freedom

Eight out of ten people on Earth have experienced a decline in press freedom, according to a UNESCO report from March of this year. That’s 80 per cent of humanity. This includes us Dutch, according to the Press Freedom Index of Reporters sans Frontières (RSF), which was published in May. The Netherlands dropped no less than twenty-two places on that list, partly as a result of the increasing violence against journalists, their intimidation, and the self-censorship that this caused.

‘Rights that have been won can be taken away; progress is proving to be a reversible process,’ noted Volkskrant correspondent Thomas Rueb, who attended protests in New York after the US Supreme Court struck down the federal right to abortion. Rueb noted that it was only now that it dawned on people in America that this could actually happen in the United States.

My interview with Ákos opened my eyes to the fragility of democracies. Since then, it has become even clearer to me how important it is to contribute to that precious political system. For example, by creating new initiatives that serve truth-finding in the public interest.

Support in the Netherlands

Fortunately, we have been able to do this with Follow the Money. Though we had a close shave in the summer of 2015, we managed to pull off a successful relaunch with a different business model, based on paid membership.

We owed this to a few investors and a few large and dozens of small donors. People who understood the value of independent journalism and gave us the opportunity to realise our plans. Now, 90 per cent of our income comes from members’ contributions, and we can call ourselves ‘radically independent’.

We were lucky, because we live in the Netherlands: an open and prosperous society in which journalism is valued by many people. Here, we can rely on the availability of financial and other resources to get new journalistic projects off the ground. There is support here. We have the Stimuleringsfonds voor de Journalistiek (SvdJ), which facilitates entrepreneurial initiatives in journalism. And freelance investigative journalists in the Netherlands can apply for funding from the Fonds Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten (FondsBJP).

Unfortunately, the Netherlands is an exception. These possibilities barely exist in Eastern European countries, as I also learned thanks to Ákos. Even in a country like Italy, hardly any money is made available to get new journalistic initiatives off the ground, even though they are badly needed there, too. Greece is ranked lowest of all EU countries on the aforementioned Press Freedom Index.

Journalism, and investigative journalism in particular, is an indispensable link in a well-functioning democracy. Power must be checked. There is even an economic incentive to do so: there is a proven connection between democracy, freedom of the press, and the prosperity of a society as a whole. The fact that our colleagues in other European countries have a much harder time, and in some places are even undermined, deserves our full attention and dedication.

That is why, in the coming years, Follow the Money will make more efforts to strengthen the journalistic ties with our international colleagues through collaborative projects. Working together to bring issues from the dark into the light, in the public interest. Besides, sometimes our backs can carry more than theirs.

The impact of our common research is much greater than when everyone would have done it independently

In recent years, we have already set up several projects with European colleagues. Our investigations into the spending of the European corona recovery funds and the collaboration of European scientific institutions with organisations associated with the Chinese military – the China Science Investigation – are  examples of this. With this, we have gained valuable experience.

More importantly, we have noticed that the impact of such international research is much greater than when everyone would have done it independently. With FTM.eu, we have a potentially powerful international platform that is able to carry out that monitoring task with regard to European institutions as well. And by working together, we not only make a project better, but we can also support our colleagues.

I’ll conclude with a heartfelt appeal: contribute to the freedom of the press by supporting a journalistic platform somewhere in Europe that can make good use of those resources. Let our relative wealth and freedom benefit others.

Translation: Chris Kok