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Journalists maintain vs.hu coverage was untainted

Although a central bank foundation was quietly funding the news portal, reporters said they did not feel any political pressure.

Although a foundation of the Hungarian National Bank (MNB) did not disclose that it was funding online portal vs.hu, that news site maintained its editorial integrity, according to a former reporter who decided to join ten colleagues in resigning after the link to MNB funding was revealed in late April.

Following a legal battle, the central bank published the finances of its Pallas Athéné foundation (PADA) on its website on April 22. Shortly after they learned that PADA provided approximately HUF 500 million to their publisher, 11 journalists quit the portal.

“It must be clarified that vs.hu’s staff was independent, and very critical of the government,” Attila Bátorfy, one of the journalists who resigned, told the Budapest Business Journal. “As far as I know there were some intentions from the owner to suggest some topics and changes in articles but our Editor-In-Chief Olivér Lebhardt always rejected this pressure. So we didn’t know about these intentions until now.”

Although press reports have maintained that MNB Governor György Matolcsy’s cousin Tamás Szemerey has interests in the firm publishing vs.hu, the website’s owners, New Wave Media Kft. and New Wave Production Kft., said in a statement that Szemerey “is not and has never been” the owner of those companies. The statement said no connections can be drawn between the central bank and the companies, or the media outlets owned by these companies: online portals vs.hu and origo.hu, which was sold by Magyar Telekom at the end of 2015.

“I came here [to vs.hu] two months ago and I was told that the real owner is Tamás Szemerey,” Bátorfy claimed. “His name is not in the company registry data in any level, but for me it was obvious that he is the real owner. I don’t know why they denied it officially.”

One-bid tender alleged

According to press reports from the resigning journalists, the publisher of the portal received the funds from the MNB by applying for tenders that no other media outlets knew about, so no competition took place. “The vs.hu’s Hungarian parent company, New Wave Productions applied to these foundations. They gave us a huge sum of money to produce mainly innovative, audiovisual content without any transparency. It’s not true that the application was open. None of the other media companies knew about it,” Bátorfy told the BBJ.

Despite requests, the MNB would not comment for this story.

After the string of resignations, Lebhardt, the editor-in-chief of vs.hu, who resigned as well, admitted he had knowledge of money coming from the MNB foundations.

“I made a mistake when I let sponsored content be published without signaling the sponsors,” Lebhardt was quoted as saying. “I take full responsibility.… however, I hereby state that under my lead, the work of the editorial team was free, autonomous and independent, of which I am proud.”

The journalists who resigned, communicating on social media and talking to Hungarian and international media outlets, maintained that their editorial work was always independent, and none of the articles they published were unduly influenced by the owners. Still, as credibility of the portal has been hurt by the revealed financing, they said they felt they needed to resign, according to reports.