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49 journalists were killed this year, according to Reporters Without Borders' latest roundup released this week, the lowest death toll in 16 years.

However, the organisation known by its French initials RSF warned the numbers of those arbitrary detained are on the up, while press freedom is increasingly restricted in many democracies.

One of the countries that had a remarkable success in muzzling investigative journalism is Viktor Orbán's Hungary. During the past decade, the Hungarian president has consolidated media ownership in the hands of his allies who now own around 80 per cent of country's news outlets, ensuring that the journalists support the government and smear its opponents, the Freedom and the Media report has found.

Budapest-based investigative journalist Szabolcs Panyi, who works with the non-profit website Direkt36, started his career in the late 2000s. At the time, Hungary enjoyed relatively high press freedom after a successful transition from a communist authoritarian regime to Western-style democracy.

"It was very diverse and we had a booming online news sphere," he explained.

"We had lots of weeklies, monthlies, and multiple dailies - left-wing, right-wing and liberal."

However, after Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party swept into office in 2010, on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment and a promise to 'balance the media', regulators became politicised, taxes on advertising revenue were introduced on unfriendly outlets, and pro-government businessmen and oligarchs bought up newspapers, websites and TV stations to change their editorial line or close them entirely.

This has led to government representatives avoiding scrutiny by dodging interviews with broadcasters, limiting the press' access to parliament and preventing journalists from accessing public data through freedom of information requests.

This erosion of press freedom happened gradually. Although protesters took to the streets when the major left-leaning newspaper Népszabadság was shut down in 2016, allegedly after being pressured by Orbán's government, marches died away over time as the closure of publications and media outlets became the norm.

Although some independent outlets still have an audience in Budapest and some other major cities, the vast majority of Hungarians consume news through government-owned outlets, unaware of the dangers the media industry is facing.

For a journalist working within these government-controlled outlets, there is a level of self-censorship similar to authoritarian states like China, with editors receiving orders from politicians on what to report and what to omit.

Panyi regrets there has not been a more consolidated effort within the media industry to counter this oppression.

"One of the reasons why it was quite easy for the Hungarian government to establish this kind of control of the media was the traditional fragmentation of the journalistic community," he explained.

Although journalists maintain a level of protection under EU laws and human rights, reporters who criticise Orbán and his allies are often 'named and shamed' in the pro-government press. Even Panyi and his senior editor, Andras Petho have been accused of being foreign agents and puppets of Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. 

"Whenever someone publishes something that’s very unfavourable to the government, they are instantly attacked."

This, however, only strengthens Panyi’s resolve to hold the Orbán government to account.

"It is the evidence that what I’m doing and what my colleagues are doing is right. That is why it annoys the government."

But how can an investigative reporter operate in such an environment?

Protecting sources

Panyi explained that, with a dearth of information from government, attracting sources is extremely important. However, many are afraid of blowing the whistle and approaching investigative reporters.

"The government has centralised communication, so even state-run institutions like hospitals or schools need to ask for permission to talk to journalists.

"Sources are pretty afraid of talking to independent journalists because if our meeting is being followed or surveilled, they may get fired from their jobs."

As a result, building trust is necessary to enable sources to speak freely. This can take years of hard work and resilience against having doors slammed in one's face.

Once someone has agreed to talk, ensuring their protection is fundamental; reporters communicate through encrypted platforms like WhatsApp and Signal and send and receive sensitive information through secure email providers like ProtonMail.

This approach, as well as ensuring the source is completely aware of how the information they have provided will be quoted, could help to persuade others to speak out.

Collaboration across borders

Working with journalists from other countries offers those in hostile environments another way to expose abuses of power, particularly through large collaborative data projects like the Panama Papers.

Panyi also reports for VSquare.org, a network of independent media outlets carrying out cross-border investigations in the Visegrad region. Its reporting aims to strenghthen public interest journalism although it is more geared towards international audiences rather than in Hungary itself.

Despite this, working with similar organisations can help to build awareness on a global scale and push organisations, such as the EU, to take action against national governments.

The future

Panyi fears for the future of independent journalism in the country, especially after the government suffered losses in local elections earlier this year.

"Pundits working for the government interpreted this unexpected loss partly by blaming the media, saying they still don’t have enough influence, especially over online news sites."

He added that democracies outside of Eastern Europe could be better equipped to deal with similar blows due to the longer and more established history of press freedom.

"Press freedom is still relatively young in Hungary and it was hit by the government's full-frontal attacks before it could evolve into a serious profession. Institutions, rules and guidelines didn't have enough time to solidify since 1989."

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