On the surface, Hungary’s democratic institutions seem to be operating normally. The judiciary is nominally independent. Elections are held. Newsstands are stacked with dozens of private publications.
.. “We would never sink so low,” Mr. Orban said in a September speech, “as to silence those with whom we disagree.”
But below the surface, the system has been degraded. The Constitutional Court is stacked with judges appointed by Fidesz. The judiciary and the prosecution service are headed by two of Mr. Orban’s oldest supporters. Both the electoral system and the electoral map have been altered to favor Mr. Orban’s party.
Other than a handful of mainly online outlets, the Hungarian media has been either silent about or supportive of these moves.
.. Mr. Orban’s appointees controlled the state media, as well as Hungary’s two main media regulators. He had given regulators more power to fine and punish independent news outlets, or to drive them off air, yet Origo did not seem cowed.
For Magyar Telekom, it meant an additional $100 million tax bill. Company executives feared more bad news in 2013, when Mr. Orban’s government was due to renew its frequency licenses. Ahead of a September deadline, negotiations would determine how much of the market would be assigned to Telekom, and at what price.
The talks were not going well. Months before the deadline, René Obermann, Deutsche Telekom’s chief executive, became embroiled in a shouting match with Mr. Orban at a private meeting in Germany, two people briefed on the exchange said.
.. Throughout the year, Magyar Telekom executives met with Janos Lazar, Mr. Orban’s second-in-command, to negotiate the license renewal and a multimillion-dollar contract to install broadband internet throughout rural Hungary. Initially, Origo was not a topic of discussion.
But that changed in the early summer at a secret meeting in Vienna between Mr. Lazar and two senior company executives, according to three people with knowledge of the discussion. Mr. Lazar said that Origo’s journalists had historically struggled to grasp the government’s perspective on certain matters and proposed a remedy: a secret line of communication between Origo’s editors and the highest levels of government.
Mr. Lazar was careful not to frame the request as a quid pro quo for new licenses, or as a form of censorship. But the Magyar Telekom executives took it seriously.
.. By autumn, Origo had signed a contract with a media consultancy run by Attila Varhegyi, the former director of Mr. Orban’s party. As a consultant, Mr. Varhegyi had played a major role in turning Hungarian state media into a mouthpiece for Mr. Orban and now his attention had pivoted to the private sector.
Under the deal, Mr. Varhegyi’s firm could call Origo’s editor with suggestions about coverage.
That same month, the government extended its license agreements with the country’s three mobile telephone operators.
.. Mr. Lazar complained about the story in a meeting with two Magyar Telekom executives in February 2014, according to two people with knowledge of the discussion, and his disapproval was quickly relayed to Origo’s management. It was one of several attempts by Magyar Telekom management, and Mr. Varhegyi’s firm, to sway the investigation, both before and after the broadband deal was announced later that month, according to four people familiar with the controversy.
Undeterred, Origo continued to scrutinize Mr. Lazar’s travel. Origo eventually began court proceedings to request specific travel records, and published several embarrassing stories about the minister’s movements.
But by the start of summer, Mr. Saling’s superiors had run out of patience. Mr. Orban had won re-election in April. Mr. Saling was fired in early June, nominally by mutual agreement.
The decision was ultimately made by Miklos Vaszily, Origo’s chief executive. But it came only after months of pressure on Mr. Vaszily from Magyar Telekom’s management and Mr. Varhegyi’s firm, according to three people at the company.
.. The winner was named in November 2015: a firm called New Wave Media, which outbid two rival companies.
New Wave’s profile immediately raised eyebrows. Their bid was financed by funds controlled by two banks, one owned by Mr. Orban’s government, and another owned by Tamas Szemerey, a cousin of one of Mr. Orban’s former ministers. In addition, New Wave was part-owned by Mr. Szemerey’s longtime business partner, company records show.
Mr. Szemerey had made earlier attempts to buy Origo directly. But by his own telling, Magyar Telekom executives had discouraged such a direct attempt, on the grounds that he would be perceived as too close to the government.
.. There was no evidence of favoritism: New Wave had simply made the highest bid. But bolstered by money from the state, New Wave could afford to pay whatever it took to avoid the outlet being sold to businesses not aligned with the government.
.. Though nominally still private, Origo now became a vessel for the government. Bought in part with government money, Origo now published news that echoed the government’s stance — in particular on migration, Mr. Soros and the European Union, whose officials have frequently criticized Mr. Orban.
Before, Origo had struggled financially. Now it was flush with government advertising revenue, which more than tripled after the sale. In 2017, the son of Mr. Orban’s former finance minister became New Wave’s chief executive, and government advertising revenues kept rising, even as Origo’s coverage became even more aggressively pro-Orban.
At the time, the 2015 sale of Origo could have been considered an outlier. Then, Origo became one of just 31 outlets owned by Mr. Orban’s allies, according to research by Atlatszo, an investigative news website.
Today, there are more than 500.