From Journalism to Activism in Hungary

Many people are drawn to journalism because of their passion for social justice. They want to investigate wrongdoing. They want to expose corruption. They want to give voice to those who don't have any other way to bring their stories to the public.

Journalism can be powerful. It can bring down the mighty and elevate the underdog. But it can't by itself transform social mores. People, in the end, read what they want to read. Often, they don't read newspapers at all.

Szilvia Varro worked as a journalist for 18 years. She won Hungary's top journalism award for her investigative pieces on the extreme right and its approach toward Roma, the Pulitzer Prize (Joseph Pulitzer was born in Hungary). Her pieces were published in a prominent daily and weekly. If any journalist could have changed Hungarian attitudes about Roma, it would have been her.

But after 18 years, she quit. And started something new.

"When I got the Pulitzer Prize, I had to ask myself: what did I achieve?" she told me in her office in Budapest. "I had this feeling that I hadn't reached anything in my journalistic work. What did it mean to get the Pulitzer Prize if nothing had changed? Because nothing changed with the Roma question, I started Communications Center X: to somehow democratically influence social issues through communication. It was just not satisfying for me to write articles over and over again when nothing was changing."

Communications Center X (XKK) is a public relations firm with a purpose. It aims to mobilize young people in Hungary to transform their society. The Roma issue is one the agency's priorities because of the urgency of the situation.

"A racially motivated series of attacks of a kind unprecedented since World War II occurred against the Roma in Hungary in 2008-2009, leaving six dead and many severely injured," she explained. "XKK made four short films to commemorate this. The campaign was launched on July 22 with four short films disseminated on Facebook and in the Hungarian mainstream media. The campaign was carried out in three spheres: Hungarian and international media, Facebook, and offline events. We also launched a Virtual Commemoration Campaign. We asked companies, churches, and NGOs to take an active role in remembering the victims by posting and sharing our films on their pages and social media sites on the Internet."

The campaign was a success. Not only did it win awards, "with the Their Skin Was Their Only Sin campaign we reached over 1.2 million people, and people reacted to what we did. We achieved more than I did in the previous 18 years."

Journalism, Varro discovered, was not always part of the solution. "Several times when interethnic conflict broke out, I was among the first to arrive on the scene," she recalled. "One of my mistakes was looking only at the Roma agenda. The Roma called me and that's how I got there. So I entered the conflict through one door, and it was the door of the Roma. I never entered the door of the majority. On several occasions I didn't reduce the conflict but rather exaggerated it. It was almost as if I was promoting the extreme right in my paper because, looking back, I was exaggerating the problem, making it worse."

Now, with XKK, she offers a different strategy. "When we are working with the Roma and helping them with their communication, we advise them not to turn to the media," she said. "We teach them to avoid the media. Don't talk to them because it has consequences. Forget about the media. Try to solve the conflict by working together with the gadjo, the majority community. Find other NGOs, but don't go to the media."

We talked about how she managed to gain the trust of the extreme Right, how XKK hopes to reach young people in Hungary today, and her skepticism toward the current political choices on offer. I've also incorporated her updates on XKK activities since we originally talked last May.

The Interview

So, tell me about this organization.

Communications Center X (XKK) was founded in 2012 with help from Open Society Institute. Before this, I was a journalist for 18 years, writing for a Hungarian weekly Magyar Narancs and for the daily Népszabadság. I received the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism in 2010 for investigating the extreme right here in Hungary. I started that work in the early 1990s, when Istvan Csurka was in parliament and quite powerful. In the mid 2000s, I followed the extreme Right party Jobbik and their paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard as well. I was investigating the far right and Hungarian Roma and the serial killings of the Roma between 2008-2009.

A racially motivated series of attacks of a kind unprecedented since World War II occurred against the Roma in Hungary in 2008-2009, leaving six dead and many severely injured. XKK made four short films to commemorate this. The campaign was launched on July 22 with four short films disseminated on Facebook and in the Hungarian mainstream media. The campaign was carried out in three spheres: Hungarian and international media, Facebook, and offline events. We also launched a Virtual Commemoration Campaign. We asked companies, churches, and NGOs to take an active role in remembering the victims by posting and sharing our films on their pages and social media sites on the Internet. We succeeded in partnering with the Jesuit order, which initially organized memorial services on the memorial day of the Roma holocaust. This was followed up on several occasions when the XKK team appeared at a number of seminars at various Jesuit youth events. The Their Skin Was Their Only Sin campaign won in two categories of Prizma Kreatív (Project of the Year; CSR solutions), the most prestigious award in the Hungarian advertising industry.

Why did you give up journalism?

When I got the Pulitzer Prize, I had to ask myself: what did I achieve? I had this feeling that I hadn't reached anything in my journalistic work. What did it mean to get the Pulitzer Prize if nothing had changed? Because nothing changed with the Roma question, I started Communications Center X: to somehow democratically influence social issues through communication. It was just not satisfying for me to write articles over and over again when nothing was changing. With the Their Skin Was Their Only Sin campaign we reached over 1.2 million people, and people reacted to what we did. We achieved more than I did in the previous 18 years.

Education became a big issue in Hungary because we basically have the same system we had in the 1980s. Not much has changed. And the current conservative government has made it worse than it was. So, education became a central issue. I also chose this topic because, as maybe you know, many young people vote for Jobbik, especially those with a strong party identification. The student demonstration on the street was the first sign that a left-liberal minority was forming -- that something was emerging not on the right side and especially not on the extreme right side. As a journalist I witnessed how Jobbik first emerged on the street, occupying the street, and that's partly how they became cool. They began to use social media. In the beginning of 2000s, they gradually became mainstream.

A new issue we are working on at the moment is how to mobilize young people, how to get them to vote. We know that Hungarian youth are allegedly disengaged from public affairs and invisible in the political arena. They do not read the news regularly and do not get informed about public affairs. Their news consumption rarely involves political articles. Watching the evening news is out, checking their Facebook feed is in. There is no medium in Hungarian mainstream media that would simultaneously supply entertaining, light content, and serious political content of interest to young people. That's what we want to try: to establish a set of platforms (homepage, blog, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter) in order to reach young people. We launched the Hello90 blog, where the content is generated by those born in the 1990s. It provides credibility, authenticity. Hello90 translates public affairs into the language of the young, while also sensitizing them to social problems. It should become a point of reference for the generation.

You said that you were frustrated by not seeing results. Do you think your articles contributed in any way to increasing knowledge about the extreme right and helping organizations that you see now emerging in their strategizing?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.