Interviews 4 and 5: Andras Petho and Gabor Horvath (and dinner with a war correspondent!)

Marissa Horn

Interview with Andras Petho

Our class met with fellow Terp and journalist, Andras Petho, Wednesday to discuss industry-wide issues and delve into what sets Hungarian journalism apart from other Central European countries.

Formerly an editor for Origo, an online news source in Budapest, Petho walked out last summer following the sacking of editor-in-chief Gergő Sáling along with political pressures from various angles. Prior to the walk-out, Petho said he felt freest to report between the beginning of his career in 2002 through 2013, because he did not feel certain pressures that are present now.

Petho is now working on a new project, Direkt 36, which he says will provide high-quality investigative journalism to Hungary and international readers through a subscription service. Although its Twitter page displays just 24 tweets so far, the start-up company has gained more than 10,000 followers on Facebook since Petho and co-founders announced its creation last week.

The responsiveness of the public and the willingness to crowd-fund the project surprised Petho in the beginning, but he is excited to see where the project goes from here.

Petho hopes to preserve professionalism and the highest standards of journalism in this new venture.

Petho also studied at the University of Maryland as a Humphrey Fellow and soon after earned a spot on the Sunday front page of the Washington Post with a collaborative investigative report.

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#MerrillAbroad #Journalism #Hungary @_jessmarquezz

Later on in the day, Group 2 and company traveled to the office of Nepszabadsag, one of the country’s largest newspapers. Editor Gabor Horvath spoke about the struggle newspapers are facing with the ever omnipresent social media and Internet pressures.

“The dinosaurs died out, not because they were big or slow, but because they couldn’t adapt,” he said.

Despite warning us of the instability of holding a job in journalism, both Horvath and his fellow editors plan to continue printing with many changes being made in marketing and production techniques.

After a long day on the pedestrian streets of Budapest, in and out of bakeries, we all met with  journalist, Balint Szlanko, for dinner at Evidens Bistro. Having worked for the Associated Press, Al Jazeera, USA Today and many other publications, Szlanko has traveled to many countries in conflict as a war correspondent.

His depth of experience and frontline stories captivated the table for much of the evening, even as he nonchalantly slipped into the conversation that Syrian rebel fighters had ‘mistakenly’ kidnapped him while reporting in Syria. Szlanko suggested students prepare for international reporting and war correspondence through proper training in CPR and First-Aid for emergency situations, along with learning how to write well, operate videocameras and take photographs.

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Students Christine Rice and Lauren Sagl sharing dinner and a moment with Balint Szlanko. By Marissa Horn

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Dinner just around the corner from our hotel. By Marissa Horn

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The interior of Evidens Bistro, a super classy joint in Budapest. By Marissa Horn


Morning in the Classroom, Evening on Buda Hill

Jessica Marquez and Karl Hille

Hungary’s economic and political issues kicked off our second day in Budapest. Tamas Novak is an associate professor at Budapest Business School. Novak talked to our class about the different economic and political issues surrounding Hungary and it’s media.

teacher at front of class, screen

Tamas Novak talks about Hungary’s history and politics.
Photo Credit: Jessica Marquez

Novak said that in 2010 Hungary experienced a big change. “The country is under autocracy instead of democracy; the state of law ha s weakened,” Novak said. He continued to say that the human rights of the Hungarians had been infringed on because of the occurring autocracy.

Novak later explained that the Travares Report came out in July of 2013. This report listed things that were considered “undemocratic” since the 2010 change in government.

Budapest, Hungary and Moscow, Russia are now in negotiations to receive $10 billion euros in a nuclear cooperation agreement. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin is scheduled to come to Hungary next month.

clothes hanging on hooks, curtains

Laundry hanging to dry indoors.
Photo Credit: Jessica Marquez

After the lecture, Brianna Hurwitz and I ran errands to the grocery store to fine an outlet adapter and laundry detergent. We came back to the hotel and manually washed our clothes. What a different lifestyle than home. I guess you have to do what you have to do.

While Jess and Brianna handwashed, the rest of the class followed Szylvia on a rambling tour out to the Opera, then up to Buda Hill.

There we saw the fairy-tale spires of Fisherman’s Bastion, Matthias Church, where the kings of Hungary were crowned, and the palace grounds, including what remains of the old armory, bombed out in World War II.

Our guide was concerned that we would get the wrong notion of Hungarians from Tamas, so after explaining the history of the Buda Hill and the coronations of kings, she made sure we understood that Hungarians were neither isolated, nor passive.

The view of Pest from Fisherman’s Bastion is simply breathtaking, and everyone got their portrait taken with sunlight on Parliament in the background.

gothic building on the river bank

Hungary’s Parliament building seen from Fisherman’s Bastion.
Photo Credit: Karl B. Hille

From there, we visited the palace grounds, and after copious instructions on how to get back to town, Szylvia left us to explore the palace at dusk. We were just in time to see the changing of the guard and snap a few pictures, but it was getting cold fast.

Some got hot drinks before hiking down, while others opted for the bus. One nice thing about the short bus ride was getting back to the Pest side of the Danube in time to see the most amazing sunset over the palace. It went on forever, constantly changing, and we took pictures till our batteries died.

sunset over hill with palace

Sunset dreaming over Budda Palace, from the Danube shore in Pest. Photo Credit: Karl B. Hille

sunset over spires and hillside and river

Sunset over Matthias Church – the coronation place of kings of Hungary.
Photo Credit: Karl B. Hille

Our First Day in Hungary

By Brianna Hurwitz

Our class bid adieu to Bratislava on Friday and traveled to Budapest. On our way there we saw the open countryside, which reminded me of home in Maryland. We were ready to study how Hungarians view the media, what role journalism plays in their society, and how it differs from Slovakia and the United States.

We learned the Danube River once separated the city into two separate cities called Buda and Pest. We traveled through the Buda side, over the Danube River, and arrived in the heart of the tourist district on the Pest side. After we arrived we went to the Central Market Hall, or Nagy Vasarcsarnok in Hungarian.

Photo Credit: Brianna Hurwitz

Photo Credit: Brianna Hurwitz

At the market place we had a Hungarian lunch, featuring goulash soup, and a Gypsy violinist serenaded our class! We walked around the market place after lunch and saw some handmade goods crafted by locals.

Late Friday, we visited Central European University, the Open Society Archives, and Freedom Square. The most interesting files we saw in the archives were boxes of reporter’s notebooks of David Rohde, the reporter who uncovered the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in 1996. Also in the archive boxes are bullets and bloody handkerchiefs found there.

However, I found the new statue in Freedom Square the most provocative sight of all. The monument was built in 2014 to commemorate the victims who died during the era of Nazi Germany. Police guard this monument because of its controversial representation of Hungarians. Protesters have gathered repeatedly in front of this statue, saying that it makes Hungarians appear to be victims of the Nazi era without acknowledging that many Hungarians collaborated with the regime.

Photo Credit: Brianna Hurwitz

Photo Credit: Brianna Hurwitz

On the monument, an eagle, representing Germany, crouches above the Angel Gabriel, representing Hungary. The eagle, looming above Hungary, appears to still be a threat. I read it as also saying history could repeat itself.

Across the street, along the curb, lies a makeshift memorial that challenges the formal monument. It is dedicated to the Hungarian victims of Nazi Germany. Votive candles flicker near victims’ photographs, many sheathed in plastic, hanging from a jagged wire. Stones, shoes, a chair, a suitcase and letters, left by people paying tribute, also line the sidewalk. Police officers patrol the memorial.

After Freedom Square we had some free time to explore the city on our own. We saw the city lit at night from the top the Budapest Eye Ferris wheel and walked across the historic Chain Bridge to the Buda Castle.

Interview 3: Lukáš Diko

On our last day in Bratislava, a few classmates ventured to RTVS (Radio and Television Slovakia) to speak with the director of news and sports, Lukáš Diko.

Diko was a journalism major at Comenius University in Bratislava and has been a professional journalist for the past sixteen years. Before taking his job with RTVS, Diko worked at places like SME, Slovakia’s largest newspaper, as well as BBC World News in London. Unlike many of his colleagues at RTVS, Diko is a “new journalist” in Slovakia, and has only been a journalist after the fall of Soviet rule.

RTVS, where Diko now works, is a public channel whose funds come primarily from licensing fees, advertising revenue and government spending. However, since licensing fees have not increased in the past ten years and the government has limited each show to seven minutes of advertising per day, Diko and RTVS are depending more and more on government funding.

Normally, you would expect this to put pressure on a journalist. Diko, however, does not feel that pressure.

Diko believes that under his direction, no journalist at RTVS will ever have to feel undue pressures from the government. If those in power have a problem with a reporter, Diko says that the reporter can always be brought to court under Slovakia’s criminal defamation laws.

Though many are critical of the criminal defamation law in Slovakia, Diko doesn’t see an issue. With so few cases brought against journalists in the past, and even fewer convictions that resulted in jail time, Diko says that this law cannot really hurt journalists so long as they adhere to ethical and professional standards.

The biggest issue Diko sees facing Slovakia’s media presently is that the younger journalists are not being educated properly, not taking responsibility for their mistakes and thus creating a mistrust between them and the public. In a perfect world, Diko believes that older journalists need to come to educate younger journalists and that younger journalists need to start running corrections for their mistakes. It should be noted that Diko is currently working on his Ph.D. in journalism so that he himself can teach the next generation of journalists.

After speaking with Diko, the team noted that as a new generation journalist, Diko sees many different issues with Slovakian journalism than old journalists do. While old journalists are stuck on criminal defamation laws and ownership issues, Diko is focusing on making ends meet financially as well as creating the next crop of ethical and professional Slovakian journalists.


Graduate student Charlie Hansler interviews Lukáš Diko about RTVS and the media landscape in Slovakia. Photo by Kelsey Sutton

Interview 2: Matúš Kostolný and visit to U.S. Embassy

Visiting the Daily N

By Wednesday, our class had heard from multiple speakers who all mentioned the issue of ownership in Slovakia’s media system. Though we  deal with the same sort of issues back in America, rarely do we see someone with as much journalistic integrity as Matúš Kostolný.

Kostolný, a former editor at Slovakia’s leading newspaper (SME), left his post this past October, along with 60% of the staff. All of these journalists voiced their discontent with the new owner, a company called Penta. Based on Penta’s history, Kostolný and his colleagues worried that SME would now begin to censor its stories because of its new owner.

Now, Kostolný and 45 other former SME employees have started a new operation, the Daily N. The letter N stands for “independent paper” in Slovak–something Kostolný, his staff and the rest of the Slovakian media are fighting for.

SME was created much in the way that the Daily N is now beginning. In the early 90s, a bunch of journalists walked out of what was then Slovakia’s leading newspaper (Smena). One of Kostolný’s colleagues who left Smena had his car burned as was beaten in the streets. However, with Penta now holding on to SME, Kostolný fears that the same bravery and integrity will no longer be brought to its news stories.

“I saw it as proof that there are real people in this country willing to fight for their freedom,” said Kostolný, reflecting on SME’s creation.

Now, Kostolný’s creation of the Daily N is inspiring the next generation of journalists, namely the ones he brought with him from SME.

While talking with the class, he explained that the Daily N will not be for breaking news, but rather for discussion and dissection of news–something he didn’t feel was happening at SME. He hopes this will also attract readers and investors who will give his project a chance.

Like Slovakia, we too face the same ownership issues. Although news needs to be covered, it also needs to be paid for. Many believe consumers should be the ones to pay the high price, or investors or the government. Either way, someone needs to be a stakeholder in media companies–but we’re left wondering how much influence these stakeholders should have in the way we present the news. Can a media outlet be truly independent from its owners? Only time will tell.





The newsroom of Projekt N, a new independent publication with a killer layout and backstory #merrillabroad. - @lblasey

The newsroom of Projekt N, a new independent publication with a killer layout and backstory #merrillabroad. – @lblasey

Trip to U.S. Embassy in Bratislava, Slovakia 

After a brisk walk from the hotel to Old Town, our class arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Bratislava to meet with Deputy Chief of Mission Norman Thatcher Scharpf and Deputy Public Affairs Officer Stephanie Fitzmaurice. A tedious security check left some of us anxious without our iPhones when we arrive inside a conference room to meet with the pair, but we carried on without them.

Scharpf was candid in our round-table discussion, and he told us about the political and economic climate of Slovakia, especially as it pertains to journalistic freedoms. Like some of the other professionals our class has interviewed, Scharpf said a major problem was an inefficient and ineffective judicial system. Through this judiciary, journalists are prosecuted for defamation, sometimes criminally, and few people have faith in its overall effectiveness. Additionally, media ownership issues continue to challenge the notion of a truly independent press, he said.

Print media is being increasingly bought out by vested business interests,” Scharpf said.

Journalism is also not a highly sought-after profession, Scharpf added, because many talented writers travel elsewhere to participate in more robust media landscapes.

As a whole, Scharpf said Slovakia suffers from a lack of full democracy, despite its “remarkable” strikes toward democratization in just 25 years.

Fizmaurice, who interacts with Slovak journalists seeking statements in her role as public affairs officer, follows Slovak news closely to keep tabs on the issues concerning the population. She said Slovakia is ranked 20th in the world in terms of press freedom, and 80 percent of Slovaks have access to the Internet, and about 12 percent of the population receives their news online. More than 50 percent of Slovaks receive their news from television programming, and more educated Slovaks tend to consume their news through print media, she said.

Social media is becoming increasingly important for news consumption in Slovakia, she said — there are 2 million active Facebook users in Slovakia, which has a population of 5 million.

It wasn’t all good news. Fitzmaurice said Slovak journalists often reprint statements from the Embassy almost verbatim and in their entirety, which concerned us. Fitzmaurice and Scharpf both mentioned the investigative press lacks vitality and legitimacy. Fitzmaurice said the Embassy is considering investigative journalism grants to help train investigative journalists in the country.

Interview 1: Pavol Múdry and Slovakia’s evolving journalists

Group 1 kicked off our series of interviews today with Pavol Múdry, a veteran Slovakian journalist who created Bratislava’s first private commercial news agency. Brianna Hurwitz, Jessica Marquez, Karl Hille and Raj Topiwala asked Múdry a series of questions we developed as a class about his career and experiences working in Slovakia.

Unlike most journalists in the country, Múdry got his start young. He watched his father report the news under the totalitarian communist rule that lasted until 1989. Múdry has no formal journalism training, gaining experience through jobs and seminars in the United States and Germany.

Múdry returned and founded SITA in 1997 as a private commercial alternative to the existing media organizations in Bratislava. He has since gone on to become a media consultant.

The landscape of Slovak journalism evolved rapidly over the last 50 years. Múdry touched on the changing role of news in society, from newspapers’ role of providing entertaining and reliable sports coverage during the communist era to what Múdry describes as a free press today.

But with only 25 years of journalistic tradition and a young workforce, Múdry said the industry still has room to grow, both in quality and public value.

“I used to joke and say we can say whatever we want, but what happens after, we’ll see,” he said.

For example, criminal defamation, in which journalists convicted of libel can be tried and sent prison, is still legal, a practice condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

While such laws can intimidate journalists-in-the-making, Múdry said he’s never seen solid coverage result in such harsh backlash, highlighting the importance of strong and honest reporting.

Our second speaker of the day, author and consultant Patti McCracken, mentioned parallel trends of growth in the professionalism and experience of Slovakia’s news reporters, noting changes between when she first began training young journalists in the 1990s and today.

For more, you can follow our students on Twitter and Instagram, where we’re tweeting and posting with #merrillabroad.

"I used to joke that we could speak whatever we wanted, but what happens after that, well we'll see." By Marissa Horn (@MarissaL_Horn)

“I used to joke that we could speak whatever we wanted, but what happens after that, well we’ll see.” By Marissa Horn (@MarissaL_Horn)

A snowy Bratislava morning. By Laura Blasey (Instagram @lblasey)

A snowy Bratislava morning. By Laura Blasey (Instagram @lblasey)

Merrill Abroad goes to Vienna

Merrill Abroad took a trip to Vienna, Austria on Tuesday, Jan. 6.! We went to Vienna for an informative visit to the International Press Institute (IPI), the premier global non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting press freedom around the world. Thirty-four editors from 15 separate countries founded IPI in 1950 and now the organization has grown to over 120 countries, according to the IPI website. Steven M. Ellis, senior Press Freedom Advisor for Europe and North America, gave a lecture to Merrill Abroad about the history of IPI and discussed the present status of the media in Slovakia and Hungary before opening it up to questions from Merrill Abroad members. Ellis rated the media in Slovakia as free but was less positive about the state of the press in Hungary where journalists are trying to cope with an increasingly authoritarian governmental influence in their operations by the Viktor Orbán administration. Ellis and Merrill Abroad also ultimately turned back to the fact that the financial viability and economic pressures on the media is still perhaps the most difficult problem news organizations must grapple with. After leaving IPI, Merrill Abroad took in the many magnificent sights of Vienna! We took a to visit to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, an 11th century Gothic architectural masterpiece and the Belvedere Palace, the immense 18th century Baroque style summer palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy. The Belvedere is a major landmark of the city and housed an art museum that Merrill Abroad took advantage of seeing! Follow us on Twitter and Instagram using #merrillabroad.

Team #MerrillAbroad at #Vienna. It was one memorable day! - @sharadhakalyanam

Team #MerrillAbroad at #Vienna. It was one memorable day! – @sharadhakalyanam

Vienna, Austria - I live here now #BillyJoel - @christinemari33

Vienna, Austria – I live here now #BillyJoel – @christinemari33

Vienna, Austria #CityLife #MerrillAbroad. - @_jessmarquezz

Team #MerrillAbroad at #Vienna. It was one memorable day!

Sunset over Vienna, my favorite city yet.  - @horn_marissa

Sunset over Vienna, my favorite city yet. – @horn_marissa

Prof. Darina Malová and Pavol Múdry Meet with the #MerrillAbroad Class

Prof. Malová explains the history of Czechoslovakia and how it has changed under different regimes

Prof. Malová explains the history of Slovakia and how the country has grown and changed under different regimes || by Sharadha Kalyanam

Interview in front of a picture window

Brianna Hurwitz interviews Pavol Mudry, founder of Slovakia’s first independent press agency, SITA, about press freedom and what it means to be a journalist in a former totalitarian state.
Photo Credit: Karl B. Hille

Prof. Malová talks about communism in Slovakia

Prof. Malová talks about communism in Slovakia || by Sharadha Kalyanam

Dobré Ráno from Slovakia!

By Brianna Hurwitz

Our UMD investigative journalism class arrived in Bratislava, Slovakia Saturday! After a 3-hour bus ride from Budapest, we checked in at the Falkensteiner Hotel and hit the streets at night for a photo-filled tour with our guide, Maria.

We walked a short distance from our hotel to Bratislava Castle – where we saw nearly the entire capital of Slovakia decked out in a sea of golden lights.

From the castle we strolled through Old Town and took advantage of almost every photo-op that came our way. Majestic is the word I would use to summarize the sights of medieval castles, statues, and buildings that Bratislava has to offer.

Early Sunday, we met with social scientist and professor at Comenius University, Darina Malová, for a 3-hour lecture. Professor Malová taught our class about the history of Slovakia and how the country struggles to find its identity through legal, financial and cultural aspects.

“In my opinion there are many young people too radical and too Catholic in Slovakia,” Malová said.

Our detailed lecture concluded by comparing Slovakia’s industrialized economy to that of Detroit’s prior to the city going bankrupt.

With time on our side for some follow-up questions, Professor Malová mentioned how the city has very little violent crime but is saturated with political corruption. Her statement left me with one question: how can a city that has so much mistrust in the government and its judicial system boast very little violent crime rates?

01.04.15 Pictures of the Day

The sun rises over Old Town, or Staré Mesto, Bratislava. By Kelsey Sutton

The sun rises over Old Town, or Staré Mesto, Bratislava. By Kelsey Sutton

A child peering at the snowman in the shop window.

A child peering at the snowman in the shop window. By Jacob Pargament

A view from the top of the UFO Observation Deck above the Danube River. By Jessica Marquez Twitter: @_JessMarquez Instagram: @_jessmarquezz

A view from the top of the UFO Observation Deck above the Danube River. By Jessica Marquez Twitter: @_JessMarquez Instagram: @_jessmarquezz

Captured a photo of this man playing the guitar as our class walked back from a stroll around downtown Bratislava, Slovakia. By Brianna Hurwitz

Captured a photo of this man playing the guitar as our class walked back from a stroll around downtown Bratislava, Slovakia. By Brianna Hurwitz @briannabytes


A view of Hlavné Námestie, the main square of the Old Town, with the surrounding city and Bratislava Castle visible in the background. By Raj Topiwala.