KOMAROM, Hungary -- It's 7 a.m. on a weekday in late March and Marton Gulyas is kicking off a livestream, microphone in one hand and coffee in the other, over the rumble of a gas-powered generator.
The excitable host and architect of independent online TV channel Partizan walks along a thick black power cable -- past the glare of a rising sun -- to the steps of a tomato-red tractor-trailer that's been refitted as a studio for his preelection road show.
He describes the previous day's scramble for the generator after electricity to the truck was cut off by local authorities loyal to Fidesz, the right-wing populist party whose founder, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has dominated Hungarian politics for over a decade.
It's a nimble detour to start the morning broadcast eight stops into a monthlong tour of potential battleground constituencies to stoke debate and challenge political entrenchment ahead of elections on April 3.
But it's also a reminder of the fragility, and isolation, of doing meaningful independent news in a media landscape dominated by pro-Orban forces.
"Cut one wire and you're done," Gulyas, a 35-year-old political junkie with a history of left-wing activism, says of the risks to Hungarian outlets like Partizan.
He says he made a point of telling viewers and fans the story of the electricity cutoff because he "just wanted to make sure that people realize that we are not as established as they maybe assume we are," despite Partizan's status as the biggest nonprofit media organization in the country.
People see the truck, the daily feeds, the professionalism, and they don't realize it's still just a "pre-institutionalized collective," Gulyas says. "Compared to the average YouTube channel, it is [established]," he adds, "But if you're comparing it to other media outlets, no, it's not."
Critics say successive Fidesz governments have systematically brought public and private media to heel to secure their grip on power and further Orban's stated aim of turning Hungary into an "illiberal new state based on national foundations."
They cite 12 years of legislative, regulatory, and financial maneuvering that has left few avenues for critical reporting by journalists disinclined to parrot Fidesz talking points.
"I think this has been an integral part of the process of de-democratization," says Dalibor Rohac, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and research associate at the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies in Brussels.
With few exceptions, Gulyas and other Partizan staffers say, Fidesz officials routinely reject their invitations to participate in the probing, extended interviews that have made Gulyas a darling among fans.
In some cases, as in Komarom, they are more obstructionist. "We saw the decision made by the mayor, and we tried to persuade him to not f**k with us, but he had different intentions, I guess," Gulyas tells RFE/RL over breakfast after the morning show last week.
The office of the mayor, Fidesz's Attila Molnar, did not respond to RFE/RL's e-mailed questions about the sudden denial of electricity to the Partizan truck.
Gulyas gained some attention as a YouTuber before launching Partizan Media in 2017, and the platform has since produced hard-hitting exposés on the assets of Orban's extended family, as well as of the loyal elite who have seemingly flourished from their ties to Fidesz.
For the first few years after Partizan's founding, Gulyas embraced his activism, and he still regards himself as "a kind of mixture of activist and journalist."
"I don't say that I'm 100 percent a journalist; I say that I use journalistic tools," he says.
Partizan went daily with its livestreamed broadcasts when COVID-19 lockdowns and a state of emergency handed Orban sweeping new powers early in 2020.
"I think that was the step that made Partizan a really important and significant media outlet in Hungary," says Agnes Urban, an infocommunications professor at Budapest's Corvinus University and managing director of the independent Mertek Media Monitor.
Now, Partizan has 270,000 subscribers on YouTube and more than 150,000 followers on Facebook, its two main platforms.
It operates on a budget of around $80,000 per month, according to Gulyas, roughly half of it from 5,500 or so donors through the Patreon platform and the other half from larger donors who, on Hungary's fraught political scene, mostly remain anonymous.
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a U.S.-based democracy-promotion NGO,provided $98,000 in funding for the preelection road show.
Partizan currently has around 30 employees and perhaps 20 more volunteers, reflecting what Gulyas calls "a very dynamic situation because right now we are in campaign mode."
In addition to the daily election specials, its weekly programs include late-night talk shows, bundled news shorts, animated mash-ups of leaked political recordings, and debates featuring average folks parsing the topics of the day, among others.
But it is Gulyas's long-form interviews that are at the heart of Partizan's popularity.
Gulyas's lengthy sit-down early last year with an otherwise obscure small-town mayor, Peter Marki-Zay, is credited by many Hungarians -- and purportedly by the candidate himself -- with propelling that conservative Catholic challenger to national prominence and victory in the united opposition's six-party primary for a joint candidate to challenge Orban for the premiership.
Snippets of their hours-long conversation have been variously cited by Marki-Zay's supporters and detractors within the opposition, but they have also made their way into pro-Fidesz media on key questions like Hungary's role in NATO.
"I really like the interviews. They're top-notch, the best in Hungarian media," says Pal Otvos, a 23-year-old Komarom native who studied technical economics and engineering and lives in Budapest.
During one of the Komarom morning shows, Partizan's cameras had panned outside the truck to show a bundled-up Otvos sitting in freezing temperatures, the lone spectator.
"I don't agree with them on every topic, but what I like about them is that they dare to ask the question," he says.
'Authoritarian Media Model'
Polls are notoriously partisan in Hungary. But signs of a recent surge suggest that the 58-year-old Orban could be headed for a fourth consecutive term in office to pursue his vision of "illiberal" democracy.
His government has all the advantages of incumbency heading into its first-ever election test against a unified opposition, only supersized.
Alone or in lopsided alliance, Fidesz has controlled two-thirds of parliament since trouncing a bungling leftist government in 2010. It has used those supermajorities to unilaterally refashion Hungary's constitution, pass a new media law restricting press freedom, gerrymander and reconfigure electoral laws to favor itself, and corral civil society.
Orban has overseen the consolidation of all publicly funded TV and radio under an umbrella organization controlled by Fidesz supporters, and centralized media authority within a council full of cronies with long tenures.
Meanwhile, flush with media outlets scooped up all over the country, pro-Fidesz owners in 2018 donated nearly 500 holdings to a foundation, known as KESMA, controlled by longtime Orban allies and exempted from most oversight.
Throughout, advertising funds have flowed on a massive scale from public and private entities into media outlets known to be friendly to Fidesz.
"As soon as Fidesz won the elections in 2010, they embarked on this process of achieving media capture in the country," says Marius Dragomir, director of the Center for Media, Data, and Society (CMDS) at the Central European University's Democracy Institute.
He calls it a "step by step" process of gaining control over regulatory authorities, including those in charge of broadcast licenses; the public and state media system; public resources to fund media directly or through advertising; and eventually even private ownership of media outlets.
Now, Dragomir says, Hungary is "a textbook case" of media capture in which Fidesz has achieved control of "more or less all the prominent media in the country."
He pushes back against the "image of legality" projected by Orban and his defenders -- enabled in part by toothless responses from EU institutions -- with respect to Fidesz's consolidation of the media.
"You can easily be deceived by this narrative," Dragomir says. "But if you really understand and look at all these companies, you will see that they are all connected, that there is a ring of oligarchs supporting Orban for almost a decade. And if you look at the editorial coverage, to ensure their success in elections, it has been overwhelmingly pro-Fidesz during all this."
Mertek's Urban agrees, but notes that the ruling party's decade-long supermajority has provided it with a fig leaf. "They are legal steps, but the result of those steps is a completely authoritarian media model," she says.
'Everything Is Political'
Over a breakfast of fried eggs and Hungarian sausage at a Komarom cafe, Gulyas points out in his fluent English that nonprofit journalism "is almost nonexistent in this country."
When RFE/RL mentions a recent exodus at a struggling local news website in southern Hungary, his ears perk up and he asks which one. He knows the editor, and slips into Hungarian to express regret. "It's a stressful situation," Gulyas says, "but that's the price if you don't want to, you know, be part of the market."
He chose the name Partizan in part to evoke the dilemma of independent journalism on a media landscape dominated primarily by "aggressive pressure coming from the government" and pressure to sell advertising. Crucially, he says, it also reflects the organization's "broader mission to observe society as a political structure" and spotlight its "unknown or hidden aspects."
"I think it's our mission to say that everything is political," Gulyas says. "And if we start to withhold ourselves from this kind of political understanding of life, then the power will do that, but not in our favor."
Asked about the sparse live turnout for their roadshow, he cites the nighttime cold and a public "fed up" with the risk of war contagion from neighboring Ukraine. But he also credits Orban's knack for "demobilizing the people or channeling the frustration of the people in a very deep, politicizing way."
"That is exactly what is going on right now," Gulyas says.
The managing director of political-risk consultancy Eurasia Group suggested in an e-mail this week that Fidesz's chances of retaining a supermajority were slight but seemingly increasing.
"The Fidesz government's overwhelming access to funds and control of most media is one reason for the lead it holds in the limited number of polls published since the Russian invasion of Ukraine," Mujtaba Rahman says.
Moreover, there is still "a significant risk of serious news, real or manufactured, negatively impacting the opposition campaign," he says.
RFE/RL contacted several Hungarian think tanks that are widely regarded as sympathetic to Fidesz about state influence in the media ahead of the election, but none responded, in one case despite pledging to answer e-mailed questions.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) recently took the nearly unprecedented step of recommending a full-scale mission to observe the April 3 elections, the second such proposal for an EU member state in its history.
Its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) cited "concerns over media freedom" and a polarized and concentrated media environment characterized by a skewed and "limited diversity of views."
In a December 2021 report by the Mertek Media Monitor, which was funded in part by the Dutch Embassy's Human Rights Fund, the authors likened the dozen years of Fidesz rule to "a long storm" for the Hungarian media.
They described the "transformation of public service media into a propaganda machine" and the onerous conditions that squeezed out foreign investors in favor of local owners, often with ties to Fidesz, and made "journalistic work more difficult."
"It would be fair to say that the decade of Fidesz's governance and Viktor Orban's premiership has been a dark period for media freedom in Hungary," the report said, while also highlighting "the struggle for survival of a few heroically struggling independent newsrooms."
Media expert Dragomir acknowledges a smattering of media outlets in Hungary that aren't controlled by the government "because they're led by journalists who decided to take that path exactly."
"But they're very small," he hastens to add.
Veteran journalist Ervin Guth, in the southern city of Pecs, is among them.
He fled part-time work for a local paper in 2016 after its owner, Mediaworks, was itself acquired by a company with ties to Fidesz that is now part of KESMA. All of his former colleagues left or were forced out of the paper. He joined an independent news outlet called Szabad Pecs at its start-up five years ago, part-time, but has since left.
"Maybe I'm in a bubble, too, but a lot of people are complaining about what's happening in Hungarian media, and it's really terrible. And it did not get better but worse in the past few years," Guth says.
He recently launched a subscriber-based newsletter, called Mecseki Muzli after the hills around Pecs (and cereal), to test the public appetite for his style of independent journalism.
Guth says he could never write what he does now for a KESMA media outlet. "Nobody has a word [of input] about what to put in each newsletter, only me. So I think this is the ultimate freedom," he says. "And, of course, there's a responsibility coming with this, which is also mine."
He closely tracks local spending and petition drives, shares links where residents can follow official proceedings, and talks about things like public demand for new bus stops. In a recent correction, he clarified that a local Fidesz councilor had since amended the omission of around $1,000 of income from his asset declaration.
"It is definitely independent," Guth says. "But if you ask somebody from Fidesz, they will say that it is 'opposition media.'"
Guth embraces the subjective, too, with lots of opinion in his newsletter "because the writing is like a friend telling you the news." But his aim is not to polarize. "I tried to create something that helps people to have a common knowledge about what's going on in Pecs," Guth says. "Because we have all these separate bubbles, and a lot of important information gets lost."
He can only dedicate one day a week to reporting and writing it because that's all his paid subscriptions can support so far. Earlier this year, Guth got $1,000 in funding from the German Marshall Fund, via Mertek. They called Mecseki Muzli an "innovative format" that is potentially "sustainable in difficult circumstances [and] could be an important local media model operating in illiberal media systems."
"Independent journalism was never more important than now, because we have a global crisis and we have a Hungarian political crisis as well," says Peter Kakuk, an academic who has worked as a volunteer analyst for an independent website fighting for its existence in Hungary's second-largest city, Debrecen, a traditional Fidesz stronghold with some 200,000 residents.
He calls the subscriber culture in that eastern city "rather raw," but cites some promising signs for the trend, "especially for journalists that have an audience across the whole country."
Kakuk says the website, Debreciner, simply wants to be "an ordinary, everyday journal that doesn't have this [pro-Fidesz] bias" and aims to "hold these people to account."
But it's "a very hostile environment" and local Fidesz officials simply won't talk to their reporters. "It's very challenging, but we're still alive," Kakuk says.
That's one of the symptoms of Orban's radical reshaping of Hungary's media sector to suit his particular brand of authoritarianism, according to the American Enterprise Institute's Rohac.
"The abundance of (meagerly funded and barely surviving) online outlets is not an adequate substitute, particularly in rural areas where traditional broadcasting and regional newspapers (all under Fidesz control) are the dominant part of people's information diet," he says.
'Needle In A Haystack'
Multiple Partizan viewers tell RFE/RL that they simply stumbled across the station in their YouTube feed as a result of the video-sharing giant's algorithms.
Peter Richter, a twentysomething asset manager in Budapest, calls it a "needle in a haystack."
"It is what the evening news should and would be under normal circumstances," he says.
Back in Komarom, only about a half-dozen people in all show up to watch Partizan's live shows on a screen outside the truck. There is a better attendance for the "public meeting," where around 30 people gather in a cramped room of a home on the outskirts of the city set aside for NGO events.
Gulyas gamely tackles questions about Fidesz's grip on power, the perilous state of Hungary's media sector, and the trappings of celebrity as the face and voice of Partizan, eliciting frequent laughter from the crowd.
One of the attendees, 32-year-old singer-songwriter Mark Zentai, prefaces his question by calling himself a "fan boy." Then he pointedly challenges Gulyas's choice of guests once, when he interviewed someone Zentai regards as a charlatan peddling bogus health products and advice.
He seems satisfied with the answer, which like many of Gulyas's responses is peppered with humility.
"I think what Marton [Gulyas] and his team are trying to do, on a very basic level, is just to open up dialogue and make conversation possible and happen, even between very different people," Zentai tells RFE/RL. "They don't mind if someone has a very different opinion. They won't make them look ridiculous or mock them or bully them. They're part of society, so let's hear them out. And that's what I like most."
After the discussion, Gulyas stays to listen to the entertainment -- Zentai's band, MORK -- as Partizan's producers and editors smoke in a circle outside. There are only a few days left in the tour, and they're exhausted.
Still, Gulyas, who has no Twitter account of his own and limits his number of Facebook friends to nine, poses patiently for selfies with nearly everyone in the room, including the woman who's running to unseat the local Fidesz representative in next month's vote.
"These are important things," Gulyas tells RFE/RL later. "Be on time. Stay as long as you like. And be polite."