Szabolcs Panyi, 26, is the author and editor of a popular Hungarian blog, Véleményvezér (“Opinion Leader”). He joined Global Voices in Hungarian in September 2011, and since March 2012 he has been the site's co-editor.
Szabolcs Panyi: Yes, I'm the first one who received it as a blogger. It's extraordinary for sure, but it's not only about me, but about the blog [hu], and therefore it's about the other authors as well. On the other hand, with this [award] the importance of blogs is also recognized.
GV: Before you joined Global Voices, I often quoted Véleményvezér on our English site, because I believed its name reflected what it did: it's an opinion leader blog for Hungarian readers. What was the key to making a blog dealing with public affairs so popular?
SZP: I think mostly the fact that we are trying to write Anglo-Saxon style texts, brief and as even-tempered as possible. Blogs and Hungarian op-eds are usually quite passionate, partial and ironic in style. We wanted something different. Our aim is not to reach agreement, but to make people think. We drifted more towards critizing the government lately, though, but the whole Hungarian politics has changed.
The concept [of the blog] is that we highlight the most important event of the previous day, so we basically help those who are not following politics so closely to always find important stories, and they don't have to go through a bunch of things. In addition to this, we are cooperating with Index [a news site], and we owe a lot to Index and Blog.hu [a blog service of Index], because they promote us on their main page, among their own content, and this way they send a lot of readers to us.
GV: Do you know your readers, do you have an idea about who reads Véleményvezér?
SZP: According to the statistics of our Facebook page, it is mostly people between 25 and 45, male, residents of Budapest [the capital]. I often meet people who tell me that they read it, and it's always good to hear that. Recently, mainly middle-of-the-road, disillusioned, disappointed right-wingers, and long-time critics of the governing party have started reading us. But those who we'd rather like to address are a little bit like us, under 45, [people in their] 20s and 30s, who want to see Hungary following Western norms and maintaining good relations with its Western allies, rather than with the oppressive regimes, since we belong in the West. And, of course, [those who want] the government to pursue a reasonable, pragmatic economic policy because that makes the country strong. That is to say, classic right-wing moderates who have been watching the events of the Hungarian politics with a long face for a while now.
Our name is Véleményvezér [“Opinion Leader”] because the aim is not only to reach out to a lot of people, but to reach those more important people who have influence and opinion-making powers, or are in decision-making positions. Capitalizing on this, we are trying to draw attention to issues we find important, that's why we deal more with certain things than the broader audience would find it important – for instance, with the country's communist secret service past.
GV: At some point you invited public figures, journalists and experts to comment on your posts. What was the procedure you followed?
SZP: We disabled commenting to the broader audience, everyone can comment on our articles on Facebook [hu] using their real names, there we usually receive 50-200 comments to each text. On the blog, 20-30 invited commenters can reply, they are mainly economists, journalists, political commentators, university professors, experts from different backgrounds, who are all under 45 and have produced something valuable in their fields. They would be our ideal readers, and they are the ones we would like to present to our readers as figures who are more noteworthy than those run-down, old columnists who grew up during socialism and have been repeating the same things since then.
GV: Was there any other reason for directing commenters to Facebook?
SZP: The level of the Hungarian commenting culture is pretty low, and we wanted quality comments on our site, and to develop quality debate culture there. We received plenty of comments on the posts, let's say more than a thousand, and to find something meaningful, you had to scroll through the whole thing, thus it was totally worthless content, or rather the valuable content was lost among the worthless [comments]. But by taking this step we were able to make sure that comments were adding value in every case.
The latest example was a comment by Lászó Varró of the International Energy Agency [Head of the Gas, Coal and Power Division], and when Index highlighted the comment on their main page, that directed an additional 20,000 readers to us. Only by having that comment featured.
GV: In your article [hu] published on the occasion of the Blog Action Day you wrote that the Hungarian bloggers were free, they could publish anything. Do you still believe that?
SZP: Yes, they can publish virtually anything. Of course, there are bloggers leaning to political parties, whose blogs are financed by parties in one way or another, or they themselves work close to politics. Obviously, they don't write about certain things or are not framing so harshly even when criticizing their own people, while they are promoting certain topics popular on their political side.
GV: If bloggers can write freely, can we say that they have taken over the role of journalists to some extent?
SZP: We bloggers can react faster and can work on our stories almost without any restraint, while poor journalists have to sit in newsrooms and [publish news wires] around the clock, and they often remain with an almost total lack of creativity and no time to write opinion. It's in the genre of op-eds where bloggers have to a large extent taken over the role of journalists. There are not many traditional, well-known, respected columnists left in Hungary, those who are around are outdated, they publish in dailies, so the people we are addressing are not really reading them.
GV: Why was it important for you to volunteer on Global Voices?
SZP: I'm very interested in the situation in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Third World semi-dictatorships and dictatorships. During the spring of 2011, on a blogger trip to Germany, I met bloggers from Tunisia, Indonesia, Mongolia and other places, and I was very moved by the fact that we had the same occupation, we were members of the same generation, and how different were the consequences of blogging in Hungary and in those countries. I was looking for opportunities to advocate their causes in my country, or at least to draw attention to them. Global Voices is a very good opportunity to do this.
GV: What are the biggest challenges that GV's Hungarian team is facing?
SZP: The most challenging aspect is that topics from outside our borders that are not directly related to Hungary are less interesting to Hungarian readers, except for tabloid topics. For example, the sexual assault case in India was one of our most popular posts and was re-published by other sites as tabloid news. But many have also read the post on the death of the Iranian blogger Sattar Beheshti, which was a bit surprising to me, but I was happy that people at least heard about this terrible story in Hungary. Unfortunately, it's very hard to find readers interested in issues such as net freedom and free speech online.
GV: What was the most popular post or issue that Global Voices translated into Hungarian?
SZP: In addition to the ones mentioned above, the most popular were our translations on the Safarov case – because those were related to Hungary, since it was the Hungarian government that for economic advantages set free the Azeri Ramil Safarov who had killed an Armenian fellow student in Budapest. The axe murderer received amnesty from the Azeris right after being released, and he was celebrated as a hero – even the Azeri president's unofficial Facebook page cover was swapped for Safarov's photo. The translations told this story, and it was then circulated in the Hungarian online media.