Hungary’s Clampdown on Independent Media Is Almost Complete

Klubrádió, one of the last media outlets in Hungary willing to criticise the government, is being taken off air. Press freedom experts are warning that this is an issue the EU “can no longer afford to ignore.”
February 9, 2021, 6:11pm
Anti-government protesters on the streets of Budapest in 2019. Photo: Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images.
Anti-government protesters on the streets of Budapest in 2019. (Photo by Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images)

Hungary’s leading independent radio station will be taken off the airwaves this weekend, after failing to halt what it considers a political move to strip it of its broadcasting licence.

Klubrádió, a Budapest-based talk and news station that’s one of a dwindling number of Hungarian media outlets willing to criticise the government, lost its legal appeal Tuesday against a decision by the country’s media regulator not to renew its licence. The ruling will force the station online only, where it expects to reach a smaller audience, while it appeals the decision in Hungary’s Supreme Court.

The station’s president, András Arató, decried the move as a political decision, intended to silence critical voices, while experts said it reflected growing concerns for press freedom in Hungary, where the conservative government is increasingly squeezing independent media.

“Today’s verdict will force Hungary’s last major independent radio broadcaster off the air. It is devastating to what remains of media pluralism in Hungary and will have far reaching implications inside and outside the country’s borders,” Scott Griffen, deputy director of the International Press Institute, a global press freedom network, said in a statement.

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Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, tweeted: “Another silenced voice in Hungary. Another sad day for media freedom.”

Widely seen as the voice of the country’s liberal opposition, Klubrádió reaches about 200,000 people daily. The station began broadcasting in 1999, and has faced repeated efforts to remove it from the airwaves since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's conservative government took power in 2010, and began exerting increasing control over the country’s media.

The station’s latest woes began in September last year, when the country’s media regulator, the Media Council, said it had repeatedly breached rules by being late to file documents giving a breakdown of its broadcasting content. In response, the regulator said it would not extend its licence when it expired on the 14th of February, and instead put the frequency out for tender.

READ: How an interview with Politico made this man public enemy No. 1 in Hungary

But Klubrádió said other radio stations had committed similar administrative breaches in the past, without being stripped of their broadcasting licences. In a statement, the station’s management said it saw the current decision by the Media Council, which has previously sought to revoke the station’s licence, as being carried out with “the purpose of silencing all critical voices… if possible, under the cover of lawfulness.”

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Marius Dragomir, director of the Center for Media, Data and Society at Budapest’s Central European University, said that the move to strip the station of its licence was a “highly politicised decision” that reflected the ruling Fidesz party’s systematic capture of Hungarian media since coming to power in 2010.

He told VICE World News that the Media Council, the regulatory body which made the decision, was dominated by Fidesz appointees.

“This council is an image of the government and is stuffed mostly with loyalists and people supportive of the government,” he said. “Most of the decisions that have to do with licencing over the past 11 years were all really politicised and served the purposes of the government.”

Dragomir said that since coming to power in 2010, Orbán had set about systematically addressing what he saw as a leftist bias in the country’s media, in line with his stated agenda to transform Hungary into an “illiberal democracy.”

Since then, the government has redrawn the media landscape, creating new laws and establishing the Media Council to regulate the new environment. The country’s media outlets have gradually been brought under direct or indirect government control, supported with lucrative flows of state advertising, while independent outlets have been increasingly stifled.

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Last July, the editor-in-chief of leading news outlet Index was fired by its new owner, who has close ties to the government, prompting mass resignations and protests. In 2018, about 500 media outlets were consolidated into a nonprofit media conglomerate known as Kesma, creating a powerful pro-government media machine. And further back in 2016, Hungary’s biggest opposition daily, Nepszabadsag, was closed down.

The Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom has said Kesma “represents a huge and unprecedented concentration of media in the hands of oligarchs who are friendly to the ruling party.” Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders dropped Hungary 16 points in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index to 89th place, citing a “sharp decline in media freedom.”

“We only have a few outlets that operate independently now,” said Dragomir.

Asked to comment on criticism of the move to strip Klubrádió of its licence, the Hungarian government’s international communications office told VICE World News it wasn’t its place to comment on the decision by the judiciary. Of the actions by the media regulator, it said: “So far no one has questioned the quality of their decisions.”

But Griffen, of the International Press Institute, had plenty of criticism.

“Make no mistake: This is the outcome of a deliberate, decade-long effort by political forces in Hungary to eradicate Klubrádió from the airwaves,” he said, calling on the EU to “engage with” the Hungarian government to allow the station to remain on the air.

“The capture of media has severely weakened Hungarian democracy over the past decade. This model is now taking root beyond Hungary’s borders as governments from Poland to Slovenia seek to emulate it. This is a problem that the EU can no longer afford to ignore.”