Sunday

28th Feb 2021

Opinion

How Orbán killed a radio station

  • At midnight last night, one of Hungary's last remaining independent radio stations, Budapest-based Klubrádió, fell silent on the frequency on which it has broadcast since 2000 (Photo: morberg)

In 2021 democracy does not die overnight. Rather, it is dismantled brick by brick until the pillars on which it once stood are hollowed out and crumble.

This slow erosion of democratic institutions has been underway for more than a decade now in Hungary, where the ruling Fidesz party has undermined media independence and pluralism to achieve a degree of media control unprecedented in an EU member state.

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Today (15 February) yet another brick in the country's democracy was removed, with devastating implications for press freedom both in Hungary and the wider EU.

At midnight last night, one of Hungary's last remaining independent radio stations, Budapest-based Klubrádió, fell silent on the frequency on which it has broadcast since 2000.

It comes after a court in Budapest on 9 February sided with the government-controlled Hungarian Media Council and approved its decision not to renew the license of the country's last remaining major independent radio broadcaster, Klubrádió.

Earlier this month, the same court also rejected Klubrádió's last-ditch request for an emergency license to remain on air until the rival's appeal was resolved.

The two rulings resign Klubrádió to broadcasting solely from the internet and cap the end of a decade-long campaign by the ruling Fidesz party led by prime minister Viktor Orbán to muzzle one of the country's last major radio stations which airs views critical of the government.

For many in Hungary, there is a sense of déjà vu.

A decade ago, Klubrádió's license renewal was blocked on similarly trivial grounds by the same Media Council, which has long been stacked with Fidesz appointees.

A grassroots campaign by more than 10,000 supporters and interventions from foreign politicians such as then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton ensured the station was eventually awarded a long-term frequency in March 2013.

Frustrated by this setback, the Fidesz government was forced to look for alternative ways to silence the station.

Over the next few years, pressure on Klubrádió was ratcheted up as the station was fined and blacklisted for interviews, information and advertising from state-owned companies and agencies.

Meanwhile the media regulator stripped it of regional frequencies, confining it to the capital. Yet while other independent media in Hungary fell, Klubrádió stood firm.

Capital resistance

This situation became untenable for the government in 2019, when the liberal opposition candidate triumphed over the Fidesz incumbent in Budapest's mayoral election.

Shaken by its first major electoral loss since 2010, the party immediately looked to punish those responsible and ensure defeat in the capital was not replicated in 2022's parliamentary elections.

Where better to look than the city's most influential liberal broadcaster?

As in 2011, the best opportunity for Fidesz to strike would be the contract renewal of Budapest FM 92.9 MH in 2020.

In the months leading up to the decision, the government began laying the groundwork.

When the time came for the license renewal to be considered, the Fidesz-controlled regulator interpreted two minor infringements from 2016 as "repeated violations" and blocked the extension. Rival bids were then rejected for trivial reasons, opening a lengthy appeal process.

To ensure Klubrádió would remain trapped in legal limbo during this time, in 2020 the government used its majority to amend the law on provisional licenses so that they can no longer be granted during ongoing litigation. Last-minute initiatives by opposition parties were blocked.

To shut off the last remaining avenue to remain on air, DAB+ digital broadcasting in Hungary was discontinued in 2020.

This multi-pronged effort to stack the deck against Klubrádió reflects the Hungarian government's strategy of media and regulatory capture. State institutions have been filled with Fidesz loyalists and then abused to artificially distort the market and undermine independent media.

This has occurred under the noses of the EU, which has failed to recognise the severity of the issue or take appropriate action. Article 7 proceedings have had little effect and competition complains over market distortion have yet to be responded to.

The result is that over the last decade, the pillars of Hungary's democracy have been severely weakened.

This would be alarming enough if it were not just one EU state that was affected. The success of the model in Hungary has not gone unnoticed.

Over the last five years, the Law and Justice (PiS) government in Poland has copied elements of the Orbán model for its own campaign against independent media. The Slovenian government of Janez Janša is also taking similar steps in that direction.

The recent announcement that the European Commission was engaging with the Hungarian government is a welcome development. It must urge Budapest to find a temporary solution to make sure Klubrádió is not wiped off the airwaves.

It is also abundantly clear the decision by the Media Council to block the license renewal did not respect the principles of proportionality or non-discrimination, and therefore contravened EU law.

The EU Commission has a responsibility to do all it can to stop the removal of yet another brick from the wall of Hungary's country's rapidly hollowing democracy.

Author bio

Jamie Wiseman is advocacy officer at the Vienna-based International Press Institute.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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