One of the last remaining independent broadcasters in Hungary faces being wiped off the airwaves in a matter of weeks unless its last-ditch request for a temporary license is approved by a court, the International Press Institute (IPI) warned today.
On February 9, executives and lawyers of Klubrádió will be in court in Budapest to hear the verdict in its legal challenge against the decision by the Hungarian Media Council to reject the automatic renewal of its broadcast license for another seven years.
The court battle comes after the media regulator, which is formed of figures appointed by the ruling Fidesz party, rejected Klubrádió license renewal in September 2020 on the grounds it had violated the media law by twice failing to provide information on its programming content – justifications dismissed by Klubrádió as “absurd”.
If its appeal is unsuccessful, the talk and news station’s license for Budapest FM 92.9 MHz will expire five days later on February 14, relegating Klubrádió to the internet and sealing a major victory for the Fidesz government in its decade-long campaign to destroy the flagship liberal broadcaster.
Even if it wins its legal appeal, however, Klubrádió’s presence on the airwaves is still far from ensured. When the regulator blocked its automatic extension, it also opened the frequency to tender and two other broadcasters submitted rival bids.
Although both applications were rejected by the Media Council as they did not meet formal requirements, one of the rival bidders has appealed its disqualification, beginning a legal process that will likely take at least six months to resolve.
As Hungarian media law was amended by Fidesz in 2020 to scrap temporary licenses during such periods of litigation, Klubrádió will be unable to continue broadcasting on the frequency until the rival’s court case is concluded.
An extraordinary parliamentary session convened by opposition parties on February 1 to amend the law on temporary licenses was blocked by Fidesz, closing down one of the last available options for Klubrádió to remain on air.
In a last-ditch effort, last month the station also submitted an emergency request to the same court as part of its appeal for a temporary broadcast license. If this is rejected, Klubrádió will have exhausted all legal options and the station will fall silent on February 15.
IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said Klubrádió’s predicament represented the pinnacle of a long campaign by the government of Viktor Orbán to silence one of the last remaining radio broadcasters in Hungary which often airs views critical of the government.
“These efforts by the Fidesz-controlled Media Council to block Klubrádió license renewal are part of a far wider and calculated attempt to eradicate the station from the airwaves and muzzle one of the few independent media outlets in Hungary”, he said.
“One by one, the ruling party has shut down the possible routes for Klubrádió to remain on the airwaves. This is yet another glaring example of the Orban government’s model of media capture at work, which we have seen deployed over and over again with devastating implications for media pluralism.
“We hope the court will recognize that the justifications given by the Media Council do not come anywhere near the seriousness required for such a far-reaching decision and that it will annul this politically motivated decision. The infringements for which Klubrádió’s license renewal was blocked should never have led to its disqualification in the first place. It is also essential that the court also grant Klubrádió a temporary license to ensure it can continue to broadcast after February 14. If it does not, the implications for both Klubrádió and wider press freedom in Hungary will be dire.”
Long campaign of pressure
Klubrádió has been in the crosshairs of the Fidesz government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban ever since it came to power in 2010. Almost immediately, the station was boycotted from advertising from state-owned companies and agencies, draining it of an important source of revenue. Money from advertising from the private sector also plummeted and the company was narrowly saved from bankruptcy by donations from listeners.
When the station’s previous seven-year license expired in February 2011, the Fidesz-controlled Media Council of the National Media and Communications Authority (Media Council) made its first attempt to block its renewal. This process continued for two years despite three separate court rulings in Klubrádió’s favour, during which time the station managed to stay on air. A grassroots campaign by more than 10,000 supporters put major pressure on the regulator and the station was eventually awarded a long-term frequency in March 2013.
However, that same year Klubrádió’s affiliate in the northern city of Debrecen, Lokomotiv Radio, was shut down by the Media Council for allegedly failing to pay for the frequency. This started a trend that would gather pace over the next few years: the station being progressively stripped of its frequencies and licenses in the countryside for questionable reasons, confining its reach to Budapest and online.
As the government further tightened its grip on critical media in the proceeding years, Klubrádió’s liberal-leaning voices made it an even bigger target for the administration. Government ministers refused to give interviews and its reporters were denied accreditation to participate in government press conferences. The station was also fined once by the Media Council in both 2014 and 2015 and twice in both 2016 and 2017.
Yet while other influential independent media such as Origo and Népszabadság fell to Fidesz meddling, Klubrádió continued to broadcast and was insulated from financial pressures by its donation model. This meant that the station soon became a top target for the government, which began laying the legal groundwork for the Media Council to strip the broadcaster of its license in 2020.
The crucial development here was Fidesz’s amendment in 2020 to the Media Act regarding the renewal of radio frequencies. An effort by one of Hungary’s opposition parties in October 2020 to amend the re-written law was blocked. All that was needed then was an excuse to penalise the station and strip it of its media service rights.
License renewal blocked
That opportunity finally presented itself in 2020 when the time again came to renew the license for Klubrádió. Under the Hungarian media law, the Media Council can automatically renew a station license or reject it if the station has committed “repeated” violations during the tender.
In this case, the justification offered by the Media Council and its chair Mónika Karas was that in 2016 Klubrádió had twice failed to submit a weekly report on its program quota. These two minor infringements were interpreted by the regulator as a “repeated” violation of the law, giving it the power to block the automatic renewal.
The station vowed to try to “ensure that the last remaining radio channel reaching hundreds of thousands of Hungarians with credible information is not silenced”. András Arató, chairman of the Board of Directors of Klubrádió, told IPI the regulator’s justification was “absurd” and that the Media Council had been looking for any excuse to block its bid. All the requested data had been quickly provided at the time, he added.
Arató pointed to other government-friendly broadcasters which had committed similar or more serious mistakes but eventually had their licenses extended as example of why the Media Council’s decision had been political. The station published a statement alleging the government and the Media Council have conspired to purposefully stymie its license renewal.
Matters were complicated further by the appeals of the two rival bidders for the FM radio license: Spirit FM, operated by the Association for Community Radio Operation and LBK Médiaszolgáltató 2020 Kft. While one of these broadcasters has now withdrawn its appeal, the other’s is still likely to take months if not years to reach a decision, meaning all hopes now rest on the decision of the court next week.
If Klubrádió’s wins its appeal and the court orders the Media Council to annul its decision, it will be legally able to fight for the tender when it is reopened. However, this will not be possible until the rival bidder’s court cases have concluded, severely limiting its chances of continuing to broadcast to several hundreds of thousands of listeners after February 14.
Options running out for Klubrádió
One of the only other hopes was that the law on temporary licenses was re-amended. In summer 2020, Fidesz changed the law so that temporary media licenses can only be issued to broadcasters whose tenders have already ended, which excludes Klubrádió.
A proposal to revise the law submitted by an opposition party in October 2020 was blocked by the government. Another last-minute initiative by the opposition to change the legislation was again blocked in parliament on February 1.
The final possibility for remaining on the airwaves would have been through DAB+ digital radio. However, in September 2020 digital radio broadcasting in Hungary was scrapped after the Media Council decided not to renew its contract with the state broadcaster Antenna Hungária.
This decision – lamented by critics as another politically motivated manoeuvre by the government to weaken critical voices – shut down the digital broadcasting of Klubrádió, InfoRádió, Petőfi Rádió, Kossuth Rádió, Bartók Rádió, Dankó Rádió and Hungarian Catholic Radio.
The only remaining refuge would be the internet, where Klubrádió already broadcasts live on its website 24 hours a day. However, with many older listeners unlikely to make the switch online, the station faces the likelihood of seeing its audience and influence plummet.
Appeals to the Hungarian Supreme Court in Budapest would serve as a last resort. However, the independence of the court is a major doubt and the legal process would take years to resolve, by which time the damage would already be done.
State capture reaping rewards
Ultimately, this calculated destruction of a once-thriving independent media outlet is another example of the Orban government’s model for media capture, one that follows an all-too-familiar pattern.
An IPI-led report in 2019 found that, since coming to power in 2010, the Hungarian government has systematically dismantled media independence, freedom and pluralism and distorted the market to disrupt and destroy critical press, achieving a degree of media control unprecedented in an EU member state.
A central element has been the government’s capture of state institutions, which have been filled with Fidesz loyalists and then abused to weaken and undermine independent media. A prime example has been the Media Council, which was stacked with the party’s appointees after a change in the law. Since then, the body has contributed to the dramatic decline in the diversity of Hungary’s media.
At the same time, the country’s competition authorities have also selectively interpreted the law to allow Fidesz and the pro-government KESMA media foundation to slowly take greater control over the country’s market. Mergers among independent media have been blocked while fusions of pro-government outlets have been approved, further distorting fair competition conditions.
The instrumentalization of state regulatory bodies is one element of a complex system – which also includes the deliberate concentration of media ownership in government-friendly hands, the instrumentalization of state advertising, and targeted tax policies – that allows Budapest to assert plausible deniability when it comes to accusations from Brussels about press freedom. The government and party leaders can throw up their hands and claim not to have exerted pressure when independent media fall, as it did during the implosion of Index.hu in 2020.
The long-term effect of this model has been that the Hungarian media landscape is now dominated by pro-government press, which serves as a vast propaganda machine for the government, insulating large parts of the public from access to critical news and information and maintaining Fidesz’s hold on power, as the IPI-led mission report noted. Orbán’s allies in the KESMA foundation now exert control over more than 80 per cent of influential media outlets. The public television and radio stations and the state news agency have long been captured.
Nowhere is this more disproportionate than the radio sector, where Klubrádió is the last bulwark. Radio waves outside Budapest now carry almost exclusively pro-government news. Readers and viewers who do not actively look for alternative sources of news receive a virtually exclusively government narrative given the government’s level of control over the print, radio and television markets. The only remaining independent television station is the foreign-owned commercial broadcaster RTL Klub, whose evening news programme carries stories critical of the government, and which has been the frequent target of government pressure.
This statement by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.