The International Press Institute (IPI) today expressed dismay over the decision by a court in Budapest to reject the appeal of independent radio broadcaster Klubrádió over its right to continue broadcasting, warning it signalled a crisis point for what remains of media pluralism in Hungary.
On February 9, 2021, the court sided with the government-controlled Hungarian Media Council and approved its decision to block the automatic extension of the talk and news station’s broadcast license for Budapest FM 92.9 MHz.
Earlier this week, the same court rejected Klubrádió’s last-ditch request for an emergency license to remain on air until the appeal of a rival broadcaster over the frequency tender was resolved.
The two rulings resign Klubrádió to broadcasting solely from the internet after February 14 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 remaining critical radio stations.
“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”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “Make no mistake: This is the outcome of a deliberate, decade-long effort by political forces in Hungary to eradicate Klubrádió from the airwaves. The court has merely delivered the final blow.”
“Over the last few years, the Fidesz-controlled Media Council and the government have one by one blocked off every remaining avenue for Klubrádió to remain on air when its renewal was rejected for politically motivated decisions. The result was that, when the time finally came for Klubrádió’s license to be renewed, its fate was all but sealed.
“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 nose 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 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. This is not just a ‘Hungarian problem’. These illiberal tactics are spreading, and they will undermine democracy and the rule of law throughout the EU.”
Griffen reiterated the call made by IPI and its partners in the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) for the European Commission to immediately engage with the Hungarian government.
Another devastating blow for media pluralism in #Hungary today.
The country’s leading independent radio station #Klubradio has lost its appeal in a #Budapest court against the Fidesz-controlled media regulator over the renewal of its license https://t.co/QEBqvNG1bO
— IPI – The Global Network for Press Freedom (@globalfreemedia) February 9, 2021
The court case follows the decision by the regulator in September 2020 to reject Klubrádió‘s license renewal on the grounds it had violated the media law by twice failing to provide information on its programming content. Klubrádió dismissed the justification as “absurd” and took the decision to court.
After today’s ruling, Andras Arató, director of Klubrádió, told media: “The decision, although expected, was a political one, shameful and cowardly”. He said that the station would appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
Even if it had won the appeal, Klubrádió would still have been blocked from the airwaves due to the ongoing appeal of a rival broadcaster. When the Media Council rejected its application, the tender for Klubrádió’s frequency 92.9 MHz was opened in October 2020 and two rival broadcasters applied.
Both were rejected by the Media Council. But one, LBK Médiaszolgáltató 2020 Kft., which is owned by a pro-government lawyer, appealed, beginning a legal process that could take more than a year to resolve. During this time Klubrádió would have been trapped in legal limbo and been unable to broadcast.
Its only remaining refuge will now 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 could see its audience and influence plummet.
It will have to operate online until the rival broadcaster’s appeal is resolved. LBK Médiaszolgáltató can then also apply to the Supreme Court, extending the wait further. When its legal options are extended, the tender will then be opened again and Klubrádió will be able to bid. Currently, it is the only applicant which meets the criteria for broadcast on the frequency. Even then, the Media Council could again reject its fresh application on similarly trivial grounds.
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.