The last government-critical radio station, Klubrádió, switched off analog broadcasting at Sunday midnight and continues airing online. The Media Authority’s decision, followed by a court ruling, generated uproar and debates, and will probably remain on the agenda for a long time.
Klubrádió signed off by replaying part of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech at the European Parliament in 2018 when he said: “…we would never sink so low, as to silence those with whom we disagree.” In the last minutes, chairman András Arató called those responsible for “silencing the radio,” “nobodys.” He asked listeners to continue listening to and supporting the radio.
Meanwhile, opposition (but independent) MPs Bernadett Szél and Ákos Hadházy demonstrated for freedom of press in front of the radio’s building. Hadházy said Klubrádió’s case can be considered the line that separates democracy from dictatorship. From now on “… we can think about how far we have left the line between dictatorship and democracy, not whether we are in a dictatorship or democracy,” he said.
The radio had to stop broadcasting after a Budapest court rejected an appeal by the station against a decision by Hungary’s media authority (NMHH). NMHH’s Media Council (consisting exclusively of Fidesz-delegated members) in 2020 announced not to renew Klubrádió’s license, pointing to six violations of the Media Act during the radio’s last ten years of operation. This means a new bid would be (or in fact already has been) announced for that frequency.
Starting around the beginning of the 2000s, the radio became known for its open and loud left-liberal engagement, gaining increasing popularity among opposition-leaning listeners and parties too. In 2008, it signed with former liberal (SZDSZ) minister of interior Gábor Kuncze, and the 8th district’s opposition-backed (but independent) mayor András Pikó also previously worked for the station. This is not the first time they have had problems with the Media Council, when back in 2011 they similarly tried to strip the station of its frequency. Following a long lawsuit and a court ruling, however, the Council was made to renew the license.
Because of the latest events, Klubrádió still points to unfair dealings and political motivations. They insist that only minor administrative irregularities were found for which they paid fines at the time (while the Council argues that by paying the fines, the radio admitted the breaches, providing the grounds for reclaiming its frequency; Klubrádió argues that the fines amounting to mere tens of thousands of forints [a few hundred euros] were not worth going to court for). They also point to the fact that the Media Council granted a license to other broadcasters with “the same antecedents.”
Neither the Media Authority, nor the government’s stances have since changed, however. In a public statement, Media Council head Mónika Karas denied that the station had been discriminated against, saying the body had made several conciliatory gestures towards Klubrádió, but ultimately the authority had to abide by the country’s media law [voted in by the governing alliance’s two-thirds majority in 2010]. All Media Council decisions can be appealed, she said. She also denied that the frequency had been “taken away,” rather the radio had been awarded a license for a specific period of time which it had enjoyed without interruption, she stated.
The latter too, denies any involvement and similarly points to the rule of law. The PMO Chief, for example, claimed that “Klubrádió’s case is ripe for causing international hysteria, but it is not illegal,” adding that the station’s almost decade-long fight for the frequency license is in fact evidence against criticisms of the state of press freedom in Hungary.
International uproar rolls on
After the large-scale international uproar following the court ruling, ranging from the US and French foreign ministries to press freedom watchdogs, EU level debates on the case are unlikely to cease in the near future, and recently three letters have been sent out in the matter, Politico’s Brussels Playbook reports. On Friday, over 80 MEPs called on the European Commission (EC) to take “concrete” action over media woes in Hungary and Poland.
Meanwhile, the EP’s Fidesz delegation sent out a note to all European People’s Party (EPP) MEPs, referring to some international coverage of the case as “fake news and false interpretations,” additionally promising to give further clarification about the case.
Additionally on Friday, the EC also urged the Hungarian authorities not to take Klubrádió off the air, this adding to the Commission’s earlier announcement about the assessment of the situation.
Klubrádió’s case is considered the third major incident among others that has occurred lately in the Hungarian press, relieving the Fidesz-led government’s alleged involvement about silencing those critical with them. In 2016, Hungary’s largest print newspaper, left-wing Népszabadság was shut officially due to financial reasons, following suspicious background dealings. Similarly, in 2020, virtually all of its journalist left Hungary’s most popular online news portal, liberal-leaning Index, after claiming that dealings in the leadership and ownership (and the involvement of a pro-government businessman) undermined their independence.
Chances to return
Currently, the radio continues to broadcast online, with the programming and staff remaining the same for now. Reportedly, on its first day of online airing, it counted more than 20,000 listeners. A lawsuit will move forward as well, as Klubrádió will challenge the decision at Hungary’s Supreme Court (Kúria).
As Klubrádió’s frequency (92.9) is now free, and the Media Council will announce a bid (open to Klubrádió too), CEO Richárd Stock was somewhat optimistic amid his sadness. He made it clear that they wouldn’t give up and would apply for the frequency. “We are the only relevant applicant, so if the Media Council handles the application fairly, we can get our frequency back,” he speculated.