Klubrádió | Hungary Moves to Silence Last Major Critical Radio Broadcaster

One of Hungary’s last independent radio stations, Budapest-based Klubrádió, will be removed from the airwaves after a Budapest court upheld a decision not to renew its license on February 9. The ruling is widely seen as a blow against media freedom in the country. It follows the Hungarian Media Council’s refusal to renew Klubrádió’s seven-year license. 

The media regulator, appointed by the ruling Fidesz party, rejected Klubrádió license renewal in September, 2020, on the grounds it had twice failed to provide information on its programming content. The station has dismissed the complaint as “absurd.”

Even if Klubrádió now wins its appeal against the Media Council’s decision to block its automatic license renewal, it will be prevented from returning to the airwaves due to the appeal process of a rival broadcaster over the tender, which could take years to conclude.

Under the amended media law of 2020, temporary licenses can no longer be issued during litigation, meaning Klubrádió will be unable to continue broadcasting on the frequency until the rival’s court case is concluded. During this time, it will be ensnared in legal limbo.

An extraordinary parliamentary session convened by opposition parties on Feb 1 to lift this restriction was blocked by Fidesz, closing down one of the last available options for Klubrádió to remain on air.

Its last-ditch effort to attain an emergency license was rejected by the court on February 4, exhausting the last legal option. It will now have no choice but to fall silent on February 15, sealing a major victory for the Fidesz government in its decade-long campaign to destroy the flagship liberal broadcaster.

Experts see Klubrádió’s predicament as the pinnacle of a long campaign by the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to silence one of the last remaining radio broadcasters in Hungary which 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,” said Scott Griffen, deputy director of the International Press Institute in Vienna.

“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, which we have seen deployed over and over again with devastating implications for media pluralism.

“The justifications given by the Media Council do not come anywhere near the seriousness required for such a far-reaching decision, Griffen said, adding that he hoped the court would annul what he called a “politically motivated” decision, and grant Klubrádió the necessary temporary license.

Long Campaign of Pressure

Klubrádió has been in the crosshairs of the Fidesz government ever since it came to power in 2010. Almost immediately, state-owned companies and agencies withdrew their advertising, followed by much of the private sector.  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, Klubrádió’s affiliate in the northern city of Debrecen, Lokomotiv Radio, was shut down by the Media Council for allegedly failing to pay the necessary fees, beginning a trend that would progressively strip the station of its frequencies and licenses in the countryside, and confining its reach to Budapest and online.

As the government further tightened its grip on critical media, Klubrádió’s liberal-leaning voice made it an ever bigger target. Government ministers refused to give interviews and its reporters were denied accreditation to government press conferences. The station was fined in 2014 and 2015 and twice in both 2016 and 2017.

Yet while other independent media such as Origo and Népszabadság fell to Fidesz meddling, Klubrádió continued to broadcast, 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 to strip the broadcaster of its license in 2020.

The crucial development was Fidesz’s 2020 amendment to the Media Act regarding the renewal of radio frequencies, allowing denial for “repeated” violations during the tender. All that was needed was an excuse.

Options Running Out for Klubrádió

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 maneuver 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 to online, the station faces the likelihood of seeing its audience and influence plummet.

Appeals to the Hungarian Supreme Court would serve as a last resort. However, the court’s independence is in doubt in a legal process that could take years, 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.  According to an IPI-led report from 2019, 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.

The long-term effect of this model has been that the Hungarian media landscape is now dominated by pro-government press, a vast propaganda machine insulating large parts of the public from access to critical news and information and maintaining Fidesz’s hold on power. Orbán’s allies in the KESMA foundation now exert control over more than 80% of the dominant 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 don’t actively look for alternative sources receive an unrelieved government narrative. The only remaining independent television station is the foreign-owned commercial broadcaster RTL Klub, whose evening news carries stories critical of the government, and which has been the frequent target of government pressure.