• January 31, 2023

As Hungary Cuts Radio Station, Critics Say Europe Should Put Orban On Notice : NPR

Radio journalists will be working in the studio at the headquarters of the independent Hungarian radio station Klubradio in Budapest on February 9th. It was cleared from the airway after the national media regulator failed to renew its license, raising new concerns about freedom of the press in the union member state. Attila Kisbenedek / AFP via Getty Images Hide caption

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Attila Kisbenedek / AFP via Getty Images

Radio journalists will be working in the studio at the headquarters of the independent Hungarian radio station Klubradio in Budapest on February 9th. It was cleared from the airway after the national media regulator failed to renew its license, raising new concerns about freedom of the press in the union member state.

Attila Kisbenedek / AFP via Getty Images

BERLIN – Hungary’s club radio station broadcast its news program on February 14th as it has done for more than two decades. The next day it was pulled out of the air.

Around 3.5 million people in the capital Budapest, more than a third of the country’s population, tuned in, according to the broadcaster’s news chief Mihaly Hardy. Now devoted listeners are streaming it on-line just.

“We’ve lost 60 to 70 percent of our usual audience,” says Hardy.

Club radio is one of the last independent stations in Hungary to express criticism of the government. It was forced out of the air after a court upheld an order from the country’s media agency not to renew its broadcasting license.

This was the latest blow to press freedom in a country where the right-wing populist leadership and its allies have increased control and influence over the media. The executive branch of the European Union condemned the actionHowever, critics say the EU has not done enough to punish its member state for repeated violations of the bloc’s democratic principles.

Club radio listeners have got used to it on his precarious political situation, says Hardy. Eleven years ago, shortly after the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban came to power, it lost 90% of its income and ordered all state-supported companies to stop advertising in independent media. The fans have made a promise that continues to make up for the loss in sales to this day, says Hardy.

Staff members and sympathizers of the Hungarian Club Radio hold a picture of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who bit on the logo of the independent radio station during a free speech demonstration in Budapest on February 24, 2013. Attila Kisbenedek / AFP via Getty Images Hide caption

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Attila Kisbenedek / AFP via Getty Images

Staff members and sympathizers of the Hungarian Club Radio hold a picture of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who bit on the logo of the independent radio station during a free speech demonstration in Budapest on February 24, 2013.

Attila Kisbenedek / AFP via Getty Images

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He says his listeners want independent news. “About 80% of media coverage in Hungary is provided by either state-owned or government-run or affiliated media,” says Hardy. “That includes 470 newspapers, television stations, radio, websites, etc. We are the last major independent radio station to survive.”

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Reporters Without Borders said Hungary’s Media Council used it “trivial administrative reasons“like the claim that club radio did not meet the quotas for music programs as a basis for the shutdown of independent media. The journalists’ organization, the Rank Hungary 89 .. Its latest World Press Freedom Index states that while the council is supposedly independent, it has been politicized and appears to be following orders from Orban’s ruling Fidesz party.

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An Orban spokesperson sent NPR an email that read, “The latest ruling on club radio is legal in nature by the independent judiciary. In Hungary the principle of separation of powers prevails.”

Hardy says this couldn’t be further from the truth. He and other media watchers say Orban cracked down on the Hungarian free press for 10 years and that the EU’s response has been slow and weak. “The EU just sent committees, they did research and submitted reports. Then they made some speeches in the European Parliament, but nothing really happened,” he says.

The EU’s lukewarm reaction to Orban’s demolition of democratic institutions in Hungary is “complacency at the highest level,” says Judy Dempsey of the Carnegie Europe think tank. “It’s extraordinary because the whole architecture of the European Union was built on the basic problem of values, freedom of the press, separation of powers, accountability, independent judiciary, control and balance. And Orban actually mocked those values.”

Dempsey and Hardy say that if Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted to, she would have enough political and economic influence to lead a broad EU opposition to the Hungarian leadership.

The Fidesz party was allowed to remain in the same political bloc in the European Parliament as Merkel’s center-right party for years in order to maintain the bloc’s dominance. In addition, many large German companies operate in Hungary. This could also be the reason why Germany didn’t do much about Orban’s tightening of power in Hungary, say Dempsey and Hardy.

However, some German heads of state and government refute this. “Excuse me if I say: This argument is very stupid. It can only come from think tankers who are more tank than think,” says Elmar Brok, who sits on the board of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party and the former Chair of is the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament.

The then chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Elmar Brok from Germany, answers questions during a press conference on October 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. Mladen Antonov / AFP via Getty Images hide the caption

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The then chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Elmar Brok from Germany, answers questions during a press conference on October 30, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Mladen Antonov / AFP via Getty Images

He says Orban’s political strategy is to defend Hungary from what he sees as external enemies. “Do you think Orban would just give in because Germany is so big?” Brok says it is the largest economy in the euro zone.

“I’ve known Viktor Orban since 1988,” says Brok. “I was the first person to bring him to Brussels,” where the EU and its parliament are based. At the time, Orban was a liberal leader who advocated democracy. But he changed over time and now advocated what he calls “illiberal democracy”. According to Brok, the Hungarian head of state used resentment against the EU and armed it in order to stay in power. “It’s a strategy: to be unpopular in Europe and be blamed in order to win the elections,” he says.

He says it is difficult to see a man he once considered a good friend to betray Europe’s democratic principles. However, the EU’s ability to stop Orban is limited.

“If we ask such countries to advocate the rule of law, we can only use what our legal instruments give us at European level,” he says.

For example Article 7 of the EU Treaty says it can suspend the right to vote in a member state that violates the bloc’s core values. That requires a unanimous vote, but Brok says Poland, whose ruling party is also cutting off its democratic institutions, would veto such a move. He adds that he has worked unsuccessfully to remove the veto rule.

Katalin Cseh, a member of the European Parliament for Hungary’s main opposition party, says the EU’s inability to crack down on Hungary and Poland has left more countries vulnerable to anti-democratic political movements.

Hungarian Member of the European Parliament, Katalin Cseh, gives a speech during a parliamentary session in Brussels on January 20. Thierry Monasse / Getty Images hide subtitles

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Hungarian Member of the European Parliament, Katalin Cseh, gives a speech during a parliamentary session in Brussels on January 20.

Thierry Monasse / Getty Images

“We talk about Hungary and Poland very often, but elsewhere in Slovenia and Bulgaria there are very worrying signs,” says Cseh. “And if the EU does not take action to put an end to it, it can become very contagious and the overall stability of the Union could be undermined.”

Cseh says there is still hope. At the end of last year, the EU adopted a mechanism to stop the flow of EU funds to a member state governed by the rule of law. If it were used against Hungary, it would cost the country billions of euros. Hungary is expected to challenge the new mechanism in court.

Last week the Fidesz party withdrew by the European People’s Party, which dominates the European Parliament after the center-right bloc passed a policy that allows it to exclude entire parties.

Cseh says it all comes a decade late, but it’s better late than never.

Esme Nicholson contributed to this story from Berlin.

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