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Fresh blow to press freedom in Hungary as Klubrádió forced off the airwaves

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By Emma Beswick with AFP and AP
Andras Arato, Klubradio's director and CEO is seen in the studio of Klubradio in Budapest, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.
Andras Arato, Klubradio's director and CEO is seen in the studio of Klubradio in Budapest, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Laszlo Balogh
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Hungary's first independent radio station, Klubrádió, will go off the airwaves on Sunday at midnight after a court upheld a decision by media authorities not to extend its broadcasting licence.

The news marks yet another setback for the independent media in the country, which has been under pressure since Prime Minister Viktor Orban's return to power in 2010.

Klubrádió's president Andras Arato made the announcement on Tuesday, adding authorities said the station had "broken the rules" when the media lost its licence.

The liberal-leaning commercial station was one of the only remaining opposition radio voices in Hungary.

Arato denounced Tuesday's decision as "a shameful decision", which raises new concerns about press freedom in this European Union country.

He told Euronews that he planned to appeal to Hungary's highest court, the Curia, promising that his media would continue online and that listeners were "keen".

"We will not be silenced, and if they also want to support us, we will try to do our bit so we can live in a better world," he said.

Why wasn't Klubrádió's claim to the frequency renewed?

Hungary’s media council (NMHH), controlled by the ruling Fidesz party, in September cited alleged violations of the country’s media law for the decision to not renew Klubrádió’s licence past February 14 and put the frequency up for tender.

The body, set up in 2011 under the patronage of President Viktor Orbán, said the station had submitted administrative documents late twice in the space of a year.

Leadership at the station claimed in a statement that the licences of other, more government-friendly, stations that had committed similar infractions of the code had been renewed.

The media council said Klubrádió could apply for the frequency, which serves the capital, Budapest, and its surroundings.

What has Klubrádió taken issue with?

The station had applied to the Budapest municipal court for a temporary permit pending the outcome of the tender, which was not expected for several months. Two other radio stations also applied.

Klubrádió alleged that the authority was deliberately trying to divert the tender into a legal dead-end.

Last week, the International Press Institute, a press freedom organisation based in Vienna, Austria, joined five other European press organisations in accusing the Fidesz party of seeking to silence Klubradio as part of a clampdown on critical outlets.

Arato also argued that the council, a five-member body appointed by Hungary's parliament, cannot be considered an independent regulator since all of its current members were nominated to nine-year terms by the ruling Fidesz party.

But the NMHH said told The Associated Press in an email that "in all cases, (the body) acts in accordance with current laws and regulations".

"The authority does not operate on a political basis but a professional one, and rejects such allegations," it wrote.

The media council cited Klubradio's failure to provide adequate monthly data on its broadcasts to the media regulator twice in 2017, an infraction of Hungary's media law which it said precludes broadcasters from consideration for an automatic extension of their frequency licenses.

How have people reacted?

Klubrádió had said in a statement that efforts to revoke its licence served “the purpose of silencing all critical voices, and if possible, under the cover of lawfulness”.

Staff from the station took to social media to speak to the station's audience after news it would go offline.

News editor Tamás Báder wrote that the station would fall "silent right after Valentine's Day" but added: "If you were worried, don't do it, if someone might be happy, enjoy it! We'll be back again!"

Megyünk a netre, rögtön Valentin nap után elhallgat az FM 92.9. DE! Amint tudunk, úgy teszünk majd , mint a Terminátor,...

Posted by Tamás Báder on Tuesday, February 9, 2021

In a statement last week, the National Associated of Hungarian Journalists called Klubradio "the only remaining public service broadcaster in Hungary whose content is not under government influence".

"The hegemony of pro-government broadcasters would increase to 100% with the silencing of Klubradio, which would be completely unprecedented in Europe," the group added.

Human Rights Watch senior researcher Lydia Gall in September called the decisions surrounding Klubrádió "the latest in a long line of examples of the Hungarian government’s efforts to rein in independent press and take control over the media landscape”.

German MEP Daniel Freund, who co-negotiated the rule of law mechanism for the Greens in the European Parliament, said: "It is the next victory for Viktor Orban in his crusade against independent media in Hungary ... Viktor Orban's actions in Hungary are endangering democracy across Europe.

"We cannot continue to stand idly by while an authoritarian system is built in Hungary."

Hungary is currently ranked 89th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index. It was 23rd when Orban returned to power in 2010.

Additional sources • Nora Shenouda