I run a radio station in Budapest called Klubrádió. For twenty years we broadcast to an audience of a couple of hundred thousand, holding politicians to account, and surviving on our advertising revenues.
We survived in this niche -- known by few outside our country -- until under Viktor Orban’s brand of “illiberal democracy” we found ourselves in the cross-hairs of his regime.
On Valentine’s Day this year, after years of lawsuits and struggle, we lost our licence and our radio frequency.
The courts, gradually placed under Orban’s political influence over the last decade, sided against us.
Still, we continue on the internet - a powerful symbol of resistance against the attacks on the media that are continuing in an EU country.
The harassment goes back a decade. As soon as Orban’s Fidesz party regained power in 2010, it started to control the media.
Public media as a whole was put under a single authority, the Media Council, controlled by Orban appointees. They controlled the only news agency and the allocation of frequencies to television and radio stations. They had sweeping powers to impose sanctions and award grants. Legislation has deliberately been drafted in vague language giving the authority huge discretionary powers. In addition, unconstitutionally, all five members of this Board are Fidesz delegates.
Rather than destroy media freedom head-on by arresting journalists or censoring newspapers, Orban has used economic levers to weaken the independent media. It was a clever strategy, avoiding an international outcry, but slowly, outlet by outlet, independent media has been killed off.
The government used its vast advertising budgets to channel funding to pliant, “on-message” publications and starve those that scrutinised it. The majority of private advertisers – hoping for government orders or fearing losing them – stop spending in publications that asked difficult questions of the government. My station, Klubrádió, because it was seen as “independent media”, lost 90% of our revenues since the beginning of the 2010s.
In this environment, long-established and respected publications went bankrupt and were often picked up by investors close to the government.
As a result, an incredible concentration of the media took place. Notoriously, the KESMA conglomerate was established, which owns nearly 500 media brands, including radio and television channels. It was allowed to bypass the government’s own restrictions in the Competition act by being labelled a “special national economic objective”. The conglomerate – and its investors – receive billions in public money.
How is this being allowed in an EU country, whose charter of fundamental rights demands that “the freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected”.
The EU has ignored the fact that within its borders a government is disregarding democratic values, leading the country towards populist-nationalist semi-dictatorship while they collect European taxpayers’ money, which they use to enrich their own cronies. There have been no consequences for Orban. He has declared a freedom fight on Brussels, and uniquely in world history -- since Hungary is the largest recipient of EU funds per capita -- they make their proclaimed enemy pay the bills of their demagogic fight.
The EU cannot solve all Hungary’s problems – but it can’t be right that it watches idly while Orban picks off the handful of independent media that are still operating in the country.
A great source of hope is the Hungarian people. For, while Orban does indeed enjoy a supermajority, it would be wrong to assume that a majority of Hungarians support his clampdowns on freedoms.
After Klubrádió was stripped of its frequency, listeners switched to the internet, such is the thirst for independent news. Funds were even crowd-sourced for listeners, particularly the elderly, who couldn’t afford subscriptions – and who had lost their most important contact with the outside world. To make up for lost advertising revenue, we had moved to a subscription model where our supporters raised five million euros during the last ten years to keep the voice of Klubrádió alive.
We are all stunned by the way in which politicians, citizens and international media around the world have followed the fate of Klubrádió. The Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs describes the global media as “liars”. For us, it is a badge of honour to stand with them. We don’t deserve to be world-famous but we’re happy to be a symbol of media freedom in a world where dark forces everywhere are undermining it. Orban – in the tradition of autocratic leaders - knows that a free and independent media – reporting truthfully on his government – is the greatest danger he faces.
András Arató is the president of Klubradio and is best known for his fight for media freedom in Hungary.