Hungary: KlubRadio case shows recent media laws censoring
08 Sep 2011
ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the Hungarian Media Council is stifling free speech and disregarding media pluralism in the country. Expansive discretionary powers over licensing decisions given to the Council by recent media laws are being abused to censor political debate and have left the popular radio station, KlubRadio, on the verge of closure.
ARTICLE 19 calls on the Hungarian Media Council to recognise the need for media pluralism and restore confidence in its ability to make autonomous and politically neutral regulatory decisions.
KlubRadio is a popular Hungarian radio station with a critical attitude towards governments and social issues. Since the right-wing coalition Fidesz-KDNP came to power last year, the station has been critiquing the government’s policies. The station’s most famous presenter Gyorgy Bolgar, for example, hosts a daily programme called “Let’s Discuss It” in which generally left-leaning listeners call in and criticise the direction in which the country is heading. The diversity of its programming – with almost 40 different programmes each week covering various aspects of public life – along with its emphasis on interactive participation have made the station enormously popular: the average number of listeners on weekdays, for example, is between 200,000 and 400,000 people.
Despite these figures, KlubRadio now faces permanent closure. In February 2011, the KlubRadio’s license at 95.3MHz expired, requiring the station to enter into a new competition for the frequency. In June 2011, however, the Media Council quietly introduced a new system of frequency licenses. The new tender for KlubRadio’s frequency is for a ‘music radio that presents some local information and values’, thereby excluding KlubRadio, which concentrates predominately on national news and politics. Conversely, pro-governmental alternatives to KlubRadio, such as Lánczhíd Rádió, obtained a new license from the Council without any problems.
ARTICLE 19 is concerned at the apparently arbitrary nature of the Media Council’s decision. At the very least, it suggests serious neglect of the internationally acknowledged value of pluralism, with greater weight being attached to commercial expediency than on uninhibited political debate.
The adverse implications of the decision are particularly pronounced in light of KlubRadio’s unique political standing in Hungarian radio. At a time when only two opposition newspapers are left on the market – with the media empire of the governing coalition growing rapidly – KlubRadio is the only remaining radio station independent from the current government. There are, however, multiple music stations.
ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the decision to change the license requirements for the frequency currently held by KlubRadio is politically motivated. The claim of the Council that its decision was based on purely commercial considerations is questionable in light of the fact that KlubRadio has around 300,000 daily listeners in the capital city, Budapest, alone and over 10 years of broadcasting experience (in its current form). There are serious indications that the Media Council is biased against KlubRadio.
Indeed, this is not the only regulatory decision made by the Media Council over the last few months which has harmed the interests of KlubRadio. In April 2010, for example, KlubRadio successfully applied to the ORTT, the Media Council’s predecessor, for another frequency at 92.2MHz. The contract, however, was never signed and eight months later the new Media Council refused to recognise it.
The Council’s decision earlier this year to delay the licensing process also brought the station close to collapse. Before introducing the current system, the Council issued provisional licenses to KlubRadio on a two-month basis, claiming that the old system needed to be completely overhauled and more time was needed to establish a new procedure. The uncertainty this created acted as a powerful deterrent to prospective sponsors and it was only via donations from listeners – who contributed €500,000 (£436,600) to the station – that KlubRadio was able to carry on broadcasting.
Together, these decisions suggest an opposition to the station that goes beyond merely economic considerations. Such a notion of institutional bias is reinforced on reflection of the political composition of the Media Council. While the Council is defined by the relevant law as a separate, autonomous institution, its members are composed entirely of Fidesz-KDNP party nominees. The current Chairperson, who concurrently sits as President of the National Media and Communications Authority, is a former Fidesz party MP and a long-term confidant of the Prime Minister. With this in mind, the apparent arbitrariness of the Council’s licensing decisions is particularly worrisome.
ARTICLE 19 calls on the Media Council to apply international standards on pluralism and media freedom, and to take into consideration KlubRadio’s unique position when allocating licenses. The Media Council must show the international community that it can be trusted with the unprecedented new powers that have been conferred on it by the recent media laws and must demonstrate that its regulatory decisions are being made independently of political inclination.
ARTICLE 19 further calls on the EU and the Council of Europe to monitor the developments of this frequency competition and to put pressure on the Hungarian government to protect media pluralism.