Observers and government critics say Hungarian media outlets have been muzzled under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Now, they are warning that the country could lose one of its last independent voices.
Media regulators in the Central European nation have refused to automatically extend the broadcast license of Klubradio, whose hard-hitting reporting is sometimes critical of Orban's government, and plan to auction off the frequency when it expires in February 2021.
Klubradio has vowed to fight the September decision by Hungary's Media Council, which drew criticism from global freedom-support watchdogs groups including the Council of Europe and the International Press Institute (IPI).
"The Media Council's decision rejecting Klubradio's renewal shows that Viktor Orban is on a path to eradicate what remains of Hungary's independent press," IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said in a September 11 statement. "The European Union claims that press freedom and fair market competition are among its core values, yet it has so far failed to defend these values in Hungary."
Over the past 10 years, Orban's government has taken direct or indirect control of most of the country's media outlets.
Since 2010, Hungary's public television and radio stations and the state news agency have gradually come under much tighter political control than under previous governments.
In 2019, about 500 private media outlets were concentrated into the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), which has close ties to the Orban government.
Hungary suffered a 16-point plunge, to 89th place, in Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
One of the few remaining independent television stations in Hungary is the foreign-owned commercial broadcaster RTL Klub, whose evening news broadcast includes reporting critical of the government.
Separately, in the realm of radio, Klubradio has been broadcasting in its current news-and-talk format since 2001. It thrived under Socialist-led governments until 2010, when Orban, who was also prime minister in 1998-2002, returned to power.
Its critical coverage has made the station a target of his government. The station has gradually been stripped of its frequencies outside Budapest. Now it is heard in the capital and surrounding areas, as well as online.
Its broadcast reach may have shrunk, but its influence has remained strong.
A 2018 survey by Mertek Media Monitor, an independent media watchdog, found that more people said they turned to Klubradio for news than to any of the daily newspapers with national reach.
When its last license expired in February 2011, the Media Council refused to extend it for two years despite three court rulings in Klubradio's favor.
Amid a grassroots campaign launched by thousands of listeners, the Media Council finally awarded the station a seven-year broadcasting license in March 2013.
In its September 11 ruling, the Media Council said that over the past seven years Klubradio had repeatedly violated the country's media law by failing to provide information about its programming content.
The Media Council also declared the station's 92.9 FM frequency "will again be open for bidding." In other words, Klubradio's broadcasting license will not be automatically renewed next year, and the station will have to compete with others to retain its place on the dial.
Klubradio was defiant.
"In its decision published today, the Media Council justifies its decision by several violations of the Media Act. This statement, in the opinion of Klubradio, does not correspond to reality," it said in a statement at the time. "The leaders and employees of Klubradio are looking for legal and other means in order to ensure that Hungary's last independent radio, which authentically informs hundreds of thousands of people every day, is not muted."
The Media Council is dominated by members of the ruling Fidesz party. Observers say the council has played a key role in diminishing media diversity in Hungary in recent years by interpreting the law to allow Fidesz and KESMA to gradually grab a greater share of the country's media market.
KESMA's formation came about after several Orban allies who had accumulated considerable media holdings simultaneously donated their companies to the foundation.
Additionally, the sudden closure in 2016 of Nepszabadsag, a traditionally left-wing daily newspaper and Hungary's most read, as well as the resignation in July of practically the whole newsroom of Index.hu, then Hungary's most popular news site, because of perceived efforts to influence its independence, have dealt further blows to independent media in Hungary.
Orban, whose stated aim has been to transform Hungary into an "illiberal democracy," has drawn censure abroad with his anti-immigration rhetoric and sweeping reforms that have earned him accusations of authoritarianism from the European Union. He has denied these accusations.
He has nonetheless enjoyed enduring popularity at home, winning three straight terms to become Hungary's longest-serving post-communist leader, and has repeatedly shown his ability to bring tens of thousands of supporters onto the streets.
On the media front, Orban has targeted those critical of his government, explained Emese Pasztor, a lawyer of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.
"Last week, a pro-government research institute published an analysis on the current situation of the Hungarian media, and they labelled 'liberal-leftist' every single media outlet which is not controlled by the government, regardless of the content provided,"
Pasztor told RFE/RL on October 7. "The fact that far right-wing online portals and tabloids could make it to this list of liberal-leftist press illustrates that the government sees each and every media outlet as a threat, which is not controlled by them."
In a survey of media developments in Hungary in 2019 by Freedom House, a Washington-based group, the country scored 3.25 points out of possible maximum of seven points regarding press freedoms.
"Since 2010, the ruling coalition has completely overhauled the media landscape through legal changes, media acquisitions, and political pressure," the Freedom House report said, also citing a report by the Council of Europe which concluded that the government "exerts de facto control over most of the country's media."
Some analysts suspect the Media Council may ultimately grant Klubradio the license.
"Killing off Klubradio in a spectacular manner would not be in the interests of Fidesz,"said Gabor Polyak, head of Mertek Media Monitor.
"Allowing it to continue broadcasting would let the government frame the concerns over Klubradio's fate as false and exaggerated: 'They got their permit, so everyone can go home now,'" Polyak said.
Besides exploring legal avenues to retain their license, Klubradio has also launched a new funding drive, asking listeners for support, saying that it was still on the air "and will continue to be on the air after February, if nothing else, then online."