Hungary: independent voice faces closure
KlubRadio the country's last remaining liberal radio station, is in danger of losing its licence. Charlie Holt reports
07 Sep 11

KlubRadio, the country’s last remaining liberal radio station, is in danger of losing its licence. Charlie Holt reports

KlubRadio, one of the few remaining independent voices in the Hungarian media, faces permanent exclusion from the airwaves following recent licensing disputes. The serious implications this has for media pluralism have been completely overlooked by the new Media Council, and the apparent arbitrariness with which the Council has made its licensing decisions raises profound concerns about its political independence. The case has served to highlight the insidious effects Hungary’s new media laws are having on freedom of expression.

KlubRadio is one of only a handful of political talk radio stations in Hungary, the other of which are mainly pro-government. Over the last 10 years KlubRadio has been a consistent proponent of liberal values and, since the right-wing Fidesz Party came to power last year, the station has been relentlessly critical of 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 lament the direction the country is heading. The eclecticism of the programming — with almost 40 different programmes each week covering all aspects of public life — along with its emphasis on participation has made the station enormously popular: the average number of listeners on weekdays, for example, is between 200,000 and 400,000.

Despite these figures, KlubRadio now faces closure. In February the KlubRadio’s license at 95.3MHz expired, requiring the station to enter into a new competition for the frequency. In June, however, the Media Council quietly introduced a new system of frequency licenses. The new tender for 95.3MHz is now explicitly for a ‘music radio that presents some local information and values’, with maximum points being granted to stations with over 60 per cent music and 25 per cent local news content. Since KlubRadio consists of about 75 per cent speech on matters of national politics, it is now practically impossible for it to win the competition in its current form.

While there is nothing intrinsically unfair about attaching conditions to broadcasting licenses, the composition of the new tender seems strikingly counter-intuitive. The majority of Budapest frequencies are currently given over to music stations, with only a handful hosting talk radio stations. Any consideration of pluralism and diversity clearly therefore demand that licensing conditions be composed in favour of the latter. The Media Council has dismissed these complaints as “ridiculous”, claiming that they betray a lack of understanding as to the economic realities of commercial competition. But what economic sense does it make to reject a station that attracts 300,000 listeners a day in Budapest alone and which inspires passionate loyalty amongst its followers?

KlubRadio’s current difficulties are indicative of a more fundamental problem with the media law reforms. Act LXXXII confers unprecedented regulatory power on the five members of the Council — such as the power to revoke licenses or impose fines of up to 700,000 (approximately £610,000) for “unbalanced coverage” —  all of whom are affiliated to the same governing party; indeed, the current chairperson is a former Fidesz MP and a long-term confidante of the Prime Minister. One would, therefore, expect there to be carefully-defined procedural safeguards to prevent abuse. Yet as KlubRadio has discovered, there is generally no way of challenging the Media Council’s decisions and hence no way of holding the powerful body to account. As the decisions by the Media Council are made within their broad discretionary authority, they are always “legal” and cannot therefore be questioned.

In this context it is unsurprising that Gyorgy Bolgar, along with the radio’s owner Andras Arato, believe that KlubRadio is being targeted for political reasons. Indeed, this is not the only regulatory decision made by the Council over the last few months which has prejudiced 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 for this frequency, however, was never concluded and eight months later the new Media Council refused to recognise it. Before introducing the current system, meanwhile, the Council issued provisional licenses to KlubRadio on a two-month basis. Such vacillation 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.

Media regulation is an exceptionally delicate area and the unfettered discretion granted to the Media Council, along with the complete absence of accountability institutionalised by the media laws, therefore has a number of pernicious implications for freedom of expression. Unless and until these expansive discretionary powers are revised, the Media Council remains free to arbitrarily issue and revoke licenses, impose fines, and make other decisions based on political inclination rather than rational consideration. This cannot continue. The international community has been far too timid in its approach to Hungary’s belligerent new government, and has so far done little to recognise the full implications of the media law reforms. With the laws now in effect, these implications are becoming clear to all. Yet as the broadcasters of KlubRadio are finding, it may well be too late to prevent independent forums of political debate being permanently shut down.

Charlie Holt is an intern on the law programme for ARTICLE 19