A clampdown on a leading independent radio station shows that Hungary has no intention of heeding EU calls to improve media freedom.
In most EU countries, it would be reasonable to expect a state agency that has been handed a clear court order to comply. Not so in Hungary, where a media regulator has ignored binding court decisions in its licensing dispute with a leading independent radio station.
The ongoing fight by Klubradio and efforts by the Media Authority to silence it illustrates clearly the threat to media freedom and the rule of law in Hungary today. It also shows why the EU needs to stiffen its spine in its dealings with the conservative Fidesz government.
Klubradio, a leading independent radio station, is fighting two separate legal battles with the Media Authority to stay on the air. Though technically complex and sometimes confusing even to those directly involved, one case involves a tender procedure for the licence to broadcast on Klubradio's current frequency and the other concerns the validity of a contract between Klubradio and the old media regulator for a different frequency.
In both cases, courts have ruled in favour of Klubradio, obliging the Media Authority in the first case to pronounce Klubradio the winner of the tender, and in the second case to sign the contract for the other frequency.
The Media Authority has blatantly disregarded the court decisions. The authority cites such spurious grounds as the station's failure to sign blank pages of tenders. On 15 August, instead of complying with the court's ruling and pronouncing Klubradio the winner of the tender, the authority nullified the entire tender process and said it would start over from scratch.
The fact that the Media Authority simply ignores court decisions speaks volumes about the media climate in Hungary. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the sole purpose of the Media Authority in its handling of the tender process is to prevent Klubradio from obtaining its licence and ultimately to get the station off the air. It also shows a disturbing disregard for the rule of law.
This hardly comes as a surprise in a country where the Fidesz government, with a super-majority in parliament, has made sure that its supporters control the media regulator and where critical voices in the media are unwelcome.
The government's efforts to silence critical voices are not limited to Klubradio. Left-leaning daily newspapers report similar difficulties in operating freely. These newspapers complain that they have been thwarted in getting the same state subsidies that right-leaning papers receive. And they say that some private businesses are reluctant to place ads in left-leaning papers for fear of missing out on juicy state contracts, with the result that their advertising revenues have declined rapidly.
Reporters and journalists at public television, which is largely controlled by the government, have told Human Rights Watch that they are told what to report on and how and that those who fail to toe the line risk losing their jobs. In fact, hundreds of reporters in public television have been fired since 2011. The broadcaster claims that this is simply due to restructuring. That explanation rings hollow when one learns that many of the reporters who lost their jobs were vocal critics of the anti-press-freedom climate.
Seen in the wider context of Hungary's downward slide on human rights, the Klubradio saga is the very visible tip of the iceberg. Indeed, in the past two years the government appears to have been busy dismantling the safeguards against excessive state power in ways that threaten human rights. In addition to the media clampdown, the government has interfered with judicial independence, enacted discriminatory provisions in the new constitution among other laws and stripped hundreds of religious groups of their legal status.
The European commissioner for digital agenda, Neelie Kroes, has promised EU action if Hungary fails to take steps to improve media freedom and to listen to the advice of the EU and Council of Europe. The time has come.
In its action on 15 August, the Media Authority showed again that Hungary has no intention of complying with European human-rights standards or safeguarding the freedom of independent media. Hungary's actions amount to a clear disregard of the values upon which the European Union was founded.
The Commission should initiate action against Hungary under Article 7 of the EU Treaty to strip it of its voting rights if there is a clear risk of a breach of the common values of the European Union.
Lydia Gall is the Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch.