In the most recent attack on media freedom in Hungary, the country’s Media Council last week unexpectedly announced it would revoke Klubradio’s frequency as of February 2021. It justified its decision by referring to the independent, commercial station’s breaches of Hungary’s restrictive media law. But according to Klubradio’s president, Andras Arato, the council simply wants to shut them down for good.
This is not the first time the government-aligned Media Council, a regulatory body handpicked by Prime Minister Orban’s ruling party and with the power to sanction news outlets and journalists, has gone after the news and talk radio station with opinions often critical of the government. The station fought and won lengthy court battles against the Media Council in the early 2010s.
According to Arato, Klubradio has over the years fallen out of compliance by submitting a late report to the Media Council or playing slightly less Hungarian music on a given day than required by national law. But nothing more serious, and the station has paid fines for these breaches. Now the council is using those payments as evidence to shut the station down.
The decision to shut down Klubradio is the latest in a long line of examples of the Hungarian government’s efforts to rein in independent press and take control over the media landscape. In July, the editor-in-chief of leading news site Index was fired by the new owner, who has close links to the government. The paper’s entire staff resigned in protest. In 2016, Hungary’s biggest opposition daily Nepszabadsag was closed down. The 2018 merger of nearly 500 outlets into one conglomerate loyal to the government, sidestepping competition laws, effectively put an end to media pluralism in the country.
European Union institutions should find the demise of free press and independent journalism in Hungary concerning.
Hungary is already under EU scrutiny under Article 7 – the EU treaty procedure dealing with countries flouting the EU’s democratic principles. But member states have dragged their feet as the situation in Hungary worsens.
The EU Council, currently chaired by Germany, should act now to declare Hungary in breach of the EU’s core values and hold Viktor Orban’s government to account. The government’s moves to curb free and independent media should also be grounds for cutting or suspending access to certain EU funds. EU member states also have a responsibility to ensure that attacks on the free press come at a cost to the government.