What a lost licence for Hungary’s independent Klubrádió means for press freedom

Klubrádió, one of Hungary's last independent radio stations, has gone off-air after a bitter eight-year legal battle. But what comes next for journalists and artists in a country already battered by increasingly hostile government oversight?

17 February 2021

At midnight 14 February, 92.9 MHz, the iconic frequency for Budapest’s Klubrádió, fell silent for the last time. It marked the end of an era for one of Hungary’s last remaining opposition radio stations, and an eight-year battle with the government-controlled Media Council who finally stripped it of its broadcast licence.

Officially, the station’s permit was revoked due to two instances when Klubrádió was late in filing obligatory reports to the authorities on the broadcaster’s weekly and monthly programming content. It is generally seen as a minor offence, András Arató, Klubrádió’s owner and chairman, told journalists in a press conference. Similar instances have not cost other stations their frequency.

Compared to government-controlled media outlets, where the news was presented as the ultimate truth, Klubrádió’s success was in its open approach to public opinion

Klubrádió will be able to continue broadcasting online. But worried activists and human rights organisations believe the closure is another attack on Hungary’s already shrinking alternative media presence.

As a traditional media outlet, Klubrádió achieved the status of a cultural institution. Founded in 1999, it was one of the only remaining commercial radio stations in Hungary free from government ownership. Covering mostly news and culture, the station focused on topics not covered by government-run media channels, such as discrimination against Roma minorities, animal welfare, and consumer and trade union rights protection, as well as contemporary theatre and music. It also provided a place for public discussion by representing public figures and politicians from the Hungarian opposition.

The unresolved eight-year legal battle prepared Klubrádió for the worst. “One can grow used to sustained pressure. The spirit, like the body, adjusts its growth to compensate for pain and restricted motion; certain muscles tighten when others are disabled. Under permanent pressure, this is what people do mentally too: they grow used to it and adapt their everyday lives to allow for what they actually can accomplish,” former Klubrádió anchor Réka Kinga Papp wrote in a personal editorial letter about her time at the radio station.

András Arató, the owner and chairman of Klubrádió, in the studio

Klubrádió consistently challenged inherent national traditions, such as refusal to discuss or re-examine painful parts of the nation’s history, like the country’s role in the Second World War, the Holocaust, and Hungary’s 1956 revolution against communist forces. Compared to government-controlled media outlets, where the news was presented as the ultimate truth, Klubrádió’s success was in its open approach to public opinion. According to Hardy, one of the most popular programs of Klubrádió was a phone-in broadcast called Beszéljük meg! (Let’s Talk About It!) hosted by veteran radio journalist György Bolgár, where the audience could give their views on the news of the day.

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After 18 years, the station was reaching a weekly audience of around 300,000 people, a significant proportion of the 3 to 3.5 million people living in Budapest and its metropolitan area. With Hungary’s ageing population, traditional media outlets, such as Klubrádió’s analogue offering, played an important role in reaching households without internet or alternative news sources, which is a real danger in the Hungarian countryside.

“For many, the sound of the radio is the signal that sequences time, filling voids, providing familiarity, while introducing a sure dose of new into established habits. Those who are not tech-savvy enough for online listening – or who cannot afford internet access – are losing this connection to a world they knew and needed. They’re left stranded in a country with no free analogue medium beyond the illiberal government’s reach”, wrote Papp.

But for many, Klubrádió’s fate is little surprise. After Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party won a landslide victory of two-thirds of parliamentary seats in the 2010 national elections, the government began taking steps to transform Hungary into an illiberal state. Using both propaganda campaigns and legal attacks, the past 10 years have seen the closures of opposition newspapers, theatres, and universities, as well as the scapegoating of migrants and the LGBTQ+ community.

“It is very important to understand that the overwhelming majority of media ownership (in my view, 95 per cent of all media) in Hungary undermines democracy and fairness of any elections since a lot of people are uninformed, or receive only government biased information,” says Mihály Hardy, head of news and current affairs at Klubrádió.

Such news outlets usually come under the umbrella of KESMA (the Central European Press and Media Foundation) a media conglomerate controlled by the ruling Fidesz party. Consisting of just under 500 national media outlets, the conglomerate’s aim is to restore and preserve traditional Hungarian values through mass media. “It’s an unheard of concentration of media, similar to which may have existed only under communism,” continues Hardy.

Klubrádió is not the only independent news outlet to fall in recent months, leaving Hungarian readers and listeners more and more under KESMA’s news monopoly. In July 2020, Szabolcs Dull, editor-in-chief of the country’s leading independent news website, Index.hu, was fired less than a month after he warned readers that the publication was coming under increasing political pressure. A few months prior to Dull’s termination, Mihály Vaszily, a businessman with strong ties to the government bought 50 per cent of Indamedia, the company responsible for selling Index’s advertisements. The ultimate decision to remove Dull from his post, meanwhile, came from one of the foundations who owns Index’s publisher, Index Zrt.

In response, almost the entire editorial team resigned and founded a new, crowdfunded platform, Telex. “[The government] is gradually tightening [control], the air is getting thinner. And you don’t even know who is doing it, as it is not a politician, or the prime minister, or a party… but people who act on their behalf,” Index’s former political editor, Attila Rovó, told Reuters.

“Since Klubrádió exists mostly on the donations of its audience, we have an obligation to continue our fight to the last effort, since people believe in us, support us, and want to have the programming we offer. We must continue to fight”

But the shrinking presence of alternative media outlets in Hungary raises questions beyond free speech. It is also becoming more and more difficult for independent journalists and artists to find work and support themselves. Papp says that she does not work in Hungary anymore, and that her colleagues are being left in increasingly precarious positions. “The growing Hungarian presence on the international arts and academic scene is only partly a success; in large part, it’s a result of domestic opportunities vanishing,” she told The Calvert Journal. The inevitable consequence of the government’s war on media freedom and those who work there is that people choose to leave the country to seek work opportunities where they are appreciated. Without them it will be even more difficult to challenge the nationalistic agenda of the government and to build resistance.

Due to strict Covid-19 restrictions, protesting Klubrádió’s fate remains difficult. Hardy, however, is hopeful — not only will the station continue to broadcast online, but they will also keep utilising social media to continue their fight for legal recognition. “We will continue our legal fight in court for the extension of our broadcasting license for another seven years in the highest court, and if we fail, we will turn to the European Court of Justice,” he says. “Since Klubrádió exists mostly on the donations of its audience, we have an obligation to continue our fight to the last effort, because people believe in us, support us, and want to have the programming we offer. We must continue to fight; we will not give up.”

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