The European Commission on Wednesday denounced Hungarian authorities” decision to suspended the licence of the country’s first independent radio station.
The move “increases concerns” about “media freedom and pluralism” in Hungary, spokesman for the EU executive, Christian Wigand, said.
“We have expressed our concerns about media freedom and pluralism in Hungary in reports on the rule of law. The case of Klubrádió only increases these concerns,” he added.
Klubrádió will go off the airwaves on Sunday at midnight after a court upheld a decision by media authorities not to extend its broadcasting licence, it was announced on Tuesday.
The news marks yet another setback for the independent media in the country, which has been under pressure since Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s return to power in 2010.
The Commission is “in contact with the Hungarian authorities to ensure that Klubrádió can continue to operate legally” but is ready “to take action if it is possible and necessary”, the spokesman warned.
The liberal-leaning commercial station was one of the only remaining opposition radio voices in Hungary.
President Andras Arato denounced Tuesday’s decision as “shameful” and told Euronews that he planned to appeal to Hungary’s highest court, the Curia, promising that his media would continue online and that listeners were “keen”.
“We will not be silenced, and if they also want to support us, we will try to do our bit so we can live in a better world,” he said.
Klubrádió had said in a statement that efforts to revoke its licence served “the purpose of silencing all critical voices, and if possible, under the cover of lawfulness”.
How have others reacted?
Staff from the station took to social media to speak to the station’s audience after news it would go offline.
News editor Tamás Báder wrote that the station would fall “silent right after Valentine’s Day” but added: “If you were worried, don’t do it, if someone might be happy, enjoy it! We’ll be back again!”
While editor and presenter Judit Bálint asked listeners not to give up on the station: “Klubrádió will continue on the Internet from MONDAY (hopefully only temporarily).. But it will be there, don’t give up on us!!”
In a statement last week, the National Associated of Hungarian Journalists called Klubradio “the only remaining public service broadcaster in Hungary whose content is not under government influence”.
“The hegemony of pro-government broadcasters would increase to 100% with the silencing of Klubradio, which would be completely unprecedented in Europe,” the group added.
Human Rights Watch senior researcher Lydia Gall in September called the decisions surrounding Klubrádió “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”.
German MEP Daniel Freund, who co-negotiated the rule of law mechanism for the Greens in the European Parliament, said: “It is the next victory for Viktor Orban in his crusade against independent media in Hungary … Viktor Orban’s actions in Hungary are endangering democracy across Europe.
“We cannot continue to stand idly by while an authoritarian system is built in Hungary.”
Hungary is currently ranked 89th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index. It was 23rd when Orban returned to power in 2010.
What’s happening in Poland?
Meanwhile, independent media outlets in Poland suspended news coverage and other programming on Wednesday to protest a planned new advertising tax that they view as an attempt by the country’s right-wing government to undermine press freedoms.
The government said the “solidarity” tax would raise money to bolster state finances badly strained by the coronavirus pandemic. But 45 media companies signed a letter that said they already pay many taxes and that the advertising tax could push some to collapse.
“We strongly oppose the use of the epidemic as an excuse to introduce another new, exceptionally heavy burden on the media,” they wrote as websites and TV screens in Poland went dark for 24 hours.
Gazeta Wyborcza, the country’s leading newspaper and a liberal critic of the populist government, called the advertising tax “a powerful blow to free media.” In place of the usual news items on its webpage was a black screen and a warning that if the tax is passed, the publication’s readers could one day lose access to independent news.
Broadcaster TVN, which is owned by the US company Discovery Inc, also joined the protest. Viewers who turned to all-news station TVN24 and other channels only saw a black screen and the words “Your favourite programming was supposed to be here.”
The United States joined the EU in stressing its support for media diversity on Wednesday.
The chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Warsaw, Bix Aliu, called free media “a cornerstone of democracy,” adding: “The United States will always defend media independence.”
In Brussels, Wigand acknowledged the media protest, saying: “We have seen the black screens.” Poland belongs to the 27-nation bloc.
“We expect member states to ensure that their fiscal or other policies will not affect the duty of ensuring a free, independent and diverse media ecosystem.
“This is, of course, all the more important in times of the pandemic, which has hit the media sector hard.”