The Threat Against Free Speech on Hungary’s Airwaves

The Threat Against Free Speech on Hungary’s Airwaves

The Threat Against Free Speech on Hungary’s Airwaves

The government shut down a station that connected many listeners—particularly the elderly—to their country and the world.


When the faithful listeners to Klubrádió, a talk radio station that has been a beacon of free speech in Hungary, tuned in last Monday, February 15, they found only silence. The government had shut down the station.  

It was a blow to the station’s listeners, many of them older Hungarian Jews, who flocked to Klubrádió’s eclectic format and humanistic programming. But it was also yet another blow to free expression in a country that has seen its press freedom stripped away year by year.

Budapest, the capitol of Hungary, is the only city with a large Jewish population in post-Holocaust Central Europe. The history of—and responsibility for—the Hungarian Holocaust has often been discussed on Klubrádió, and it is not rare that listeners calling in have talked about related losses in their own family.

Numerous elderly listeners had escaped loneliness with their sets tuned to Klubrádió. The older they are, the less likely they are to be able to access Internet radio. None of them should be deprived of their beloved station, especially those who are survivors of a genocide that a country committed against its own citizens.

Klubrádió has been highly critical of the current government—among other reasons, because of the Memorial for Victims of the German Occupation, which the government erected in 2014. It marked the 70th anniversary of the systemic deportation of Jewish Hungarians from the whole country, with the exception of Budapest, in 1944. The monument puts the blame on the Germans, but the deportation was arranged with brutality and record speed by the Hungarian administration itself.

As an open forum for public discourse, Klubrádió has challenged a range of government policies, including those bearing on public memory and press freedom. Klubrádió was the only major independent radio station on the air in Hungary, where the governing party has abused its two-thirds majority in Parliament since 2010. The government started with a media law allowing itself to select all five members of the FCC-like Media Council—possible in a member state of the European Union, which lacks a federalist safeguard against such a fundamental threat to free speech.

Luckily, Hungary has its own equivalent to the First Amendment, although it is not part of its Constitution. It was the first of the “Twelve Points” of Hungary’s 1848 revolution: “We wish freedom of the press, abolishment of censorship.” This is a moral imperative behind the Hungarian Constitution. In following Hungarian history, freedom fighters were subject to death and imprisonment for it, during and after the 1956 revolution.

Yet the current government, step by step, merged the public broadcasters and growing portions of all other media into a behemoth propaganda machine, exempted the biggest merger from competition review as a matter of national strategic importance, and quickly removed Klubrádió from the airwaves. The sole exception was in Budapest, where the station won its case in court against charges for such things as not signing the empty back pages of an application, and had the right to stay on the air during the legal challenge.

The pretext for finally shutting down the station was that Klubrádió had twice been late in submitting its weekly data on fulfilling programming quotas. The puppet Media Council rejected the extension of Klubrádió’s contract for using its allotted frequency, and made an open call for applications. At the same time, the council extended the contracts of other stations who made the very same trivial mistakes. Klubrádió has challenged this clearly discriminatory decision at court, and the completion of its judicial review will take at least some further months. In the meantime, Klubrádió has had to go off the air, because the government deleted from the law the provision that a station can continue to broadcast during court procedures about its right to a frequency.

Way back, decades ago, around the time of the fall of the Berlin wall, I was a founder and a vice-president of Fidesz, the party that eventually transformed into the current governing party. In 1992, when I represented the party on the Parliament’s media committee, we agreed with the Hungarian Constitutional Court’s ruling that it is unconstitutional for any state organization or social group to have a dominant voice in the media boards that oversee the nation’s broadcasting system. But the party was already consolidating its power in the media, as it would over all Hungary in 2010. In 1994, I took part in creating a media law on behalf of another party in a governing coalition with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The law provided that oppositional parliamentary groups could nominate half of the members of the media boards. Back then, the current governing party was one of the small opposition parties. Yet, with its own two-thirds majority, my former party, which claims to be traditionalist, has broken faith with the Hungarian tradition of press freedom.

The government has since tried to put a nail in Klubrádió’s coffin by drying up its advertisement revenue. But the station has survived with voluntary donation campaigns, now organizing support for those who cannot afford the expenses of Internet radio, with which it plans to reach audiences beyond Budapest. The irrepressible Klubrádió keeps up the good fight fueled by wonderful older listeners, like my late mother, whom staff member Julia Varadi called “Klubrádió’s mammy.” A few years ago, at a rally for her beloved station, my mother said, “Nothing eases the loneliness of old people living alone like Klubrádió does. I cannot walk anymore, but I can stand at a demonstration for three hours.”

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