Top Hungary independent radio forced off air: station head

Budapest (AFP) –

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Hungary's leading independent radio station Klubradio said Tuesday it had lost an appeal to keep its licence after the media regulator said it had infringed rules, raising new press freedom concerns in the EU member state.

"The decision, although expected, was a political one, shameful and cowardly," Andras Arato, head of Klubradio, told AFP, adding that the station would appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

The station, whose news and talk content is often critical of the Hungarian government, will continue broadcasting online from Monday, Arato said.

Last September the media regulator NMHH said Klubradio, which broadcasts mainly in Budapest, had "repeatedly infringed" rules by twice submitting documents late, and refused to extend its seven-year operating licence which expires on February 14.

The station accused NMHH of discrimination for overlooking similar administrative infringements in other cases, and asked the Metropolitan Court in Budapest to force the regulator to issue a temporary broadcasting licence.

Klubradio and two other stations have also applied for the same frequency which was put up for tender by NMHH, but a decision is not expected for several months.

The station, which began broadcasting in the 1990s, had to fight a series of legal battles to stay on air soon after Prime Minister Viktor Orban's right-wing government came to power in 2010.

For several years, it operated on rolling short-term licences, which the station said made attracting advertisers difficult.

The powerful NMHH, whose heads are close to Orban's ruling Fidesz party, insists it is not politically driven.

But its treatment of Klubradio adds to press freedom concerns about political pressure from Orban on independent media.

- 'Another silenced voice' -

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders dropped Hungary 16 points in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index to 89th place citing a "sharp decline in media freedom".

In recent years most independent outlets have either gone out of business or been bought by government allies while receiving lucrative flows of state advertising.

State media meanwhile have been accused of turning into government propaganda organs.

"Another silenced voice in Hungary. Another sad day for media freedom," said Dunja Mijatovic, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, in a Twitter post after Tuesday's ruling.

The decision "fits into a long pattern of pro-government bodies using legal tools to stifle critical voices," Gabor Polyak, an analyst at the Mertek Media Monitor think tank, told AFP.

"Even if Klubradio could somehow regain its lost frequency in the coming months it would lose advertisers and listeners," Polyak said.

According to international election observers in 2018, the EU member's "lopsided media landscape" and "restricted access to information" helped re-elect Orban for his third straight term since 2010.

The next election is scheduled for early next year with current polls showing Orban's ruling Fidesz party neck-and-neck with an alliance of six opposition parties.