Viktor Orbán’s regime continues to crush media pluralism in Hungary

Tilos Rádió, an independent, Budapest-based community radio station, is about to be taken off the air following a sanction by the Hungary’s Media Council. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) alerts Europe’s institutions to this disproportionate sanction and calls on the Media Council to examine the radio station’s bid for its frequency in a transparent and non-discriminatory manner.

The Media Council – all of whose members are close to Prime Minister’s Viktor Orbán’s ruling  party Fidesz and are under its sway – refused to renew Tilos Rádió’s licence on 12 April. If the bid submitted by this listener-supported radio station is not successful, it will be taken off the air on 3 September, the date on which its existing licence expires. 

The reason given by the Media Council for refusing to renew its licence was “serious and repeated violations” of the media law. But, in reality, these violations were just minor administrative errors committed during the seven years it has been broadcasting under the current license. The decision came just nine days after Fidesz’s latest parliamentary election victory.

“Hungary’s Media Council advances like a steamroller, crushing the very media pluralism it is supposed to protect,” said Pavol Szalai, head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk. “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s weapon has yet again imposed a disproportionate sanction on a media outlet using minor errors as a pretext. We urge the Media Council to consider Tilos Rádió's bid in the new tender process in a transparent and non-discriminatory way in accordance with European law. And we call on EU member states and the European Commission to display firmness in response to the Hungarian media regulator’s misdeeds.”

Denying any bias or arbitrary decision-making, the Media Council accuses Tilos Rádió of a range of violations of the 2010 media law, including failing to provide data attesting to compliance with programme quotas and violating rules on the classification of programmes by age group by broadcasting programmes containing swear words and outrageous remarks.

Tilos Rádió disputes some of the Media Council’s allegations and cites limited human and technical resources as its defence. It also argues that occasional language lapses are inevitable in the course of nearly seven years of operation under the current license, given the variety of its programmes and guests.

RSF calls on EU member states to hold the Hungarian government accountable for this latest press freedom violation, especially when Hungary appears before the EU Council on 23 May under the so-called Article 7 procedure for violation of fundamental EU values. The European Commission must also consider a new procedure for addressing European law violations, and must propose a mechanism for reinforcing the independence of national media regulators in the new media protection legislation it is due to unveil in July.

By using minor administrative failings as its grounds for refusing to renew Tilos Rádió's licence, the Media Council is repeating the strategy it employed in September 2020 to strip Klubrádió, Hungary’s biggest independent radio station, off its licence. As a result of this decision, later upheld by a court, a station that was well known for criticising the government has since then been limited to online broadcasting. This is likely to be Tilos Rádió’s fate as well.

The Media Council’s rejection of Klubrádió’s request to resume over-the-air broadcasting was deemed to be opaque, discriminatory and disproportionate by the European Commission, which initiated a procedure against Hungary for violation of European law.

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