On February 27 the Media Intergroup of the European Parliament held another hearing on the state of the Hungarian media. One of the members of this group is Jean-Marie Cavada, a leading member of the European People’s Party. He is also president of the European Movement, whose objective is to transform the relations between the European states and its citizens into a Federal Union of Europe. Before he became a politician Cavada was a well-known television personality in France.
About 120-130 people gathered to hear the invited guests from Hungary: György Bolgár, representing Klubrádió; Gábor Horváth, deputy editor-in-chief of Népszabadság; and Tamás Pindroch, a journalist from Magyar Hírlap. In the audience were several Hungarian politicians: Tamás Nagy-Gaudi and Krisztina Morvai (Jobbik), György Schöpflin and Tamás Deutsch (Fidesz), Lajos Bokros (MDF), and Kinga Göncz (MSZP).
György Bolgár’s speech delivered in English was such a success that Jean-Marie Cavada invited him to participate in a similar gathering in Paris.
I am grateful to Mr. Bolgár for allowing me to publish his speech on Hungarian Spectrum.
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To be or not to be, that is the question – as Shakespeare’s Hamlet would say. Not to be, that is the answer – as the Hungarian Media Authority says to Klubrádió.
I’m in an easy situation now as a senior editor and presenter of the Budapest radio station, Klubrádió. Since we had to apply for the renewal of our frequency licence and especially since it was denied from us we have become the most famous unknown radio in the world. Klubrádió acquired a very fortunate and at the same time very unfortunate fame: it has become the symbol of media freedom in the free world.
György Bolgár at work
How could it happen and why? Klubrádió is an independently owned commercial talk-radio that was established ten years ago with the aim of providing public service-style programs at a time when the first Orbán-government has taken over and politically controlled public radio and television in Hungary. In early 2002 we wanted to offer balanced and objective news coverage and a mostly center-left and liberal point of view. Politics, public life, current affairs, international politics, major issues in the European Union, the economy, environment, cultural topics, arts and literature were and since then have been on the agenda of our radio and we could sustain ourselves as a commercial station does: with advertisements. That is: until 2010 when after the elections the new Orbán-government has stopped all state-advertisements and state-sponsored programs with us. This, together with the financial and economic crisis made it almost impossible for us to survive considering the fact that in Hungary the largest advertiser is the state itself. From the National Lottery to the National Electricity Works, the Hungarian Tourist Agency, the Post Office or the giant energy company, Mol (where the state has a 25% stake) these institutions and companies place their ads almost exclusively in the right-wing, pro-government media as if only government voters could be trusted to try their fortunes in lottery.
To make matters worse our frequency licence expired in early 2011 but the new media authority was constantly delaying the renewal process and was only willing to extend our licence provisionally, for small, two-months periods which made it impossible for us to sign contracts with any advertising agencies or private companies. And if it weren’t enough: the government has used its almost total power – a two-thirds majority in parliament – to intimidate those who even among these circumstances still wanted to reach our listeners through advertising. The loss of advertising revenue would have amounted to a knockout if our audience didn’t rush to Klubrádió’s help with individual donations. Last year we have collected about 600 thousand euros from our listeners and that proved to be vital for our survival.
So we somehow managed to live on until a tendering process started last August for the frequency we have been using. The first and foremost shock came however right away when it turned out that the new tender for Klubrádió’s frequency was for a “music radio that presents some local information and values,” thereby excluding Klubrádió, which concentrates predominantly on national news and politics. Even though Klubrádió has substantially increased its audience during ten years of broadcasting and it is the second most popular talk-radio station in the Budapest area after the traditionally largest public radio the authority was not willing to alter this basic condition despite our protest. Due to which Klubrádió was practically unable to compete with other contenders who offered much more music in their program content.
To make you understand the dirty trick: music has now an approximately 20% share in the Klubrádió’s program. According to the tender requirements set by the Media Council an applicant who offers more than 60% music could win the maximum awardable points. So we tried to manage a compromise: we increased the music share to 40% eliminating some of our talk programs but even so we lost too many points to a completely unknown bidder who has no broadcasting past whatsoever. Applying with our present format of 20% music would have been an absolute non-starter.
Simple as it is, there was no level playing field: that’s obvious but the Media Council plays the role of an innocent bystander, a role that was taken up by the Prime Minister as well. In a letter he sent some weeks ago to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who had warned him of the need for media pluralism in Hungary and mentioned the fate of our radio Mr. Orbán answered: „Although the Media Authority works independently from the government in Hungary I requested information about the decision of the authority upon receiving your letter. On the basis of this let me inform you that the competition has been conducted with full transparency and the Media Authority has done its utmost in order to preserve this important news outlet: the applicant has received full marks on subjective criteria where deliberation was possible but the applicant has not made a competitive financial offer. Therefore the Media Authority could not have declared the applicant you have mentioned winner without violating the theory and practice of free market competition.”
I repeat: according to the Prime Minister the Media Authority has done its utmost in order to preserve this important news outlet. What would have happened if they had done less than their utmost? Perhaps we would have been thrown out of the tender right at the beginning. And what was their utmost? Favouring a music radio station, of course. Instead of the last talk-radio in Hungary that is independent and critical of the government.
Now something on the financial offer as it is the final argument against us: Klubrádió’s offer was somewhat more than the required minimum, about 200.000 euros per year – by the way it is two and a half times more than we are paying now for the licence, that is: the authority raised the fee substiantally even though radio stations are in dire financial straits nowadays. Anyway, the winner’s bid was 70.000 euros more, although it seems strange that a newly established company with a starting capital of 3300 euros and without any known past activity could raise its bid above all the other contenders. Considering however, that the operation of a music radio is evidently much cheaper than that of a talk and news radio it is clear that the media authority paved the smoothest possible way for a new music radio and for the elimination of us.
But in the end: was it the licence fee offer that made the difference? No, not at all. The final countdown says everything about the tender: the winners have won by one, single point while Klubrádió has lost three to them when offering only 40% music as a talk-radio versus their 60%. If there had been a level playing field, and no difference had been made between music and talk-radios we would have easily won even with a smaller licence fee offer. Well, evidently not with this government and this, „fully independent” Media Authority.
End of sad story, I would say, but perhaps still not yet. Klubrádió appealed against that tender decision and turned to an administrative court that will decide in the middle of next month whether the procedure was legal or – as according to our appeal – not. To make matters more complicated we have another litigation going on as well because we have already won another frequency licence back in 2010 just before the elections. At that time it became obvious that the previous media body didn’t want to renew our used frequency’s licence due to the coming elections, so we decided to apply for another, unused frequency. We were declared as winner but after the elections the new media authority declined to sign the operating contract with Klubrádió, so we had to initiate a lawsuit and the ruling might come or even might have come today in a Budapest municipal court. (and it really came: the Budapest Municipal Court decided that we were illegally stripped of that frequency licence. The only problem is that this sentence is still appealable). Anyway, we want to make radio programs instead of conducting lawsuits.
To make it clear once again: Klubrádió’s prospective closure means the silencing of Hungary’s only remaining independent radio station and a significant blow to the media pluralism in the country. The decision was evidently politically motivated and shows the widely extended licensing power of the media authority. It it weren’t enough, in the last months we have lost not only our Budapest frequency but five of our affiliated frequencies in some provincial cities as well.
All this might seem too obvious: the government wants to silence critical voices because it feels endangered by them. A formally legal tendering process made it easy for them but the following domestic and international uproar triggered a very angry and characteristically Hungarian response. The pro-government media began attacking Klubrádió and its journalists with a vengeance. We are on the front pages regularly with fabricated stories that try to prove our incompetence and lack of integrity. Can you name just one democratic country where a so-called conservative newspaper, the flagship of the governing party regularly tries to discredit journalists from the opposing political side and puts them on front page almost every other day? While systematic discreditation of journalists and even character assassination has been a well-known practice of the Fidesz media in the past, now they have ventured into new territory.
This latest attack began on February 17 when Magyar Nemzet, the mouthpiece of the current government attacked me of amiably talking with a caller in my radio program about “the liquidation” of President Pál Schmitt. Of course the paper is not telling the truth: the caller raised the possibility, „a conspiracy theory” that someone might liquidate the president because he became inconvenient for the government and I reacted right away that the idea itself is absolutely unacceptable and I’m not willing to speak or think about it. However, the paper immediately moved into higher gear and phoned the office of European Commissioner Neelie Kroes in Brussels where they told her spokesman about a radio station where “death threats” are being discussed. And even that wasn’t enough. Magyar Nemzet also phoned Martin Schulz’s office asking what he thinks of the affair. They described all this in an article titled: “To Kroes all that is not important.” In it one can read that “Neelie Kroes, who is so worried about the freedom of the press, not long ago welcomed György Bolgár in her office.” In the end Magyar Nemzet had to be satisfied with reporting Klubrádió and myself to the Hungarian Media Authority, asking them to investigate.
Frustrated they surely were because after getting nowhere in Brussels, they decided to discredit the key players. Neelie Kroes was the prime target and soon they digged out an article in European Voice from which they learned that the former husband of Neelie Kroes, accused his wife of listening to fortune tellers and astrologists before making decisions plus she rented office space in the mansion of a wealthy Dutch real estate developer, who had spent four and a half years in jail for money laundering and blackmail. This is the woman – Magyar Nemzet wrote – who welcomed in her office the owner of Klubrádió, András Arató and György Bolgár while she wasn’t interested in the opinion of the Hungarian authorities.
Then another surprising target was found: none other than the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In a front-page article Magyar Nemzet headlined: “Clinton tried to induce [Viktor Orbán] to commit a crime.” The article suggests exactly that’s what happened when Hillary Clinton urged the Hungarian Prime Minister to interfere in Klubrádió’s frequency dispute. By the way Mrs Clinton did nothing of this sort. In a letter she had this to say about the whole Media Law issue. “As for the Media Law, we share concerns expressed by the OSCE, Freedom House, and a recent international mission of press experts that the law concentrates too much power in the hands of a politically-appointed Media Council. Also, the recent non-renewal of a popular talk radio station’s license raises concerns about the commitment to ensure diverse voices in the media realm.” That’s how she induced Mr Orbán to commit a crime. Good and friendly relations with the European Union and with the United States are not as important as influencing domestic opinion with outright lies or putting pressure on the court that is handling the case between Klubrádió and the Media Authority.
All this reminds one of the communist era when the official party paper initiated attacks on some people who consequently lost their jobs or were brought to court. I hope nothing like that would follow suit now but the same killing instinct works, under the disguise of media freedom.
Just as in the case of the public service media. You might or might not have heard about the scandals that shook the Hungarian media in recent months. A completely and intentionally falsified television report in the public service TV News on Daniel Cohn Bendit’s Budapest press conference suggesting he (who dared to criticize the Hungarian Prime Minister in Strasbourg) escaped from the scene without answering an inconvenient question. In fact, it was not true, Cohn-Bendit did not avoid any questions and stayed at the scene long after. Some days later however, the reporter (by the way a professional nobody) was appointed editor-in-chief of the public television’s current affairs programs. Or more recently: blurring the face of the former Chief Justice in a TV reportage on the order of one of the executives. At the same time one-third of the employees of public television and radio was sacked including the best and most experienced staff who were not enthusiastically pro-government and you may get to the conclusion that public media is totally under the control of the government. Not frequently mentioned but equally as important is that the independence of the former Hungarian Radio and the two public TV companies was eliminated, all news programs are prepared in a central news organization within the state-owned Hungarian News Agency and all the other reporters, journalists, editors and technical staff are employed by a newly created company under the auspices of the Media Authority. Total personal, organizational, political and financial control in the public service media: that is Hungary now.
How could we get here? How on earth was it possible? Somewhat less than a year ago I was invited to Stockholm by the Swedish Pen Club to speak about the then relatively new Hungarian media law. At that time the world was watching with disbelief the debate around the media legislation because it was the most obvious sign of a massive change in Hungarian public and political life. A newly established media authority with only government delegated members plus the increased role of this media body with the right to interfere in practically everything and everywhere including the printed press and the internet websites even the blogs, all this seemed unimaginable in a member-state of the European Union. It was the western media that discovered the worrying even shocking signs in Hungary but then politicians – especially in the European parliament – followed suit.
At that time in Stockholm however, I tried to warn my listeners that the fate of the media is just one example of many alarming changes, all proving that the new Hungarian government intends to dismantle the democratic system in Hungary in order to establish itself as the only electable governing party for at least the next twenty years. Just to mention a few cases:
1. Swiftly after obtaining the vast majority in parliament the government pushed through a statement on national peace and cooperation and made it compulsory to hang it out on a proper place and in a proper form in all government buildings and institutions. Since then Mr Orbán’s government was not willing to cooperate with anyone on anything.
2. When the Constitutional Court declared a new tax law with retroactive effect unconstitutional the parliament immediately revoked the court’s licence to judge on any financial legislation. In the new constitution its powers are severely curtailed.
3. The new constitution or Fundamental Law was prepared and accepted without any broad public and professional debate and with the demonstrative absence of the parliamentary opposition. It weakens independent institutions, centralizes power and radically cuts all checks and balances. At the same time the spirit of the whole text takes us back to the 1930’s.
4. Legislation has been deeply undemocratic throughout the last one and a half year: in most cases individual MP’s introduce new bills instead of the government so as to avoid otherwise legally compulsory consultations with interested parties, specialists, professional bodies and organizations, like trade unions etc. and to cut short debates in parliament itself.
5. The formerly independent Fiscal Council was immediately disbanded after it criticised the government for trying to conceal large holes in the budget and a new body was created under total government control.
6. Other independent institutions were also put under the control of government appointees like the State Audit Office whose chairmanship was awarded to a former Fidesz politician without proper professional background or the all-powerful Media Council, whose president was also a Fidesz member of parliament. The same goes for other very important positions: the Chief Public Prosecutor was also a Fidesz parliamentary candidate, the new head of the newly created national Judicial Office is the wife of one of the most influential Fidesz politicians and a personal friend of the Prime Minister. Moreover these people are appointed for an exceptionally long period of 9 or 12 years and even after that they can remain in their position if the parliament is unable to elect their successor with a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
7. A culture war has been going on against left-wing and liberal-minded artists, filmmakers, philosophers charging them with financial improprieties, embezzlement of state funds, effectively intimidating them to leave everything behind and escape to their small private world. The internationally acclaimed chief conductor, chief artistic director and ballet director of the National Opera were forced to abandon their posts, the appointment of the new director was withdrawn through the intervention of the Prime Minister and there is a new government commissioner who heads the National Opera reporting directly to the Prime Minister.
8. And last but not least, a seemingly insignificant but arguably perhaps the most characteristic event of all: a quasi nongovernmental committee of overseeing geographical names in the country was disbanded and two of its members were sacked from their government jobs because they were not willing to approve a government decision to rename Budapest Ferihegy Airport to Ferenc Liszt Airport. The experts offered a compromise combining the two names, the original and the new but the government did not tolerate any contradiction.
Can you speak or write about it in Hungary? Yes, you can. Is it a proof then that media freedom still exists? No, not in the least. Journalists and reporters working with independent or opposition media organizations most of the time don’t have the chance of making interviews with those in government who are responsible for important decisions. The Prime Minister himself for example has never ever given an interview to Klubrádió even though the most highly acclaimed radio reporters and editors of the country are working with us. So the chances of free questioning and free speech are quickly diminishing. The moment when one can not tell the facts objectively or express any opinion will only be the tragic end of a very dangerous course Hungary has taken.