I have been somewhat negligent in keeping you abreast of the recent developments concerning Klubrádió, the station the Orbán government would dearly love to disappear from the air. Although there are some newspapers critical of the government, the situation is less balanced on the air waves. There are only two “talk radio” stations, Inforádió and Klubrádió, and the former definitely leans to the right. The few frequencies that were allocated recently all went to right-wing organizations. Three stations won 43% of the currently available frequencies up to now: Lánchíd Rádió, owned by Infocenter Zrt, a company with close ties to Fidesz; Mária Rádió, in the hands of the Catholic Church; and Európa Rádió run by the Hungarian Reformed Church. Anyone who’s interested in the details should read an article with the witty title “Zsebrádió” (Pocket radio) in HVG.
Those of you who read György Bolgár’s speech delivered in Brussels and published here in its entirety know about the almost two-year struggle to keep Klubrádió on the air. Those of you who didn’t, please do read it now because it says so much about the state of the Hungarian media today. In this connection I would like to call attention to Kim Lane Scheppele’s latest piece on this very subject on Paul Krugman’s blog in The New York Times.
But back to the topic. In March there were two court cases centering on the dispute between the station and the Media Authority. The first involved the 92.9 MHz frequency. Currently, Klubrádió uses 95.3 MHz, but two years ago the owners of the station, in anticipation of the expiry of their lease for 95.3, put in a bid for another available frequency. The station won the bid and signed the contract. However, came the change of government and the new Media Authority refused to honor the contract. Klubrádió sued and on February 28 the court heard the case. The core of the dispute was that the Media Authority refused to sign the contract on the pretext that according to the law the same company cannot own two radio stations at the same location. Klubrádió argued that in their original application they clearly stated that if they win 92.9MHz they will relinquish their current frequency.
The case seemed clear cut to me: the Media Authority was in the wrong. And in this case justice prevailed. Klubrádió won the case. But that is not the end of the story since the Media Authority can appeal. For the time being nothing has happened. I’m not sure but perhaps holidays don’t count and thus the Authority still has a few days before the deadline for turning in an appeal.
The Media Authority’s reaction to the ruling was curious. It seems that Fidesz and its satellites simply cannot accept defeat. Or at least they cannot admit that they lost. Right after the verdict the spokeswoman for the Media Authority announced that the actual winner was the Authority itself “because the court affirmed the point of view of the Media Authority that one media owner can broadcast on only one frequency.” I guess I don’t have to elaborate on the twisted logic of this statement.
But that wasn’t the end of Klubrádió’s problems with the Media Authority. There was still the problem of the current fequency of 95.3 MHz. When Klubrádió lost the frequency to an unknown company called Autórádió, the owner of Klubrádió didn’t know what would happen with the unsigned contract on 92.9 MHz. Thus, he had to turn to the court and dispute the handling of the bid for that frequency. On March 14 the case was heard in the Budapest Court of Appeals and again Klubrádió came out the winner. The judge ruled that the application of Autórádió didn’t conform to the formal requirements laid down by the Authority and therefore it was invalid. Since Klubrádió was the second highest bidder logic would dictate that the frequency would be given to Klubrádió.
Formal requirements. You know what the basis of the ruling was? Autórádió didn’t sign every page of the application! I love, it but I understand that it was the easiest way to handle the situation. My first thought after hearing about the ruling was “I wonder how old the judge is.” Because if the judge is old enough to be retired soon I guess he/she didn’t have much to lose. Then I saw her on the TV news. Yes, she is a woman and she is most likely over the compulsory retirement age. I don’t know the judge’s name, but let’s honor her by publishing her picture.
What was the reaction of the Media Authority this time? “The Media Authority was certain and now the court’s decision affirmed that Klubrádió is not the exclusive owner of the Budapest 95.3 MHz frequency.” These pronouncements of the Media Authority simply boggle the mind. Why can’t they just say: “We lost.”
Well, one would think that with two verdicts going against the Media Authority, the politically motivated officials ruling over frequencies have given up. But this might not necessarily be the case. First, the spokeswoman for the Authority hinted that Klubrádió accused Autórádió of technical mistakes although Klubrádió itself is guilty of similar offenses. So, there is the possibility that Annamária Szalai and her cohorts are looking for faults with Klubrádió’s application.
Then there is another possibility. Klubrádió would rather move over to the lower frequency because it is reserved for stations carrying public interest programs and therefore it is free. By contrast, Klubrádió would have to pay 50 million forints for its current frequency. Moreover on 92.9 Klubrádió wouldn’t be bound by restrictions forced upon the station by the Media Authority; the requirements were written in such a way that Klubrádió would have to change from “talk radio” to “music radio.” Thus the Media Authority could “punish” Klubrádió by not allowing it to broadcast on its current frequency for months while it is working on the changeover to 92.9 MHz.
Of course, it is also possible that we will be happily surprised. After the initial noises of the Media Authority perhaps they will get their senses back and do nothing. The outside world would then hear with relief that the independent judiciary is still alive and well in Hungary. And under the present circumstances that would be the best outcome for the Orbán government.