Hungary’s image and the case of Klubrádió

Yesterday I wrote about the Hungarian government’s attempt to change Hungary’s image in the United States which at present is anything but positive. The Orbán government hired a public relations firm from Boston with offices in Washington, Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, to try to convince the American government, the journalists of leading American newspapers, and the American public in general that Hungary is a shining example of true democracy and not a country heading toward authoritarianism at best, dictatorship at worst.

I concluded yesterday’s post with the following sentences: “Rasky Baerlein will have a very difficult time changing this [negative] perception. They would need Viktor Orbán’s cooperation, which is unlikely.” But even I didn’t think that, after committing to spend $45,000 a month for image building, Viktor Orbán and his cohorts would promptly act to strengthen the already firmly held belief in the United States that something is very wrong with Hungarian democracy.

It is customary in Orbán’s parliament to discuss key pieces of legislation in the dead of night. Orbán is in a great hurry to remake Hungary and therefore every piece of legislation is pushed through with the greatest speed. The members of parliament, for example, didn’t even have a chance to read a proposal introduced late Friday night when the discussion of that bill was scheduled for Monday morning. One of the important bills scheduled to be discussed yesterday involved changes in the media law.

The original version of the media law was passed in December 2010 in spite of European Union objections. But the Hungarian Constitutional Court—even after it was enlarged with government appointees—found the law, as amended slightly at the insistence of the EU, to be unconstitutional. Therefore, parliament had to take up a revised bill which was hurriedly sent to Brussels to show that the needed changes were included in the new bill.

But the Orbán government specializes in trickery. The bill that will eventually pass most likely will not even vaguely resemble the one the officials of the European Union will read. In the middle of the night a Fidesz back bencher, Csaba Szabó, came up with “his own” amendments. They were long and obviously written by legal experts, not the poor MP who never went tocollege and until 2010 was the mayor of a village of 387 inhabitants. There were six different proposals in these amendments that would make the media law even more objectionable from the point of view of media freedom. Hungary has already been demoted by Freedom House to “semi-free” status, and I’m certain that this new media law would not help the situation.

Perhaps the most outrageous amendment of Csaba Szabó touched on the fate of Klubrádió. I’ve written several times about Klubrádió which, although it is just a local FM station serving Budapest, has become world famous because of its persecution by the Hungarian government. Klubrádió is an opposition radio station, mind you the only one in Hungary, that Viktor Orbán wants to destroy. The last time I wrote about Klubrádió was on March 17: “Klubrádió and the Hungarian judiciary: Two cases, two wins.”  That was the good news.

What has happened since? The Media Authority accepted the court’s decision to disallow the winner of the 95.3 MHz frequency on a technicality but has made no decision about what to do with this frequency. It’s been taking its sweet time, claiming that its lawyers had to wait for certain papers to be returned to them. It has shown no inclination to award the frequency to Klubrádió, the runner-up.

In the meantime, Klubrádió looked forward to moving over to the frequency it won in the second case since this frequency, 92.9 MHz, was reserved for public interest radio and was therefore free. (Klubrádió has to pay an annual 50 million forint fee for the 95.3 frequency it currently operates on a temporary basis.)

Klubrádió once proudly displayed their spreading broadcasting

According to members of parliament, however, Szabó’s amendments didn’t conform to the House rules. Amendments can be introduced only to sections that were part of the original bill or at least are closely related to them. Szabó’s amendments didn’t speak to the essence of the original bill. Even László L. Simon (Fidesz), the chairman of the parliamentary committee on culture and the media, asked for an explanation from Szabó in support of his amendments. Not surprisingly, Szabó couldn’t oblige because, his colleagues suspect, he didn’t even read them.What would Szabó’s amendments do? Among other things, retroactively change the status of the 92.9 MHz frequency from a public service station to a commercial station with a 45 million forint yearly fee. That seemed to be a financial punishment for the station. Not good news, but it would still allow Klubrádió to be on the air.

Since it seemed that these amendments would not pass muster, Szabó withdrew them. In their place Erzsébet Menczer (Fidesz), one of the original sponsors of the media law, submitted new amendments that dim Klubrádió’s prospects of ever obtaining a license on any frequency. According to the pertinent Menczer amendment, if the Media Authority didn’t change the status of a media outlet from commercial to public before it applied for a frequency, the station cannot have a contract even if it is willing to pay the fee. In this way Klubrádió couldn’t broadcast on the 92.9 MHz frequency–period. The amendment would also immediate end temporary licensing, a practice that allowed Klubrádió to remain on the air in the last year or so.

So, this is where we stand right now. When Klubrádió’s temporary license expires, if the Media Council doesn’t award it the frequency it will be off the air. This democratic government of Hungary can’t allow even a single local radio station to be critical of the government.

The far-right Jobbik was pleased to support the Fidesz proposal and Gábor Vona, head of the Jobbik caucus, announced that once they are in power they will close ATV, the only opposition television station, as well. Nice prospects.

What I can’t understand is why Fidesz is so afraid of a radio station that now has only about half a million listeners. As you can see from the picture, Klubrádió used to have a number of frequencies covering Veszprém, Gyöngyös, Budapest, Esztergom, Debrecen, Ajka, and Tatabánya. As far as I know it’s lost all of them since 2010, with the exception of Budapest and Debrecen.

Good luck, Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications! Viktor Orbán is really helping your cause.