EU Reacts To Hungary's Media Crackdown

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Klubradio is one of Hungary's only remaining independent broadcasters, but it may soon go silent. The station's struggles are emblematic of the Hungarian government's crackdown on civil liberties. The European Union is so worried that last week it issued a warning to Hungary: Revise your new constitution to comply with EU laws or leave the EU.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Hungary, where the only independent radio news station in the country may soon go silent. Klubradio lost its license in what its owners charge was a government move to muzzle critics. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Budapest.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO TALK SHOW)

GEORGE BOLGAR: (Foreign language spoken)

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: George Bolgar has been on the air in Hungary for more than 40 years. For the last decade, he's hosted an afternoon-drive-time, news talk show on Klubradio. It's a privately owned, liberal-leaning radio station based in Budapest. Bolgar's show is one of the most popular in Hungary.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO TALK SHOW)

BOLGAR: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: The 65-year-old says even back in the communist era, media freedoms slowly improved over time. The climate today, he says, is the worst since then.

BOLGAR: That is the really most shocking difference between the communist times and today's times. We are marching backward.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO TALK SHOW)

WESTERVELT: These days, listeners mostly call in to talk about politics and the wretched economy. All the ratings agencies have cut Hungary's credit rating to junk status. And the currency, the forint, has hit all-time lows. Bolgar says he also hears lots of complaints about Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz Party. Bolgar charges that Orban wants to silence opposition voices.

BOLGAR: They didn't want to hear the voices of ordinary people call in my talk show and say something very critical of the government.

WESTERVELT: When Klubradio's license came up for renewal recently, the newly established Hungarian Media Authority awarded the frequency to a previously unknown media group. The new owners want to broadcast pop music. Klubradio is appealing the decision but unless a judge overturns it, the news station will go silent in early February. The media authority says it has no political agenda, that Klubradio simply lost out to a higher bidder in a fair process. But Bolgar and his network supporters see politics trying to silence the only opposition radio station in Hungary.

BOLGAR: Can it be otherwise? I don't think it can. That was the definite wish of the media authority, which have only delegates appointed by the ruling party.

WESTERVELT: Hungarian state TV did not cover a mass protest on New Year's Day against the controversial new constitution Prime Minister Orban pushed through Parliament. Klubradio covered it - more than 100,000 Hungarians had taken to the streets. This past week, the European Union took Hungary to task, and instructed the government to change provisions of the constitution that undermine the independence of the judiciary, the central bank and state data agency. Journalists for state-funded TV and radio have also protested what they say is direct political interference by the government. Zoltan Kovacs, Hungary's minister of communication, dismisses those allegations.

ZOLTAN KOVACS: Well, it's easy to come up with these kind of opinion concerning the media. You know, it's a field where these kind of emotional approaches can be easily made. The freedom of press is a sacrosanct issue in this country.

WESTERVELT: But the EU isn't so sure. This week, EU watchdogs noted that the Hungarian government has taken away the licenses of several stations, including Klubradio affiliates. They again voiced concern about basic media freedom here. Klubradio's George Bolgar, meantime, vows to fight to stay on the air - and to keep speaking out.

BOLGAR: What I feel and sense now is a looming darkness descending upon us. And one wants to shout lights, lights, please. And the lights don't come.

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Budapest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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