András Arató, Klubrádió's director and CEO talks to the press in Budapest on February 9, 2021. Hungary's highest court recently upheld a decision by media regulators not to extend the outspoken radio station's broadcasting license. (Laszlo Balogh/AP)

Hungary’s Klubrádió owner András Arató on how the station is responding to the loss of its broadcast license

After more than 10 years providing a key platform for reporters and listeners to voice criticism of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán via FM radio, the Budapest-based Klubrádió station is now operating entirely online after authorities blocked its broadcasting license. The move was the culmination of a long campaign to force the station off air, the station’s president and majority owner, András Arató, told CPJ in a recent phone conversation.

In September 2020, Hungary’s Media Council – a nominally independent body staffed with political appointees – declined to renew the license, citing “regulatory offenses,” according to Deutsche Welle and other news reports. Since February, the terrestrial station that boasted nationwide reach and 500,000 daily listeners in 2019 has shifted entirely online, Arató told CPJ.

Klubrádió challenged the decision and the European Commission, calling it “disproportionate and non-transparent and thus in breach of EU law” in July 2021, launched a legal action called an infringement procedure and requested a response from Hungary. (CPJ was not able to determine whether Hungary had replied.) After a year-long legal battle, Hungary’s highest court, the Curia, upheld the Media Council’s decision this September, agreeing that Klubrádió’s tender contained irregularities that rendered it invalid.

Arató spoke to CPJ’s Attila Mong about the ruling and the future of his station – and Hungary’s independent press. Statements about the development that the Media Council and the Curia provided when CPJ emailed them with questions appear below the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you still have hopes that Klubrádió will once again have a license for terrestrial broadcast?

I do not see hope as long as there is an illiberal regime in Hungary. The Media Council keeps distributing terrestrial radio frequencies to [those loyal to the] ruling party ahead of the 2022 parliamentary elections – this shows that for Klubrádió there is no hope until there is a change from the Orbán regime.

The government denies that Klubrádió lost its license in a politically motivated process. In your opinion, what proves the contrary?

It is enough to see the arguments the Media Council used during the process, first to deny the extension of Klubrádió’s license, [then] to reject our application in a frequency tender where we were the sole applicants. One of our gravest mistakes in that application – according to the Media Council – was that we did not complete a form [correctly]. Another was that we mistakenly recorded the length of one of our shows as 45 minutes instead of 50 minutes.

Meaning that, in your opinion, the Media Council used bureaucratic mistakes and fabricated arguments based on those errors?

Exactly. We were also denied the opportunity to correct these mistakes. The third argument related to our business model and shows the absurdity of the process. The Media Council argued – and the court decision accepted – that our business model, which relies heavily on the financial contribution of our listeners, is uncertain. They argued that we would have needed to support our business plan with confirmed long-term advertising contracts, which is an impossible requirement for any radio station and especially for Klubrádió in the current Hungarian advertising market, [given that] companies are reluctant to place advertisements with us. Our operations, however, are far from uncertain: in the last 10 years, around 90 percent of our costs have been financed by audience contributions.

It sounds like you are also criticizing the court decision. Are you implying that it was political?

I think so, yes. During the early 2010s, Klubrádió usually won in legal cases against the Media Council. By now, courts in Hungary are no longer independent from political influence. They entirely deny all arguments, facts, and even the paragraphs of the written law.

How much did you have to change your operations to be fully based on the internet?

Since it became evident that we will have to operate without the terrestrial frequency, we started to “train” our listeners, a lot of them from older generations, to be able to listen to Klubrádió exclusively on the internet. As a result, our audience numbers have not decreased. During the last 10 years, our listeners, who are average Hungarians – a lot of them with very limited budgets – donated more than 6 million euros to our operations. Their contributions even increased last year when we were fighting for our license, and have [continued to] increase even after we lost our terrestrial frequency. All in all, we did not have to downscale our operations; on the contrary, we funded developments like our podcasting and Youtube activities to turn Klubrádió into a 21st-century station. We have even employed new staff.

How optimistic are you about the European Commission’s infringement procedure saying that the Media Council’s decisions to reject broadcaster Klubrádió’s application for a broadcasting license is against EU law?

The proceeding will not bring back a terrestrial frequency for Klubrádió, so it does not fundamentally affect our current situation. Since Orbán came to power in 2010, the EU has largely just observed the systematic dismantling of democratic institutions with the free press in the front line. Very much like fans watching a football game from the sidelines. When Hungary joined the EU in 2004, I personally hoped that EU [membership would] not only bring about economic prosperity, but also help to defend democratic values and institutions. The EU failed to effectively act against what has happened in Hungary.

Editor’s note: The press offices of the Media Council and the Curia did not directly respond to CPJ’s emailed questions, but both supplied links to past statements. One from the Curia dating from October noted that “respect for the decisions of the courts is an obligation not only for the winning party but also for the party who loses.” The Media Council said on September 29 that it was “not the Media Council or the Budapest Regional Court that “deprived” listeners of Klubrádió’s radio media service at Budapest 92.9 MHz, but Klubrádió itself, which submitted an incorrect, incomplete and contradictory tender.”