It was in March that I wrote a longer piece on the trials and tribulations of Klubrádió, an opposition station that the Orbán government is bent on silencing through its authority to control the airwaves. I concluded my article on an optimistic note. I expressed my hope that the members of the Media Authority would “get their senses back” and not contest the verdicts of two different judges who ruled in Klubrádió’s favor. I was, of course, wrong.
I know that I have given the background to this sordid story more than once, but Klubrádió’s situation is very complicated. Of course, it wouldn’t have to be so, but the Media Authority has done everything in its power to muddy the waters.
Very briefly here is the story. Klubrádió is currently broadcasting on 95.3 MHz, but more than two years ago the owners of the station, in anticipation of the expiry of their lease for that frequency, put in a bid for another available frequency. The station won the bid for 92.9 MHz and a contract was drawn up and signed by the CEO of Klubrádió. Meanwhile there was a change of government and the much disputed Media Authority was set up. That all-powerful and completely Fidesz-directed and dominated organization refused to sign the contract.
Since Klubrádió couldn’t have been certain about the fate of the 92.9 MHz frequency, they also reapplied for their current 95.3 MHz. Some eleven applications reached the Media Authority for this frequency. Klubrádió came in second behind an unknown new company called Autórádió, most likely a front for some people of Fidesz background. So, Klubrádió was in limbo. On the one hand, there was an unsigned contract on 92.9 MHz and, on the other, a lost bid for their current frequency. Klubrádió sued, and the judge decided that Autórádió’s bid didn’t conform to the formal requirements. What were these formal requirements? In this case at least, it meant that the owner of the nonexistent Autórádió didn’t sign every page of the application and/or didn’t number every page of the document. We may laugh at this whole business, but that gave the court an easy way out. The Media Authority didn’t give up, though, as we will see later.
Meanwhile the Media Authority decided to appeal the ruling of the court on the fate of the 92.9 MHz frequency on the grounds that the ruling didn’t stipulate the date by which Klubrádió should take possession of the station. It asked the court to declare a verdict of nullity. The final ruling of the appellate court on this issue will apparently be handed down on July 12.
The Media Council wasn’t finished with its harassment of the only opposition radio station in Hungary. When the court decided that the winner of the 95.3 MHz frequency, Autórádió, didn’t conform to the “formal requirements,” the Media Authority immediately hinted that in its opinion Klubrádió was guilty of the same. András Arató was madly looking for missing signatures and/or page numbers and found none. But the Media Authority is resourceful. On Thursday it decided to disqualify Klubrádió from the application process altogether on the grounds that they didn’t sign the blank backs of the pages of its application.
I think a little linguistic explanation is in order here about “leaf” and “page.” In ordinary English the distinction between “page” and “leaf” is somewhat blurred, but the dictionary definition of “leaf” is quite explicit: “a sheet of paper bound in a book, each side of which constitutes a page.” In Hungarian it is somewhat easier to keep in mind the distinction because “page” is called “oldal,” which literally means “side.” So each “leaf” (lap) has two sides, two pages.
The 215-page application was not printed on both sides. The Media Authority claims that András Arató, the CEO of Klubrádió, should have numbered and signed the blank pages of the underside of a leaf. And since he neglected to do so, Klubrádió is no longer eligible to compete for the frequency it currently uses. How far are Annamária Szalai and her fellow board members ready to go to silence Klubrádió? Obviously very far. I must say, however, that the lawyers of the Media Authority seem to be a sorry lot if this is the best they could come up with.
Once the owner and reporters of Klubrádió recovered from the shock, they decided to move into action. They discovered that the ruling of the Media Authority can be contested and therefore they decided to rely on their well known and very successful team of lawyers to sue the Media Authority, whose spokeswoman accuses of Klubrádió of lying and of making the kinds of verbal attacks that can be heard only in bars of questionable reputation. I am a regular listener of Klubrádió and I can attest that if someone isn’t telling the truth it is not Klubrádió but the Media Authority.
As for Klubrádió’s lawyers. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the “star lawyers” of liberal persuasion represent the station without charge. One of the very well known lawyers of Hungary, György Magyar, was giving advice to Klubrádió in public while talking with György Bolgár in his “Let’s discuss it” program. In his opinion the Media Authority could be sued, among other things, also for damages because of its two-year harassment of the station and its refusal to grant a permanent frequency although in both cases the court sided with Klubrádió.
So, Klubrádió’s troubles are not over. The only hope is that the court next Thursday rules in the station’s favor concerning the 92.9 MHz frequency. In this case Klubrádió is in good shape because that particular frequency is set aside for public service stations and therefore its use is free. But a favorable verdict doesn’t ensure the Media Authority’s compliance as we know only too well.
Finally, I would like quote from the exchange of letters between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Clinton’s letter was written on December 23, 2011 and Orbán’s answer on January 6, 2012.
Clinton mentioned the case of Klubrádió:
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.
What was Orbán’s answer? After refuting the charge that anything was wrong with the Hungarian media law he went on to the topic of the Klubrádió:
Without going into specific details I would like to dispel your doubts regarding the frequency-tender of the talk radio you mentioned. 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 the practice of free market competition.