Hungarians rally to demand opposition radio stay on air

Sun Jan 22, 2012 1:56pm EST

* Thousands gather in support of opposition station

* EU and U.S. criticise government for media moves

* PM says Klub Radio lost licence in fair competition

By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Thousands of Hungarians rallied in Budapest on Sunday to demand that an opposition radio station be allowed to stay on air, protesting against what they say are attempts by the government to silence its critics.

The demonstration followed a pro-government rally which attracted over 100,000 on Saturday in a show of support for the embattled Hungarian government, as it prepares to compromise in a bitter row with the EU to secure vital international aid.

The centre-right government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party has drawn heavy international criticism for moves that critics say are designed to exert growing control over the media, including private and public broadcasters.

Politically motivated editors often meddle with public television news, according to a handful of journalists who held a hunger strike in protest last month.

The country's Media Council, set up by a media law in 2010, ruled in December that a local opposition radio station, Klub Radio, could not renew its licence for a wavelength it has used in Budapest for a decade.

Klub had already lost five of its ten frequencies in rural areas, leaving it with a diminished audience.

"This is about freedom of expression, mainly," said Kristof Szabo, a 29-year-old engineer, at the rally. "The radio and its silencing is merely a symbol of that. With this radio the government silences one of the last voices to criticise it."

The owners of Klub have started a lawsuit to reclaim the wavelength, which they stand to lose in March to an untested and unknown new station, Autoradio, which tendered a higher price.

"Klub Radio never wanted to take on a symbolic role," Andras Arato, executive director of the station, told the protesters. "But the powers that be made it a symbol of freedom of expression anyway."

WESTERN CRITICS

According to Hungarian media reports, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned Klub Radio in a letter to Orban in December to voice her concern about democracy in Hungary.

The European Union has also weighed in.

"The risks that a given action poses for media freedom, or for political freedom in general, depend on the overall context. This overall context has heightened concerns about the way radio licensing is being handled in Hungary," European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes wrote on her website on Jan 5.

"I think there is room for more radio voices in Hungary, not less."

Orban dismissed such opinions in an interview with the public Kossuth Radio on Friday.

"If someone applies for a wavelength then they must make an offer that can win," Orban said. "If they want to pay a fraction of what someone else would pay then even the greatest powers in the world may support them, I cannot transgress Hungary's laws."

"Hungary is a democracy, with the rule of law. Competitions must be won by the rules, not because of political connections."

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) has fiercely attacked the government on the media issue.

"This story, or this tragedy, is not primarily about Klub Radio, but about the freedom of speech," HCLU Director Balazs Denes said.

"Where the powers that be decide who can talk about what, and where they do so with tools they lie to be legal, there the rule of law, or freedom in general, exist no more." (Reporting by Marton Dunai; editing by Andrew Roche)