Divided Hungarians hit the streets

Pro-govnt protest Budapest.jpg

Pro- and anti-government protests took place in Budapest over the weekend, heating the atmosphere ahead of a Brussels visit of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is to discuss tomorrow (24 January) changes to recently adopted legislation as a prerequisite for obtaining a much-needed aid package.

Thousands of Hungarians rallied in Budapest yesterday (22 January) 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 more than 100,000 people the previous day 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 Orbán'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 broadcaster, 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 10 frequencies in rural areas, leaving it with a diminished audience.

"This is about freedom of expression, mainly," Kristof Szabo, a 29-year-old engineer, said 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 filed 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.

Western critics

According to Hungarian news reports, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned Klub Radio in a letter to Orbán 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 licencing is being handled in Hungary," European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes wrote on her website on 5 January.

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

Orbán dismissed such opinions in an interview with the public Kossuth Radio on 20 January.

Money talks

"If someone applies for a wavelength then they must make an offer that can win," Orbán 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," he said.

But the Hungarian leader is taking a more conciliatory tone in a dispute with the European Union that threatens aid for his country. Failure to comply with the EU means that Hungary is stalled in its efforts to negotiate assistance from international lenders as it tackles a public finance crisis.

Economy Ministry State Secretary Zoltán Cséfalvay told Reuters in Vienna that the government would aim to settle the legal disputes with the EU as soon as possible and hoped the country could reach a deal with its lenders this quarter.

The disputed laws enacted by the Fidesz-led government sent the forint plunging to record lows against the euro in the first week of January, and Hungary's cost of borrowing spiked above 11%.

They were also the main reasons for the collapse in aid talks with the EU and the International Monetary Fund last year, as the IMF has said Hungary needs the EU's blessing before it will consider aid.

Its budget deficit for this year is targeted below the EU's limit of 3% of economic output, but Hungary's debt is rated in "junk" category by all three main ratings agencies.

Even though the government has some cash reserves which could allow it to roll over debt for a few months, it needs the financing backstop from lenders to retain access to markets.

A new Hungarian constitution entered into force on 1 January 2012, accompanied by laws which critics said undermine the independence of the central bank, the judiciary and the media. They also said the measures entrenched the position of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's ruling Fidesz party, which is affiliated with the European People's Party.

Tens of thousands of people protested in Budapest alleging that the new laws are authoritarian.

Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Orbán have exchanged a series of letters in which Barroso warned the prime minister not to jeopardise the independence of the central bank, and re-iterated concerns about media independence.

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