Deutsche Welle resumes Hungarian service amid free press fears

File photo. Exterior view on the entrance to the headquarters of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) in Bonn, Germany, 26 September 2016. [Marius Becker/EPA/EFE]

Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle has begun producing material in Hungarian for the first time in decades, driven by concerns at declining media plurality and press freedom in the fellow European Union member.

The move comes months after the United States’ Radio Free Europe, another post-war initiative designed to spread Western values to information-starved listeners behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, also resumed Hungarian services.

“We are seeing that media diversity and press freedom are getting worse all the time in Hungary,” said Peter Limbourg, DW’s director general.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government has been criticised by rights groups for keeping the media on a tight rein with a mixture of direct control, directed advertising spend, and regulation.

The country has fallen 33 spots in Reporters without Borders’ Press Freedom ranking over the past seven years. This month, Klubradio, the last pro-opposition radio station, went off air after losing its broadcasting licence.

DW’s move, reminiscent of the Cold War heyday of international broadcasting, when government-backed international stations from both sides of the Iron Curtain competed to spread their view of the world, has drawn fierce reaction.

“DW is deeply biased and has been fuelling irrational Orbánophobia for years. If that’s what you call German ‘public service’ media, then we are deeply concerned about media pluralism in DE (Germany),” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said in an emailed response.

“Having the audacity to bring us otherwise deprived, unenlightened Hungarians ‘real stories’ from Berlin, is another sad example of the left-liberal German media’s embodiment of the dictatorship of opinion. The arrogance is breathtaking.”

Limbourg was nonplussed at Hungary’s criticism of the decision, which was taken by the broadcaster’s board, independently of the German government.

“I was surprised,” he said. “Reacting even before they’d seen what we’ll produce. Reacting like that certainly doesn’t suggest great self-assurance.”

DW has produced content for other EU countries, including Bulgaria, Poland and Romania for decades, but broadcasts to Hungary stopped in 2000, 11 years after the fall of communism in central and eastern Europe.

The BBC World Service and Radio France International also ended broadcasts to most of the region after the Cold War.

DW’s offering will start small, with shows being uploaded to a dedicated Hungarian-language YouTube channel from the end of March. Limbourg said it had been allocated a budget in the “mid six figures” range.

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