Hungary's leading independent radio station Klubradio lost an appeal Tuesday to keep its broadcasting licence after the country's media regulator said it had infringed administrative rules, raising new press freedom concerns in the EU member state.
The station, whose news and talk content is often critical of the Hungarian government, will continue broadcasting online from Monday, Andras Arato, head of Klubradio, told AFP.
"The decision, although expected, was a political one, shameful and cowardly," said Arato, adding that the station would file an appeal in the Supreme Court and consider legal action at the European level.
In September Hungary's media regulator NMHH said Klubradio, which broadcasts mainly in Budapest, had "repeatedly infringed" rules by twice submitting late documents about its output, and refused to extend its seven-year operating licence which expires on February 14.
The station accused the regulator of discrimination for overlooking similar infringements in other licensing decisions, and appealed to the Metropolitan Court in Budapest to force the body to issue a temporary broadcasting licence.
But the court said that the NMHH's decision was "correct" and noted that Klubradio had not legally challenged infringing the rules so a ruling on issuing a temporary licence was "outside its remit".
The disputed frequency was put up for tender by NMHH after its September decision, and Klubradio and two other stations have applied.
But a final decision is not expected for several months, a delay that Klubradio say will cost them both advertiser revenue and listeners, although it plans to bolster its online presence.
The station, which began broadcasting in the 1990s, had to fight a series of legal battles to stay on air soon after Prime Minister Viktor Orban's right-wing government came to power in 2010.
For several years, it operated on rolling short-term licences, which the station said made attracting advertisers difficult.
The powerful NMHH, whose heads are close to Orban's ruling Fidesz party, insists it is not politically driven.
But its treatment of Klubradio adds to concerns about press freedom and political pressure from Orban on independent media.
- 'Another silenced voice' -
"Another silenced voice in Hungary. Another sad day for media freedom," said Dunja Mijatovic, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, in a Twitter post.
The United States, which under President Joe Biden has vowed a renewed focus on democracy, said it shared concerns on "the steady decline of media freedom in Hungary."
The loss of Klubradio's license "would mark the departure of yet another independent voice from Hungary's public debate and is yet another blow to media pluralism in Hungary," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
"We encourage the Hungarian government to promote an open media environment, and uphold the rule of law and principles of transparency," he added.
A spokeswoman for the French foreign ministry said it was "a very worrying signal in terms of pluralism and media independence."
"We call on Hungary to respect its European commitments in this area," she said.
Last year media watchdog Reporters Without Borders dropped Hungary 16 points in its annual World Press Freedom Index to 89th place citing a "sharp decline in media freedom".
The Klubradio decision "fits into a long pattern of pro-government bodies using legal tools to stifle critical voices," Gabor Polyak, an analyst at the Mertek Media Monitor think tank, told AFP.
In recent years most independent outlets have either gone out of business or been bought by government allies while receiving lucrative flows of state advertising.
State-run media outlets, including the news agency, meanwhile have been accused of turning into government propaganda organs.
According to international election observers in 2018, the EU member's "lopsided media landscape" and "restricted access to information" helped Orban win a third straight term since 2010.
The next election is scheduled for early next year with current polls showing Orban's ruling Fidesz party neck-and-neck with an alliance of six opposition parties.