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EU Criticized For Slow Response To Hungary's Crackdown On Press Freedom


One of Hungary's last remaining independent radio stations was taken off the radio. It's the latest blow to press freedom in Hungary. The European Union has condemned this action. But critics say the EU has been slow to punish Hungary for repeatedly violating democratic principles. Here's NPR's Rob Schmitz.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: On February 14, Budapest's Klubradio broadcast its news program to 3 1/2 million people, more than a third of the population of Hungary, like it has for more than two decades. The next day, it was pulled off the air.

MIHALY HARDY: We have lost about 60 to 70% of our usual audience.

SCHMITZ: Klubradio head of news Mihaly Hardy says his most devoted listeners still tune in through the web.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: They're accustomed to their beloved station's precarious political situation. Eleven years ago, Klubradio lost 90% of its revenue shortly after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban came to power and ordered all state-backed companies to stop advertising over independent media. Its listeners stepped up with a pledge drive that to this day funds 90% of the station's operating costs. Hardy explains why.

HARDY: About 80% of the media coverage in Hungary is provided by either government-owned or government-run or pro-government media. That includes 470 newspapers, TV stations, radios, websites, et cetera. We are the last major surviving independent radio station.

SCHMITZ: A spokesman for Viktor Orban emailed NPR a statement that read, the recent decision regarding Klubradio is of legal nature by the independent judiciary. In Hungary, the principle of separation of powers prevails. Hardy says this couldn't be further from the truth. He says Orban's crackdown on the free press has been going on for 10 years, and the European Union's response has been slow and weak.

HARDY: The EU just sent in committees. They investigated. Then they filed reports. Then they made some speeches at the European Parliament. But nothing really happened.

SCHMITZ: The EU's tepid response to Viktor Orban's chipping away of democratic institutions in Hungary is complacency at the highest level, says Judy Dempsey from the think tank Carnegie Europe.

JUDY DEMPSEY: And it is extraordinary because the whole architecture of the European Union was built on the fundamental issue of values, freedom of the press, division of powers, accountability, independent judiciary, checks and balances. And Orban has actually made a mockery of these values.

SCHMITZ: Dempsey and Hardy say German Chancellor Angela Merkel, if she wanted to, would have enough political and economic leverage to lead an EU-wide opposition to Orban. For years, Orban's Fidesz party was allowed to remain in the same political bloc in the European Parliament as Merkel's center-right party, helping to maintain the dominance of that bloc. On top of that, many big German companies do business in Hungary. But they say that could also be the reason why Germany hasn't done much about Orban's tightening grip on power in Hungary.

ELMAR BROK: Excuse me when I say this argument is really stupid and can come only from think tankers. They are more tank than think.

SCHMITZ: Elmar Brok sits on the board of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union Party and is the former chairman of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs. He says much of Orban's political strategy is to defend Hungary from what he deems as external enemies.

BROK: Do you think Orban would just give in because Germany is so big? I know Viktor Orban since 1988. I was the first person who brought him to Brussels.

SCHMITZ: Back then, Orban was a young, liberal leader who advocated for democracy. Over time, Brok says his friend changed. And he gradually used resentment in his own country towards the EU and weaponized it to remain in power.

BROK: It's a strategy to be unpopular in Europe and to be blamed in order to win the elections.

SCHMITZ: Brok is no longer friends with Orban. A couple of years ago, he stood up during a European Parliament meeting while Orban was in the room to declare that he was ending his personal relationship with the Hungarian leader. Brok says it's been emotionally difficult for him to see a man who he once considered a good friend go so far to betray the democratic principles of Europe. And he says there is a limit to what the EU can do to stop Orban.

BROK: When we call on such countries to go with the rule of law, then we can only use, on a European level, what our legal instruments give to us.

SCHMITZ: For example, there is a way to suspend the rights of an EU member state that violates the bloc's core values, it's Article 7 of the treaty of the EU. But it requires a unanimous vote. And Brok says Poland, another member state whose ruling party is chipping away at its democratic institutions, would veto such a move. Brok says he's worked to try and do away with the Article 7 veto rule to no avail. Katalin Cseh, a member of the European Parliament and the main opposition party in Hungary, says the EU's inability to act against Hungary and Poland means that more countries are now susceptible to anti-democratic political movements.

KATALIN CSEH: We very often talk about Hungary and Poland. But there are very worrying signs elsewhere in Slovenia, in Bulgaria. And if the EU does not take action to put an end to this, it can become a very contagious effect. And the entire stability of the union could be undermined.

SCHMITZ: Cseh says there is hope. At the end of last year, the EU adopted a rule-of-law-conditionality mechanism. It means if the rule of law in any EU member state is being violated, then the bloc can stop the flow of EU money to that particular member state. Its use against Hungary could cost it billions in EU funding as the country prepares for elections next year. And just yesterday, Orban's Fidesz party was forced to withdraw from that center-right bloc that dominates in the European Parliament. Cseh says this all comes a decade too late. But it's better late than never.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAUSCHKA'S "WHO LIVED HERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.