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Radio Free Europe gears for relaunch in Hungary

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the U.S. government-funded organization that broadcasts news and analysis to countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East “where a free press is banned or not fully established,” is set to restart in Hungary, following recent relaunches in Bulgaria and Romania.

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During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe - whose motto is “Free Media in Unfree Societies” - was broadcast to Soviet satellite countries. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it wound up the service in Hungary in 1993, considering the collapse of communism to be mission accomplished, recalls a report in The New York Times (NYT) dated September 6. 

The article comments that the move to relaunch the service by the U.S. Agency for Global Media, an independent federal agency, reflects Hungary’s drift away from a free and open government under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, adding that it may also be seen as a blow to U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to forge a closer relationship with the government of Hungary.

The service’s relaunch in Hungary still awaits approval by the U.S. Congress, but that may come this month, the paper adds.

“We’ve done our homework, and we know this has broad backing, and we’re preparing to move forward,” the agency’s chief, John Lansing, is cited as saying. He adds that the service’s initial budget could run up to USD 750,000, and that a bureau would be established in Hungary. He expects a soft launch of the service in May 2020, with a hard launch one year from now.

The NYT notes that Orbán’s allies control the public media and most of the country’s private news media. Earlier this summer, a report prepared for the European Commission found that the Central European Press and Media Foundation (Közép-Európai Sajtó és Média Alapítvány - KESMA), the centralized pro-government media conglomerate established by the governing Fidesz party in November 2018, endangers press freedom and plurality in Hungary.

Diplomatic concerns

David B. Cornstein, the U.S. ambassador to Budapest, has reportedly sought assurances from Radio Free Europe that its service would not focus on negative stories about the Hungarian government, or investigative journalism, and that it would not undermine his efforts as ambassador, according to American officials cited by the NYT.

At the same time, the paper stresses that the U.S. International Broadcasting Act prohibits American government officials, including Cornstein, from interfering in Radio Free Europe’s reporting.

“It’s literally illegal for the U.S. government to interfere in our editorial independence,” Lansing is cited as saying.

The NYT notes that since Orbán’s return to power in 2010, Hungary has plummeted in the World Press Freedom Index, the annual ranking of countries’ press freedom by the group Reporters Without Borders. In 2015, Hungary ranked 65th out of 180 countries on the index, falling from 23rd on a list of 173 countries when the present regime came to power in 2010. In the latest 2019 ranking, Hungary has plunged further to 87th out of 180.

At the same time, the article notes that Hungary is not alone in the region, noting that Radio Free Europe has already relaunched in Bulgaria and Romania this year, despite all three countries being members of the European Union and NATO. It notes that the three countries rank among the most corrupt in the EU, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

The article also notes that Hungary, unlike Romania and Bulgaria, remains the only EU member to be downgraded to “partly free” by Freedom House, an American democracy watchdog organization.

Russian influence

Péter Krekó, director of Political Capital, a Budapest-based think tank and consultancy, is quoted by the NYT as saying that Orbán has modeled Hungary’s centralized media structure on the example set by Russia. He accuses Hungary’s pro-government media of adopting many of the Kremlin narratives found on Sputnik News and RT.

“Orban has already mentioned Russia several times as a model state,” Krekó observes. “Orban’s policies in education, media and toward NGOs are obviously inspired by Putin.”

This year, the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations encouraged the restart of Radio Free Europe’s service in Central and Eastern Europe “to counter the Kremlin narrative and combat corruption,” recalls the NYT. Bipartisan legislation introduced in the House in May called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to bolster efforts in Hungary against corruption and Russian influence, and to strengthen the independent news media and civic groups.

“There is a growing understanding on both sides of the aisle now that there are challenges to democracy and the rule of law in countries like Hungary and Poland,” Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, is cited as saying in the NYT report.