Budapest, Hungary - "Every time I come to work, these stones remind me of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," Gábor Csabai says, referring to the 1973 album by Elton John, as he walks on the yellow cobblestones of the courtyard that leads to Tilos Radio's studio.
Tilos Radio began broadcasting in Budapest as a pirate station in 1991, shortly after the 45-year Soviet occupation of Hungary ended. Since then, it has served as a pillar of the alternative community in this central European capital. Commercials have never appeared in its programming, and the majority of the staff are volunteers.
Csabai has served as the director of Tilos since 1993, working to "provide Budapest with a forum for discussion on the matters facing the city".
"Our radio is a mirror of social diversity in Hungary," he told Al Jazeera. "Since our programmes are broadcast live, absolutely anyone can call in. Half of the city is capable of participating in a discussion."
|Listening Post - Feature: Hungary's media battle
The different cultural currents of the city are represented by the wide array of music programming and talk radio broadcasts in French, Spanish, English and Chinese.
Owing to their commitment to diversity, Tilos and many other stations have set Hungary above the rest of the post-Soviet nations in the realm of community radio.
However, due to sweeping new media laws passed in 2010 by the nationalist-conservative Fidesz party and its two-thirds majority in parliament, that may soon come to an end.
The laws have redefined what it means to be a community radio station, imposed burdensome regulations and sanctions, as well as lengthened the application process for licences and changed the media landscape through the reallocation of broadcast frequencies and public funds.
A step back
Two regulatory bodies were created to enforce the laws, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority of Hungary (NMHH) and the Media Council. The director of the NMHH and the five members of the Media Council are all appointed to renewable terms of nine years by a two-thirds majority. This means only Fidesz can make appointments to both.
These bodies are responsible for investigating stations that are granted community radio status to ensure that they conform to the new regulations. Many have expressed concern at their lack of independence from Fidesz, saying the laws are a move to centralise control of the media and silence dissent.
"The Hungarian government remains committed to freedom of the press, and in no way wishes to stifle the opposition's views…The [law] does not contain any element that has not been a well-established part of legislation in most European countries," Dr Tibor Navracsics, the minister of public administration and justice, said in the government's official response to the international criticism.
However, the Center for Media and Communication Studies (CMCS) produced a report disputing these claims. "The changes fly in the face of trends at the European level," said Kate Coyer, a researcher at CMCS. "Hungary is going in the opposite direction of what's being encouraged by everyone from UNESCO to the Council of Europe. It's the only country I can think of that is moving backwards."
Concentration through reallocation
In 2010, some 68 community radio stations were on the air. A year after the new media laws came into effect the number had fallen to 44, according to Community Media Forum Europe, an umbrella organisation of non-profit media groups.
A large part of this is due to the tendering process that licenses frequencies to community radio. "People were afraid that it was the punitive part of the law that would change the media landscape, but it was the licensing power of the Media Council," said Miklós Haraszti, the former OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) representative on freedom of the media.
"It wasn't until the fourth attempt that our application was accepted," Csabai reflected on the tender process. "Many stations, those close to the party and the church, were authorised on their first application."
Research conducted by the Mertek Media Monitor confirms that religious- and party-affiliated stations are given preferential treatment, furthering concerns about media centralisation. For instance, international Catholic station Rádió Mária, Hungarian Reformed Church station Európa Rádió, and right-wing news station Lánchíd Rádió have all gained sizable frequency shares since the new laws were enacted.
Lack of funds
The closing of community radio stations was not entirely due to the new legislation. Coyer told Al Jazeera that "some stations that closed their doors would have closed anyway because of the economic crisis".
However, the laws have worsened the difficulties facing small stations. In economically difficult times, public funds are being disproportionately awarded to stations close to Fidesz.
"These stations receive funding from the government for broadcasting equipment and other operation costs," said Gábor Géczi, a presenter at the local community station Civil Rádió. "Until 2010, there were many public funds that we could apply for, but now it's over."
If [Fidesz] wins again we don't think they will have any interest in keeping us around.
The tendering process also came with a sudden new charge. "The tender fee is now 8,000 euros [$10,800]. Previous to the 2011 media laws, it was only 325 euros [$440]. We found out about this change 40 days before the application was due," said Ákos Cserháti, director of Civil Rádió.
Certain regulations almost require that community stations hire full-time employees. One requirement stipulates that every Monday, a spreadsheet containing 25,000 cells must be sent detailing the programming scheduled for the following week.
"It would take someone eight hours a day, six days a week to do this," Csabai said. "We simply don't have the money to pay them."
Both Tilos and Civil Rádió have learned to cope with the lack of funds and unexpected charges. Civil Rádió is running a campaign to raise money for continuing its broadcasts, and Tilos decided in 2013 to rely completely on financial support from its listeners, fundraisers and European institutions in order to maintain independence.
The challenges that community stations now face cast doubt on their futures. Tilos' license expires in November 2014 and Csabai does not expect to be awarded another. "If [Fidesz] wins again we don't think they will have any interest in keeping us around."
Hungary will hold parliamentary elections in April, and Fidesz is expected to keep its large majority. Nevertheless, Tilos is preparing for this and plans to continue broadcasting online.
Civil Rádió is in a more secure position, as their license is valid until 2019. Though the station is not comfortable with the political situation, it is committed to continue broadcasting.
"We wouldn't say the government has taken away our voice - they are only making it harder to hear. But the voice of the community is the basic element of democracy," Cserháti concluded. "We will always try to make it heard."