By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent reporting from Budapest
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– Hungary’s government has admitted it has a serious corruption problem following the sudden closure of radio stations by Hungarian authorities. Ambassadors of nine wealthy nations, including Germany, have warned Hungary that foreign investors could be scared off.
Last week listeners to Hungary’s only two nationwide commercial radio stations suddenly found themselves having to tune into a different channel. The country’s national broadcasting authority, ORTT, had unexpectedly pulled the plug on Slager Radio and its smaller rival network Danubius Radio.
Their frequencies were given to two broadcasters with close ties to the ruling Socialists and the main center-right opposition party Fidesz. ORTT president Laszlo Majtenyi resigned in protest.
Shortly before the US-owned Slager station went off-air, managing director Edina Heal told her listeners that authorities had misused their power.
“Dear friends, this is a sad day,” she said her voice trembling. “After 12 years Slager Radio will have to leave. We will fight this decision because it is fundamentally flawed, and our millions of listeners deserve better. May God bless you…”
But the governing Socialists and the opposition Fidesz party are not impressed by Heal’s cries for justice. They have been uncharacteristically united in defending the decision to ban the station from the airwaves.
Fidesz said politicians demanding a parliamentary investigation represent only narrow foreign economic interests. But that is at odds with data provided by US-based Emmis Communications which won the broadcasting licence for Slager Radio in 1997.
The company said it invested 170 million dollars in Hungary, employed an all-Hungarian staff and operated in “a completely transparent and politically non-partisan manner.”
Emmis submitted a license-renewal application in late September, promising 11.5 percent of net revenue as a license fee. Danubius Radio’s operators pledged 15 percent.
But rivals offering between 50 and 55 percent of revenue won the bids. Media observers, however, believe they will funnel money to political parties rather than putting it into the public purse where it belongs.
This is not an isolated case. Recently representatives of French group Suez Environment were knocking at closed doors after the local council of the southern town of Pecs seized control of its waterworks. Municipal authorities had granted Suez a minority, 48-percent stake, in the plant until 2020. But then in October it terminated the French firm’s contract and passed control of the city’s water utilities to a new local company.
Last week, ambassadors of nine wealthy nations including Germany and France met with Hungarian Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai to express concern about the situation. He admitted that his country has a transparency problem.
“I have assured the ambassadors that my government will immediately investigate any complaint relating to foreign investments,” Bajnai said.
The talks followed an open letter from the embassies of the nine countries denouncing “non-transparent behavior affecting investors in such areas as public utilities, broadcasting and elements of the nation’s transport infrastructure.”
Speaking for the group, French ambassador to Hungary, Rene Roudaut, defended the letter. “At the meeting we made it clear that our message did not include any element of aggression. It was rather a call to respect laws and transparency … especially in tender procedures… The prime minister did not take (our declaration) as an accusation of the government, but as a general observation which he entirely shares,” he explained
As diplomatic wrangling and court cases continue, people in Budapest have started taking matters in their own hands. There have been rallies in support of Slager Radio and Danubius Radio. Protesters expressed their sadness that networks they grew up with are no longer there. Noisy car drivers joined in, as they miss the pop music they came to like while standing in the capital’s notorious traffic jams.
It seems difficult for authorities to silence their voices.
Western ambassadors have warned there is little time for Hungary to change “non-transparent” behaviour saying it could discourage foreign investments at a time when the country is suffering its deepest recession in years.
Hungary’s central bank says foreign direct investment in Hungary already declined from 4.4 billion euros in 2008, to 1.5 billion euros this year. BosNewsLife’s NEWS WATCH is a regular look at key news developments in especially (former) Communist nations and/or other autocratic countries impacting the Church and/or compassionate professionals. Parts of this BosNewsLife News story also airs via the Deutsche Welle network. Listen to Bos report via http://dw3d.de/dw/article/0,,4941964,00.html ).