By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's media authority said on Friday it would not automatically renew the licence of an opposition radio station, stoking fresh concerns about media freedom under Prime Minister Viktor Orban's nationalist government.
Klub Radio is one of a dwindling number of outlets critical of Orban, whose growing control of the media is among various issues that have prompted strong criticism from the European Union over the rule of law in Hungary.
The station, where opposition politicians and talk show guests often criticise government policies, can re-apply for the licence, due to expire in February 2021, but will have to compete for it, the Media Council said. If it loses, it will be able to broadcast online only.
Klub lost national licences several years ago. It is popular among left-wing Budapest intellectuals but reaches only about 200,000 people daily.
The Media Council, made up of government appointees, cited a string of regulatory offences by Klub radio in its current seven-year licence term. It did not specify the offences.
Klub radio disputed the regulatory offences, adding it would try to "ensure that the last remaining radio channel reaching hundred of thousands of Hungarians with credible information is not silenced".
Agnes Urban, head of the Mertek Media Monitor think-tank, said the move amounted to "executing Klub Radio... The systematic eradication of media freedom in Hungary is underway."
Orban has long been under EU pressure to reverse reforms of the media, judiciary, education and non-governmental organisations that Brussels says undermine democracy. He rejects such criticism and has refused to change tack.
The main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament has suspended Orban's Fidesz party over its perceived backsliding on democracy.
Several media outlets including the largest independent print and online publications have been shut or taken over in recent years by government-friendly owners.
The main independent news outlet index.hu lost nearly its entire reporting staff when a pro-government operative took it over earlier this year.
The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) said the EU must take action.
Its deputy director, Scott Griffen, said the EU celebrates "press freedom and fair market competition... yet has so far failed to defend these values in Hungary".
Critics of Orban have called for the disbursement of EU aid to be linked to respect for democratic norms, but EU leaders in July approved a massive coronavirus recovery aid package and a multi-annual budget with only watered-down language on such conditionality, a move hailed by Budapest as a victory.
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Gareth Jones)