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RFE/RL Reopens in Hungary Amid Press Freedom Decline

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a global media network funded by the US government, relaunched in Hungary on September 8th. The Hungarian Service of RFE/RL ceased its operations in the country after the end of the Cold War, but returns in 2020 as Hungary has witnessed a drop in media freedom.

Since this week, the list of countries with RFE/RL operations includes Hungary again. On September 8th, the organization launched a publication called “Szabad Európa” (“Free Europe”). Unlike during the Cold War, it does not operate an analogue radio station; instead, “Szabad Európa” runs a website and social media accounts, as well as podcasts and a morning newsletter. The Hungarian Service RFE/RL will be led by Gyula Csák, a journalist and media manager who previously worked with Euronews and BBC.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a US government-funded organization, operates in countries “where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established”. Established after the Second World War, it played a prominent role in translating the West’s point of view and helping circumvent state censorship in socialist countries during the Cold War.

After the Cold War’s end and the subsequent democratization of the CEE region, RFE/RL downscaled its operations in Europe and exited numerous countries, including Hungary in 1993. Today it operates in 23 countries in Eastern Europe (Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine), Middle East and Central Asia.

In the past couple of years Hungary has witnessed a noticeable decline in media freedom. According to the RFE/RL statement, it “announced plans to return [to Hungary] in 2019, as declining media pluralism and disinformation degraded the information landscape”.

Over the past years, “Reporters Without Borders” downgraded Hungary to the 89th place in the World Press Freedom Index compared with the 56th place in 2013. Recent months have seen this trend exacerbated, most notably with the collapse of Index.hu, Hungary’s largest independent online newspaper. (Former Index.hu employees, who resigned in protest of the chief editor’s dismissal, have launched a new publication, Telex.hu)

The launch of “Szabad Európa” is part of a broader expansion announced by RFE/RL last year. Apart from Hungary, the network reopened in 2019 in two other EU countries, Bulgaria and Romania, which have also seen a decline in press freedom.

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