BUDAPEST -- On a recent day, in a boisterous studio here, the Klubradio host Gyorgy Bolgar warmed up his audience with a barrage of defiant complaints against the government.
Mr. Bolgar, a gentlemanly Rush Limbaugh of the left, opined that the rightist party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban was undermining the national currency, imposing a nonsensical "weather forecast" tax on broadcasters, and muzzling the news media. Listeners accused the government of being power hungry and vengeful.
"Orban is very clever, but very evil," a listener said. "We're dealing with arrogance on such a scale here that Mount Everest is a molehill in comparison."
Such mudslinging would seem a healthy sign of a free and vibrant news media in this former Communist country, except that Klubradio has found itself at the center of what its director, Andras Arato, calls a government-backed war to weaken and silence the station.
The clash has become emblematic of what critics call a bald attempt by the Orban government to tighten its grip on the news media, the judiciary, the central bank and education, and the inability of the European Union, which Hungary joined in 2004, to restrain a government not cleaving to the bloc's democratic standards.
For two years, Hungary's news media council, which hands out radio frequencies and is stacked with Mr. Orban's supporters, refused to renew Klubradio's long-term frequency, despite three court rulings in the station's favor. Instead, it initially awarded Klubradio's frequency to an unknown broadcaster that then mysteriously disappeared.
The regulator consistently came up with seemingly spurious arguments to avoid granting the license, Mr. Arato said, including deeming Klubradio's application invalid because the blank back pages were not signed. The broadcaster operated for two years on two-month licenses, bleeding cash because the uncertainty scared away advertisers. Advertising revenue plummeted to $10,000 a month from $200,000 in 2008, and today the station is barely scraping by.
Late last week -- after the fourth court ruling, a grass-roots campaign by thousands of listeners and mounting international pressure -- the council finally backed down and awarded Klubradio the long-term frequency.
"The government doesn't like to hear any criticism," Mr. Arato said. "So it tried to starve us to death."
Among the biggest concerns to Mr. Orban's critics is a restrictive news media law, which has come under criticism from the European Commission, the Council of Europe and press watchdog groups for giving the governing party excessive control over the regulation of news media outlets.
The government has responded by revising the law, including a provision that would have given police officials the power to demand the name of a journalist's source.
Journalists remain wary, but opinion is also divided as to how seriously anyone can muzzle the news media in the age of Twitter and Facebook.
"Under Communism, there was one state channel, and the government could stop it," said Akos Balogh, editor in chief of Mandiner, a liberal Web site. "But now if you try and block anything, it will just come out some other way. So the reaction to the media laws is as exaggerated as the law itself."
Mr. Orban, a charismatic father of five whose bold call for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary in 1989 made him a regional hero, is now being recast as an authoritarian intent on eroding the checks and balances of democratic government. Since coming to power in 2010 with a two-thirds majority, he has adroitly tapped into widespread discontent with a post-1989 order that many Hungarians feel has failed to deliver on its promises.
Last week, Mr. Orban's party, Fidesz, defied warnings from the European Union and the U.S. State Department and pushed through an amendment to a new Fidesz-drafted constitution that, among other things, discards the rulings of the constitutional court made before 2012.
That move followed Mr. Orban's appointment in early March of a close ally to head the central bank, his former economics minister, Gyorgy Matolcsy; the decision raised concerns that the bank would become open to political interference.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany last week warned that the government should not "abuse" its parliamentary majority, and the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, has announced an inquiry into the latest constitutional changes.
The Hungarian government, for its part, insists that it has a strong mandate and has accused the Union of interfering in Budapest's domestic affairs.
Peter Hack, professor of constitutional law at the Budapest university ELTE, argued that with its current constitutional setup, Hungary would never have been admitted to the Union. "But now that it's in, it thinks it can do what it wants."
Despite the news media law revisions, analysts say too much regulatory power remains concentrated in the news media council, all of whose members were appointed by the Fidesz-dominated Parliament for nine-year terms.
Andras Koltay, a lawyer and member of the council, argued that the nine-year appointments guaranteed the independence of the council in the longer term. He said that he was not a member of any political party and that the council had come under no government pressure in the Klubradio case. Moreover, he said, all of the council's decisions had been based on strict adherence to the letter of the law.
Ferenc Kumin, a government spokesman, added that the council had not once used its regulatory power to impose fines or to silence opposition voices. He noted that nearly 75 percent of the Hungarian news media was foreign-owned, so the notion of the government's controlling the news media was ill conceived. Klubradio, he added, had engaged in a disingenuous campaign to present itself as a martyr for press freedom.
But critics remain unconvinced; Peter Molnar, who teaches free speech at Central European University in Budapest, said Klubradio showed that the council was an "arbitrary" regulator in thrall to the government.
Mr. Molnar further charged that the government and powerful state-owned companies, which spend an estimated €16.4 million, or $21.3 million, annually on advertising, disproportionately favor pro-government media outlets.
Andras Kosa, a journalist with the online edition of HVG, a center-left weekly magazine that often criticizes the Orban government, said self-censorship had become rife in the publicly financed news media, in particular on state television, which he said showed "idealized pictures of cabinet ministers opening new factories and solving problems" that, he said, were reminiscent of Communist times.
But he emphasized that this was more than offset by vast and varied privately owned media and countless Web sites and blogs, where opposition voices are loud and fierce. He noted that HVG last year reported that former President Pal Schmitt, a former Olympic gold medalist and member of Fidesz, had plagiarized his doctoral thesis, resulting in his resignation, and felt no pressure or censorship from the government.
"You can be as critical as you want," he said.
Anna Salyi contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.