Austria: A nation shrouded in secrecy


Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Credit: European People's Party/Flickr

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Credit: European People’s Party/Flickr

In an email sent to all regional police departments on 24 September 2018, Austria’s Ministry of the Interior suggested limiting communication with “certain media outlets”, including the weekly news magazine Falter and the daily newspaper Der Standard.

The ministry was quick to clarify that Herbert Kickl of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), who heads the department, had nothing to do with the email, but that it was the work of a ministry spokesperson. It stressed that it supports “fair co-operation with all media outlets” and announced that new guidelines for media transparency are in the works.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and president Alexander Van der Bellen also immediately distanced themselves from the email, making it clear that any restrictions on press freedom are unacceptable. However, Austria is the last country in the European Union where official secrecy outweighs the right to know on a constitutional level. The Global Right to Information Rating ranks the country in the bottom 10 globally for the right to access information held by public authorities.

The country’s General Information Act, which regulates the right to apply for information, does not guarantee journalists and NGOs a general right of access. As a result, state bodies are free to refuse information without having to justify their decision.

Current regulation offers much room for interpretation, leaving public officials with scant guidance on deciding whether to make the requested information public. Despite a recommendation in 2008 by the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption monitoring body to introduce clearer criteria on what kind of information can be limited, reform has yet to materialise.

As any breach of official secrecy law could result in mandatory resignation, public officials seldom exercise their duty to inform. This leads to secrecy being the rule and informing the exception. Journalists also have no guaranteed right to access government documents.

Mathias Huter, secretary general of Forum Informationsfreiheit, a right-to-know NGO, told Index on Censorship that the lack of a freedom of information act undermines the ability of journalists to investigate, making it difficult to hold politicians accountable.

“Investigative reporting remains highly dependent on leaks from inside the administration,” he said. “These leaks, however, usually only tell one part of the story – and often support a government narrative.”

In 2013 Kurz, then State Secretary for Integration, endorsed a campaign to introduce a transparency act. While the campaign itself evolved into the establishment of Forum Informationsfreiheit, Kurz’s enthusiasm for the issue has since waned.

“Kurz has so far failed to deliver on his promise to advance government transparency,” Mathias Huter, secretary general of Forum Informationsfreiheit, told Index. “At the same time, his party has supported several initiatives that expand surveillance and reduce civic space. There is no indication that the ruling parties have any interest in abolishing the official secrecy provision in the Austrian constitution and to replace it with a right to information.”

Restrictions on access to information leave media outlets vulnerable to political attempts to influence news coverage. Florian Skrabal, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the investigative journalism platform Dossier, told Index: “This information asymmetry bears the risk of political alliances forming. Information becomes a good you can bargain with. Every now and then, the phenomenon of journalists with valuable contacts with high-ranking public officials, who suddenly get exclusive information, shows the existence of such political alliances.”

Even if a law granting access to information was in place, Skrabal says it would take years to change the existing culture of treating information as a public good rather than the property of a public body.

Speaking at Austria Österreichische Medientage, an annual conference for media, marketing, communications professionals, in September 2018,  Christian Rainer, editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Profil, described the Ministry of the Interior’s email as an exposure of a practice that usually happens silently, behind closed doors and is not publicly discussed.

But such practice isn’t limited to the current government. In 2016 former chancellor of the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), Christian Kern, temporarily boycotted Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF), the Austrian national public service broadcaster. In 2017 he refused to give interviews to or book ads in the daily tabloid Österreich during the election campaign after the paper published an article deemed too personal and offensive. The article included a leaked email which was sent to former SPÖ political adviser Tal Silberstein describing Kern as a “princess” and “insecure”.

Also speaking at Austria Österreichische Medientage was Wolfgang Fellner, founder and editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Österreich, highlighted how existing relationships between political parties and certain media outlets — in particular Kronen Zeitung, the largest print media in Austria — affect journalistic practices: “The interior ministry feeds the Kronen Zeitung with exclusive stories, which, in return, is rewarded with positive news coverage.”

“The interior ministry’s email shows the attitude and culture prevalent in Austria regarding information as a negotiable good,” Skrabal told Index. “A journalist becomes a supplicant for information. The leaked email is simply a revelation of an existing mindset on how politicians communicate with the media. That is to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ media and, on that basis, to weigh who is eligible to get informed and who does not.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1543917445052-57c4ff25-a62a-6″ taxonomies=”6564″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Austria: Government’s altering of media landscape raises concern


Sebastian Kurz in Brussels, February 2017. Credit: Dragan Tatic

Sebastian Kurz in Brussels, February 2017. Credit: Flickr / Dragan Tatic

The new populist government wants to bring major change to Austrian society. Major shifts are expected in the country’s media landscape.

Many experts such as the president of the Austrian Journalism Club (ÖJC), Fred Turnheim, voiced their concerns and warned of the dangers of a democracy-hostile information policy: “This enforced conformity of information coming from the individual ministries and departments of the Federal Government is an authoritarian measure of the Federal Chancellery and contradicts pluralistic media work in a democratic society.”

Since the government’s inauguration in December 2018, journalists have been publicly attacked by politicians and media outlets defamed for critical journalism. Financial cuts on public media outlets are also on the government’s agenda. Hannes Tretter, co-founder of the think tank Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights, says: “According to Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, governments must not only respect but guarantee the freedom of the media that is based on the principles of pluralism, diversity, tolerance and broadmindedness. Only these principles can enable citizens to have access to a variety of information and opinions which is essential for a living democratic society. Thus, any attacks against journalists have to be examined diligently on the basis of these measures.”

Changes in Austria’s media policy became apparent at the first joint press conference of Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the People’s Party (ÖVP) and vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), when they announced they would no longer meet directly with the press, as has been the tradition in Austria. Instead, former diplomat Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal has been named an official government spokesperson. While this structure is not uncommon around the world, the Austrian arm of Reporters Without Borders and ÖJC raised concerns, saying that the decision could be a way for politicians to avoid questions and undermine the public’s right to information. ÖJC president Fred Turnheim addressed the chancellor directly in a press release: “As journalists, our work is based on first-hand information. If you want to avoid false interpretations, you need to dissolve the function of the governmental spokesperson.”

Concerns for restrictions on access to information for journalists intensified in February 2018 when Kurz declared the dissolution of the Federal Press Service (Bundespressedienst), which was founded in 1920 and serves as the focal point of communication between the Federal Chancellery and the press.

Concerning the former far-right opposition party, FPÖ has been well known for criticising the press for what it sees as a liberal bias and lack of objectivity. This criticism of the media came as the party has appointed the former editor-in-chief of online portal, Alexander Höferl, as head of communications at the interior ministry. Unzensuriert publishes a stream of manipulative and conspiracy-driven news pieces that mainly target migrants, Muslims and political opponents of the FPÖ, as an analysis of the magazine Profil shows.

Now, as a coalition partner, FPÖ threatens to use its clout in the government to significantly cut Austria’s public media as indicated in the government programme. President of Reporters Without Borders, Rubina Möhring, tells Media Mapping Freedom: “The established professionalised media policy hampers access to information and is as much concerning as the attacks of public media outlets. It is important to note that public media, which is not to be confused with state media, holds the mandate of political independence in service of informing the public and needs to be protected.”

Defaming media outlets and accusing them of manipulating information or suppressing the word of the state has become a tactic to diminish the public’s trust in the press. Several FPÖ ministers, including the infrastructure minister, have declared their dislike for government funding of the country’s public service broadcasting corporation ORF. The vice-chancellor has been most direct by calling the ORF “a place where lies become news”, as Index on Censorship’s Media Mapping Freedom project reported. Terms like “fake news” and “lügenpresse” (lying press) have been taken up not only by nationalist movements but have found their way into Austrian public debates and online forums.

ORF — Austria’s largest media outlet with up to four million viewers in a country of 8.7 million people — is primarily financed through a tax, which the government wants to scrap. While ÖVP has only confirmed plans to reform ORF as indicated in the government programme, Strache said: “We want to abolish the ORF excise tax. This is one of the major goals of this government”. ORF editor committee, as well as journalists such as Daniela Kittner, suspect that this is part of the government’s — in particular FPÖ’s — intention to gain political influence through the media sector. On 20 February 2018 the chairmanship of the new ORF supervisory board was consigned to the FPÖ. The current executive committee, which was put in place by the last government, is planned to be restructured as well. Some expect these structural changes of ORF to be part of an effort to weaken public-service broadcasting altogether as media minister Gernot Blümel publicly announced on several occasions that the government intends to strengthen private broadcasters while remaining vague on plans regarding ORF reforms.

Print media — the second biggest source of information in Austria — is also facing difficulties. Wiener Zeitung, the country’s oldest daily newspaper, derives most of its income from public notices that all companies must publish. The coalition government has announced that it intends to end the mandatory requirement. Additionally, the concentrated ownership of the existing 14 daily newspapers and strength of tabloid newspapers undermine the country’s media plurality. The dominant newspaper, tabloid Kronenzeitung, reaches about a third of Austrians. Along with many other print media outlets in Austria, it is reliant on government and political advertising. In 2016 around €16 million was spent by government ministries for advertisement in media outlets. In comparison, Germany spent slightly less despite its significant size difference. Altogether, government ministries, public institutions and enterprises invested around €177 million in political and economic media advertisements in 2016. On the top of the list of beneficiaries is Kronenzeitung. Between April and June 2017, they received €5 million, followed by ORF with €4.9 million. The other two other major tabloid newspapers Österreich and Heute received $3 million each. While concentrated ownership is a structural obstacle to a free and pluralistic media, the large-scale political and economic advertisement industry in Austria adds to the vulnerability of the press to influence by the interests of their donors.

Harald Fiedler, a journalist for Der Standard who regularly writes about the media, highly doubts that Wiener Zeitung will be able to survive. Wolfgang Riedler, the executive director of the newspaper, confirmed in an interview with the newspaper Der Standard that immediate restructuring would be necessary “should the mandatory announcements of companies be abolished. […] If you do not want to lose a quality medium that appears all over Austria, you have to look for a model that will ensure further funding”.

According to anonymous sources of the left-leaning weekly newspaper Der Falter, which itself is continually attacked for its investigative journalism and dismissed as “lügenpresse”, the government plans to close down the public national radio station FM4 due to its “failure to fulfil its educational mandate”. FM4 is well known as an alternative radio station to ORF for young people. While the alleged plans have been dismissed by the ORF and the government, the NGO #aufstehn and Reporters without Borders Austria have started a petition against FM4’s potential shutdown.

Aside from threats to the country’s public media outlets, individual journalists have been singled out for defamation, cyberbullying and restricted access to information.

In the first few weeks of 2018, FPÖ and affiliated youth organisations have published photos and contact details of journalists and actively encouraged its followers to target journalists online. The articles, which were mostly written by far-right media outlets such as Wochenblick, Info-Direkt and, were then shared on Facebook by high-ranking FPÖ politicians, including the vice chancellor. As a result, the journalists involved received numerous difficulties, including Colette Schmidt, a journalist at newspaper Der Standard, and Hanna Herbst, deputy editor-in-chief of the news outlet Vice in Austria, who were both subject to cyberbullying campaigns.

“It is clear to me that the intention is to silence journalists who are critical of the new government. FPÖ in particular has a strong network online which it uses systematically to intimidate journalists. This is the first time I have received threats of such an intensity,” Herbst told Mapping Media Freedom.  

She characterised the harassment as gender specific. “Female journalists are more likely to be objectified and sexually harassed, but to me, it is important to show that those attacks won’t silence me. I have received a lot of solidarity and I plan to take legal action in order to show the illegitimacy of such acts.”

Tretter adds: “Uncovering anti-Semitic and racist statements and activities of fraternities is a legally required obligation of the State, which is based on the Austrian Prohibition Act of 1947 and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Since it is the media’s task in a democratic society to serve as a ‘public watchdog’, journalists shall not be hindered in fulfilling their role.”

In another troubling development, selected media outlets are being excluded from political meetings. Starting in October 2017, when ÖVP denied photographers access to proximity talks, the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) has now denied two newspapers access to a background discussion regarding a topic which both newspapers have previously critically reported on.

Rubina Möhring, president of Reporters without Borders Austria, voices her concerns for the government’s new political direction, but hopes for a strong civil movement to hold against the new political wind. “Attacks on journalists and media outlets are attacks against the right to information and attempts of intimidation are the first steps to an enforced conformity of the media,” she tells Mapping Media Freedom.During World War II, Austria was stripped of press freedom as the protection of censorship by law was repealed. Critical journalism was brutally silenced while the Nazis made excessive use of propaganda news. We don’t want history to repeat itself. This is why now, more than ever, it is important to stand up for our rights as journalists and citizens.”

This article was updated on 9 April 2018 to reflect the correct title of an FPO minister. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1523273223680-be701832-3026-6″ taxonomies=”6564″][/vc_column][/vc_row]