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 unzensuriert.at, 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 unzensuriert.at, 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.