AUSTRIA: As pressure on civil society grows, new coalitions are formed

(The European Civic Forum on CIVICUS Monitor)


During an interview on the public broadcaster ORF in early July, the Minister of Interior Herbert Kickl (from the far-right FPO party) made allegations that certain “self-declared investigative journalists” might become subject of criminal investigations in connection to the scandal surrounding the domestic intelligence services (BVT). The scandal began in March when Kickl suspended Peter Gridling, head of the BVT a few days after the police raided the agency and the private homes of Gridling and other BVT officials as part of a corruption investigation. The allegations of corruption have been denied by the BVT officials.

The raid was allegedly led by a police officer who is close to the FPO and one of the BVT officials who had his home searched was investigating links between the FPO and extreme-right groups. As a result, the opposition claims Gridling’s replacement is part of a plan to increase FPO leverage on the agency, an allegation rejected by the minister. These events are currently being investigated by a parliamentary commission led by the opposition. During the interview, Kickl explained the inconsistencies in the case raised by some journalists. He said that these “self-appointed investigators” are in:

“certain media who every day try to bring some things classified as secret (…) to the public, and there give some (…) very very incomplete representations of the actual facts.” (translated from German)

According to newspaper Kurier, the Minister of Interior dismissed the accusation that this was a threat to freedom of expression. Nevertheless, the statements raised strong criticism from the media. Helmut Brandstätter, editor of Kurier commented:

“Freedom of expression is quickly in danger.”

Rainer Nowak, editor-in-chief of Die Presse said:

“Herbert Kickl plays with fire.”

Barbara Teiber from the journalists’ union said:

“The attacks on journalists are increasing and are currently even coming from the Interior Minister himself. I wonder how long the state leadership will silently accept this method of a ruling party.”

State broadcaster to limit journalists’ freedom to use social media

On 27th June, the director of Austrian public broadcaster ORF, Alexander Wrabetz, put forward a draft proposal for guidelines on ORF journalists’ use of social media. As reported by Reporters Without Borders Austria, under the proposals journalists should avoid expressing political opinions “even in the private sphere”. Also, all “public statements and comments in social media should be avoided, which are to be interpreted as approval, rejection or evaluation of utterances, sympathy, antipathy, criticism and ‘polemics’ towards political institutions, their representatives or members.” The generic phrasing of the guidelines includes social media likes, dislikes or shares. Rubina Möhring, president of Reporters Without Borders, criticised the move, saying:

“This is an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression and the press, fundamental rights such as freedom of expression must also apply to critical voices.”

The European Civic Forum had already reported to the CIVICUS Monitor how journalists in the public broadcaster have come under increasing pressure from the government, which included in its political programme the goal to carry out structural reforms of media institutions, including financing the broadcaster directly through the public budget instead of direct public tax,  an approach which has so far ensured its independence. The measure was greeted with opposition from civil society and Austria’s president Van der Bellen who said it would “set the wrong incentives” and would make the ORF “vulnerable” as “the allocation of political funding would then be based on the reporting behaviour of ORF journalists”.

In response to pressure from the government, civil society organisations focusing on a wide range of sectors from culture to science, as well as business associations, came together to form the platform We, for the ORF in order “to fight against the ORF’s political absorption”. According to Index on censorship, the coalition met in a shadow meeting ahead of the government’s media symposium held on 6th and 7th June 2018 bringing together over 40 organisations in sign of protest against the attempt to reform the ORF.

Bachmair, a member of the platform, told Index on Censorship:

“While the platform’s public appearance in the media is limited, it is an important voice, which it will use to monitor and report on the media developments of the upcoming months. Moreover, the platform will fight for the future independence of the ORF and, in a broader sense, for media freedom and a media landscape characterised by plurality, diversity and critical, high-quality journalism.”


Civil society organisations are also in the process of mobilising in response to increasing pressure on organisations working on sensitive issues. According to the Austrian civil society umbrella organisation IGO (Interest Group of Public Benefit Organisations):

“civil society from all sectors reports a never-experienced severe lack of access to policy-makers and consultation mechanisms.”

For example, in mid-June, a bill to increase the flexibility of the job market and raise working hours to 12 per day and 60 per week was brought to parliament without consultation with civil society, something that had been a well-established practice for this kind of legislation. The lack of consultation was heavily criticised by trade unions and the opposition. During the first weekend of July 2018, over 100,000 people protested against the expansion of working hours. The protests were led by the trade union ÖGB, which called for a process of consultation with citizens. The chairman of the opposition party SPÖ, Andreas Schieder and stressed that the party will carry out a consultation with civil society to assess the law said:

“There has never been such a thing in the Austrian parliament that such a far-reaching bill affecting millions of workers is being whipped up. We will defend ourselves and as an emergency measure, the SPÖ makes its own assessment.” (translated from German)

Worrying cuts to civil society funding

The European Civic Forum had already reported to the CIVICUS Monitor civil society concerns over future relationships with the government, in particular concerning funding. According to IGO, in the last two months “unexpected and existence-threatening cuts in funding for well-established NGOs” were announced, including to organisations working on discrimination, migration, women’s rights, family counselling and job integration.

For example, at the beginning of June, the Women’s Solidarity Association, working with women in Africa, Asia and Latin America, said the Women’s Ministry dropped funds for 2018 because “the association does not fit into this year’s funding priority”. The Director, Claudia Tempe, was supposed to have a meeting at the Ministry to talk about future cooperation, but it was cancelled. She commented:

“Apparently critical opinion-forming is no longer desired. We hope, of course, that this was not the last word and that there is still room for negotiation. Short- and long-term planning is made difficult by the fact that the decision for 2018 came in the middle of the current year. It’s very late in the year to announce something like this in June.” (translated from German)

Moreover, it is unclear whether the funds will be made available for following years.

Separately, UNDOK, a trade union offering support to undocumented workers, reported a drastic cutback in funding. On 18th May, Social Minister Beate Hartinger-Klein (FPÖ) confirmed its financial support until 2019 after months of uncertainty of the renewal of the government commitment which would have meant the closure of the organisation. However, according to a letter from the ministry, the funding promised until the end of 2019 will be cut by almost half. Judith Hörlsberger, member of the board of directors and member of the advisory centre for migrants, told APA-OTS:

“It is incomprehensible how the [the government] envisages we should maintain the operation of the contact point and continue to offer high-quality advice.” (translated from German)

The website of the organisation states:

“Due to this drastic reduction, the work of the UNDOK contact point, in particular, the counselling and support of undocumented workers, cannot be maintained in its current form and especially in its current scope.”

Damaging statements by government officials

IGO has also recently reported instances of “pejorative statements by government officials […] harming the public image of NGOs.” In one example, Gottfried Waldhäusl a member of the provincial government in the government of Lower Austria confirmed that NGO service providers Caritas and Diakonie would not be continued as providers of legal services to refugees and migrants. He also referred to the previous deal with asylum seekers who have had their applications for refugee status declined as a “pigsty”. According to Waldhäusl, Caritas is not suitable organisation to provide return counselling to migrants, following this up with a cryptic quote in which he suggested that Caritas and Diakonie should be given the task of “having children to play with fire”.

Ruth Simsa, one of the few social scientists with expertise on NGOs in Austria, states that:

“particularly politically oriented NGOs are being vilified (…) through politics that strengthen social injustice, the need for social services that are fulfilled by NGOs will thereby increase.”

She recommends that particularly smaller NGOs should seek partnerships with larger organisations in order to overcome this trend:

“What’s important now is networking. People must speak with a common, strong voice when making crucial claims. Smaller, more political NGOs now need the support of larger groups. Also, they must not abandon advocacy, that is dialogue with decision-makers and opinion-formers, because an important function of civil society would otherwise be lost.”