AUSTRIA: Government officials use public vilification to de-legitimise critical CSOs

(European Civic Forum on CIVICUS Monitor) Government officials in Austria have used damaging statements and derogatory comments against CSOs aimed at de-legitimising their work.

According to civil society in Austria, public vilification does not affect only one organisation, but statements attacking the reputation of critical independent CSOs are becoming systematic. Activists from Greenpeace further criticised the current government for using tactics to delegitimise critical CSOs and refusing to engage with the actual content of concern.

For example, in his public statements, the Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz  repeatedly compared CSOs involved in humanitarian assistance operations for migrants risking drowning at sea in the Mediterranean, including Doctors Without Borders, to human traffickers. The international NGO Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) responded to these accusations saying that the search and rescue vessel Aquarius “is bound by international and maritime law in its rescue operations and therefore does not commit unlawful acts at sea.”

The NGO service provider Caritas was repeatedly accused by the Secretary-General Christian Hafenecker (FPÖ) of being driven by profits and what he called the “asylum industry”. These smear campaigns against Caritas started after the government was heavily criticised for its plan for “nationalisation of legal advice” for asylum seekers currently delivered by civil society, allegedly to minimise costs. Critics say that this will weaken the independence of the legal service provided to applicants appealing decisions of the court. In the current plan, the national system would report directly to the Minister of Interior and would be bound by his instructions. Thus, the legal advisers would not act in the exclusive interest of the applicants. The CIVICUS Monitor reported in July last year another smear attack against Caritas by a member of the provincial government, Gottfried Waldhäusl. On the 10th of January 2019, the Minister of Education Heinz Fassmann defended Caritas against the attacks by FPÖ.

Moreover, in November 2018, the Chamber of Agriculture accused Greenpeace of using “scare tactics” following the release of a critical report on water conditions, including of Austrian rivers in Styria and Upper Austria regions. The Chamber of Agriculture commented that the findings are “alarmist” and exaggerated for the use of fundraising. (translated from German).

Freedom of expression

In addition to the harassment of critical CSOs, there is also an evident tendency of restriction of freedom of expression that civil society argued has created a climate of fear and intimidation.

In October 2018, the Federal Office of Foreign Affairs and Asylum (BFA) filed a complaint with the public prosecutor’s office against Christoph Riedl, a legal expert of the CSO Diakonie, for libel and insult of a public authority. Defamation, insult and slander are criminal offences under the Austrian Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch). The official complaint relates to Riedl’s public criticism of the work of the Federal Asylum Office in two reports in April 2017, claiming that the high rate of refusal of asylum for Afghans is “politically motivated”.

The public prosecutor’s office in Vienna examined the allegations against Riedl and discontinued the proceedings stating that this was “legally admissible criticism”. Riedl’s lawyer, Michael Pilz, called it “an unprecedented occurrence”, and an “attempt to silence critics”. Amnesty International Austria Managing Director Annemarie Schlack said that this was a form of intimidation, to discourage further criticism.

The CIVICUS Monitor had already reported an increase of pressure against independent journalists expressing criticism against the Austrian government. In September 2018, in an email leaked to the press, a top press spokesperson of the Ministry of the Interior urged provincial police spokespersons, to limit communication and information to certain critical media outlets. In particular, the spokesman described the media outlets Der Standard, Falter, and Kurier that have been of “very one-sided and negative reporting about the [Ministry of Interior] and the police”.

The move to restrict independent media work and access to information, was widely condemned. Following widespread media coverage and condemnation, the Interior Ministry reportedly said in a statement that the email contained only “suggestions” that were not binding on the police departments. However, it reveals a worrying trend by the Ministry of Interior to silence critical media, as it comes only a few months after the Minister of Interior, reportedly suggested that certain journalists may be under investigation for their reporting on operations of the Austrian intelligence services.

Eike-Clemens Kullmann, head of the Journalists’ Union (Journalistengewerkschaft in der GPA-djp) called on the Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Media Minister Gernot Blümel tourge the members of the Federal Government to make an immediate commitment to guarantee “unrestricted freedom of the press”.(translated from German)

The Deputy Director Scott Griffen of the International Press Institute (IPI) said the instructions of the Ministry of the Interior is a “clear attempt to punish independent reporting”, stating:

“Restricting media outlets’ access to official institutions in response to their critical reporting is an unmistakable attack on press freedom, one that has no place in a democracy”, and “The Interior Ministry proposal regarding communication with critical media is a troubling development for the public’s right to receive independent information on matters of public interest.”

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, also criticized the Austrian Interior Ministry’s instructions to boycott critical media and called on the Ministry of Interior to refrain from attacking the media:

“I recall that protection of media freedom is key to democracy. Access to information must be provided to all media equally regardless of their editorial orientation.”