AUSTRIA: Government moves to undermine independent media

(CIVICUS Monitor) Fears about the erosion of freedom of expression under Austria’s coalition government grew after a number of incidents in the early months of 2018.

Reporters Without Borders has denounced the rise in instances of intimidation and attacks against journalists considered “inconvenient” that have been carried out or encouraged by members of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), one of the two parties in the governing coalition, and organisations close to the FPÖ.

Austria’s media watchdog organisations has also warned that:

“Since the FPÖ politicians [became] part of the national government, the attacks on independent journalists are drastically increasing“.

The Mapping Media Freedom project reported six cases of media freedom restrictions in the past two months, four of them involving the FPÖ party in some way.

For example, on 29th January an online youth magazine published a Facebook post encouraging people to react to editor-in-chief of VICE magazine, Hanna Herbst, who had posted a tweet against the FPÖ winning in the local elections. The post read: “Hanna Herbst thinks that Austria should not exist, because the FPÖ won the elections in Lower Austria. What do you think? Tell Hanna your opinion“. The post included her contact details and social media profiles. Hanna’s words were retweeted by Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and MP Christian Höbart, both of whom are affiliated with FPÖ. These actions generated a domino effect, with people sending threatening messages to the journalist.

 Two weeks later on 13th February, Der Standard reported that FPÖ Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache shared a picture of a presenter from Austria’s national broadcaster (ORF), writing along with the image that: “There is a place where lies become news“. The presenter responded, saying that

“The attacks of the FPÖ – as part of the government – on independent media outlets and their personal attacks on journalists are now reaching a point which is concerning from a democratic perspective“.

ORF’s editorial board wrote in regards to the incident that:

“This is a massive border crossing by a leading member of the Austrian Federal Government. One of the highest representatives of our state has crossed the red line with the spread of such serious allegations“.

The incident also provoked a strong reaction from a number of German journalists who wrote an open letter to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz requesting a strong condemnation of the attacks against journalists.

Strache has also declared that he wants to change ORF’s “reporting standards” and abolish the license fee that supports the national broadcaster. The fees, which citizens are legally bound to pay every month, contribute significantly to ORF’s revenue.

Austrian journalist Bernhard Odehnal said in regards to the moves against ORF that:

“What Strache and his FPO want is to weaken ORF as the leading independent media in Austria, and to get more influence on that media”.

The CIVICUS Monitor had previously raised concerns over freedom of expression in the country after FPÖ entered the governing coalition. According to MediaPowerMonitor, the ruling parties have agreed on a strategy to weaken and control ORF in order to influence its coverage. Such moves would not only hamper the financial sustainability and independence of the public broadcaster but also threaten Austria’s open and free media environment.

Because People’s Party (OVP) and FPÖ have the majority in the parliament, they can select 24 of the ORF’s 35 board members, enough to change the national broadcaster’s executive. Professor and chair of media policy and media economics at the  University of Salzburg, Josef Trappel, said that:

“…the independence of the ORF is under threat. The board is also in charge of deciding the broadcasting fees, putting the financing sustainability of ORF at risk”.

According to Wochenzeitung Falter Informationen, the government already plans to take over the ORF radio station FM4 for alleged “non-compliance with the educational mandate” by 2019. Reporters Without Borders has started a petition against the decision.

Originally published on CIVICUS Monitor