Austria: attacks on press freedom

Austria: attacks on press freedom


Since the inauguration of the Austrian conservative right-wing populist government on December 18, there are rapidly increasing signs that media freedom is being restricted in Austria. Journalists are publicly attacked by politicians. Reporters Without Borders Austria criticizes the defamation of constructive and critical journalists and media outlets by high-ranking government members such as vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache. At the same time, Reporters Without Borders warns of the dangers of a democracy-hostile information policy by the democratically elected government under chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

An example: On February 20, the new supervisory board of the public broadcast ORF was elected. The chairmanship of this body is now provided by the junior coalition party, the right-wing populist FPÖ. This party unites anti-semitic, racist fraternities whose members have been established in government and ministries since 18 December 2017. Two members of a fraternity, which politically belong to the extreme right in Austria, have made it to ministerial offices, 16 in the National Council.

Power plays in the Austrian broadcast

After 20 years, the politically independent president of the aid organization Caritas, Franz Küberl, was no longer appointed to the highest ORF supervisory board committee. He said: “The media policy of a government must always be a lot more than to pay attention to whether it can market well on public radio or TV.” Reporters Without Borders points out that public media are not state media but should only serve the politically independent need for information of the society. Cases such as the rumor surrounding the planned end of the left-liberal radio station FM4, which was not denied by the government, reinforced this impression of power games and intimidation tactics against journalists. Access to information is also hampered by a professionalized media policy. Instead of the previously possible direct information by ministers, the ÖVP and FPÖ used a so-called government spokesman. Reporters Without Borders fears thereby a consolidation of institutional powers of freedom of information.

Just two months after the start of the conservative-right-wing populist government under chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, president Alexander Van der Bellen felt the need to admonish the government, something that doesn’t happen quite often in the representative function of the president. Press freedom in terms of democratic principles should not be negated, but respeced, he said. “Denigrations or even lying allegations without any substance to a person have no place in the public debate.” Such a thing is “not respectful and questions the freedom of the press,” Van der Bellen added. Concretely, Van der Bellen addressed the post of FPÖ leader and vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache against the ORF moderator Armin Wolf. The federal chancellor Kurz, who has been in office for two months, did not find words as clear as the federal president. The question remains whether the Kurz supports the opinion of his right-wing populist vice chancellor in this matter, as he rarely talks directly to the press.

Strache is well known to be in good contact with French right-wing populist politician Le Pen and with Russian president Putin. In any case, it is certain that on 1st of July 2018, this Austrian Chancellor will hold the presidency of the European Council for half a year. Reporters Without Borders demands from him a clear commitment to freedom of the media and to the integrity of journalists. So far, the ÖVP was very covered in this regard. All that is known is that the Conservative Party would like to see private broadcasters strengthened, as media minister Gernot Blümel said at a discussion panel at the beginning of March. Reporters Without Borders expects a statemnt of the Austrian Federal Chancellor to protect defamed journalists of attacks.

Colette Schmidt and the RFJ

There are unfortunately several examples of these attacks. At the end of January there was the case of Colette Schmidt. Schmidt is a journalist at the left-liberal daily Standard, in which she wrote an article about the songbook scandal in which immediately before the Lower Austrian state election a song book with heavily anti-Semitic content from the fraternity of FPÖ top candidate Udo Landbauer came to the public eye.

The youth organization of the FPÖ in Styria, the RFJ Styria, wrote: “This is Colette. Colette writes for the standard and likes to pillory FPÖ fans. If you have something to tell Colette, please go to:” along with her email address and a video showing her. Even after mainly negative feedback on the RFJ’s actions, the head of the state office of the RFJ said that the posting was not a bullying call and referred to Schmidt’s “unspeakable attempt to create a connection between respectable people” and the songbook scandal. He sees no violation of the law. The standard, however, sees it differently. He plans to take legal action against the posting.

Right-wing outlet criticizes “Hate-Hanna”

Only a short time later, Hanna Herbst, deputy editor-in-chief of the online magazine Vice, became the center of attention. After the state election in Lower Austria, which had been dominated by the scandal of the anti-semitic lyrics of the fraternity of FPÖ’s top candidate, Herbst tweeted: “FPÖ doubles. This country just should not exist “. The FPÖ-affiliated website Wochenblick then devoted an article in autumn 2017 that condemned her statement and was shared by high-ranking FPÖ members such as member of parliament Christian Höbart, Tyrolean FPÖ leader Martin Abwerzger and even vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was disseminating the article. In the article also ORF 1-radio journalist Stefan Kappacher and a parliamentary SPÖ employee were mentioned pejoratively, who had engaged on the tweet.

The attacking article received some attention, including from SPÖ leader Christian Kern, who said: “FPÖ & friends are just about to move the boundaries of political culture and morality bit by bit. You cannot accept that. They do not represent our Austria”. Wochenblick then submitted another article: “Pretty Hate-Hanna: Now she is defended by our ex-chancellor!” was the title, in the teaser she was called ” the in principle good looking feminist and now offended blonde”.
Armin Wolf, the ORF and the FPÖ

By contrast, the conflict between Armin Wolf as a symbolic figure of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) and the FPÖ caused far more sensation. The animosities go back a long way. Already in June 2017, FPÖ general secretary Herbert Kickl had referred to ORF editorial spokesman Dieter Bornemann, editor-in-chief Fritz Dittlbacher and anchorman Armin Wolf as the “apple juice faction”. Especially Armin Wolf is known to drink little alcohol. Since he learned that, Kickl said, he drinks more beer again.

The FPÖ-affiliated board of trustees member on the ORF, Norbert Steger, does not seem to particularly appreciative journalistic freedom neither. In an interview in December 2017, he said after an interview by Armin Wolf with chancellor Sebastian Kurz and vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache that editors have to face politicians respectfully and Armin Wolf “still behaves insubordinate to the two”.

At the beginning of February 2018, the Zeit im Bild 1, a well-known newscast of the ORF, reported on the transit summit in Munich. The infrastructure minister of the FPÖ, Norbert Hofer, who represented Austria at the event, did not appear in the report. Hofer complained about the mistake of the ORF not to have mentioned him and called for an end to the “GIS forced fee”.

The FPÖ had traditionally opposed the ORF fee, but only three days earlier had brought their position on government line with an interview by FPÖ media spokesman Hans-Jörg Jenewein on Ö1. “We want public service broadcasting in Austria, which is, I think, an important clarification, because there have been other opinions (..) If you want to have public content, then you have to be so honest and tell people: That costs money. (..) They will allow you to be politically different in an opposition role from a government role. ”

In the election campaign for the Tyrolean state election, the ORF state studio Tirol then made another mistake. In a contribution, the Tyrolean FPÖ leading candidate Markus Abwerzger talked to an elderly gentleman who had told anti-semitic paroles. At this point ended the report, without showing that Abwerzger then mitigated: “But you should not say that”.

The FPÖ responded with a campaign against the ORF, but above all against “Zeit im Bild- 2” – anchorman Armin Wolf. The journalist, one of the most well-known ORF moderators, was not responsible for the design of the contribution of the state studio Tirol. The contribution had been reduced by the studio in Tirol and transferred to Vienna. Nevertheless, vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache posted a photo of Armin Wolf with the text “There is a place where lies become news. This is the ORF. The best of fake news, lies and propaganda, fake culture and compulsory fee. Regional and international. On TV, on the radio and on the facebook profile of Armin Wolf “. After much protest Strache apologized later – the post had been written in carnival and not as an insult, but to be understood as a satire. Armin Wolf and the ORF still are going to sue.

The personal attacks are particularly explosive against the background of the current power struggles for financing and filling top positions in the ORF. The governing parties ÖVP and FPÖ have already secured a two-thirds majority in the board of trustees – comparable to the supervisory board of a commercial enterprise – and could thus also depose the general director Alexander Wrabetz, who is close to SPÖ. This had previously announced extensive reforms, due to which, among other things, the high-quota “Zeit im Bild 2”, moderated by Armin Wolf and Lou Lorenz-Dittlbacher – wife of chief-editor Fritz Dittlbacher – could lose their number one position in good content and  audience rate by strong counter-programming. New appointments of high positions are going to be announced in the near future. Asking for detailed information, it is usually referred to a media inquriy, which is to take place in June 2018.