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Last updated on 25.06.2020 at 15:17

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CSOs included in governments COVID-19 emergency fund

CSOs included in governments COVID-19 emergency fund

The Austrian government implemented strict measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). The new government has adopted a much more moderate tone and course than the previous government. CSOs have asked the government to support the sector economically, which could also be a potential opportunity to restructure the dialogue. On 15th March 2020, a law (Covid-19 Gesetz) was passed by parliament, which for the first time in Austrian history mentions "Non-Profit Organisations" and says that they are eligible for the same emergency fund as small entrepreneurs.

Association

Government’s emergency legislation

Interest Group of Public Benefit Organisations (IGO) reported that the Austrian government implemented strict measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). In an extraordinary session of parliament on 15th March 2020, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz extended restrictions on freedom of movement. Restrictions were issued affecting all aspects of public life, i.e. education, public events, retail and business and free movement outside of homes.

There was widespread approval of the government's early steps aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. On 2nd April 2020, several laws were passed, specifying and extending some prior measures and making the necessary amendments to many other laws such as 2. Covid-19 Gesetz and 3., 4. und 5. COVID-19-Gesetz. Wearing face masks while shopping for food or using public transport has become mandatory. Police are patrolling people to ensure that those who leave their homes keep a minimum distance of one metre between each other. A Stop Corona App was also developed by the Red Cross to help track people’s contacts and assist in curbing the spread of the virus. Amnesty International and epicenter.works considered the measures as adequate but demanded a clear and strong focus on human rights issues, data-protection issues and sunset clauses for restrictions. After media coverage about political assemblies which took place and respected safety measures in Israel, calls demanding the re-establishment of the right to freely assemble got louder.

The new government has adopted a much more moderate tone and course than the previous government, as reported previously on the Monitor. Nevertheless, public discourse about the effects of COVID-19 measures on democracy is increasing. By the end of 2019, the new government integrated in its work programme many of the concerns of CSOs, except for concrete measures on increasing CSO participation. However, due to the crisis almost all the mid-term projects of government’s work programme were postponed. The public administration, especially those services controlled by the Green party, is increasingly asking for IGO’s input on the design and implementation of emergency measures for CSOs.

Challenges for the sector

IGO and other CSOs have asked the government to support the sector economically, which could also be a potential opportunity to restructure the dialogue. Challenges include the lack of reliable data on the sector and a lack of capacity on IGO’s side to implement economic emergency measures, similar to the Chamber of Commerce who does it for its members and has already processed 100,000+ claims with cash transfers to 85,000+ small entrepreneurs within a week.

Measures to support the sector

The government announced that, in principle, it will honour public grants, at least at the national level, even if the activities planned were not carried out. However, some provinces have already announced that grants for 2020 will be reduced. Since 27th March 2020 a €2 billion emergency fund has been in place, from which the above-mentioned payments have already been made. On 15th March 2020, a law (Covid-19 Gesetz) was passed by parliament, which for the first time in Austrian history mentions "Non-Profit Organisations" and says that they are eligible for the same emergency fund as small entrepreneurs. However, the administration is so far struggling with criteria and calculations, to the effect that NPOs still have no access to these funds. To assist, NGOs are currently supporting the government with information on the sector and on the impact of the crisis on their members. This fund consists of 2 phases: a maximum of 1,000 Euros to be provided immediately, followed by a maximum 2,000 Euros monthly payment for a maximum of three months. There is another measure in the pipeline, a 15 billion Euro emergency fund for all businesses that suffer from a minimum 40% decrease of annual turnover. It is still unclear as to what extent this fund will be open to CSOs, i.e. social enterprises.

On 29th May 2020, the National Council cleared the way for the support funding mechanism for NPOs from the 700 million Euro support fund announced in mid-May. This fund (20. COVID-19-Gesetz) was established in mid-May 2020 in a draft law submitted by the governing parties. Realistically, the first instalments are not expected to arrive before the end of June 2020.

Peaceful Assembly

On 24th April 2020 about 200 people gathered in Vienna to protest governments lockdown measures. The protest was organised by the Initiative for Evidence-Based Corona Information (ICI). Media reports state that the crowd was dispersed, and one protester was detained.

Expression

In the new Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Austria has lost two positions since 2019 and has been downgraded from 16th to 18th in the ranking.

In line with developments in other countries in Europe and all over the world, RSF reports journalists’ concerns regarding tracking apps, part of the governmental measures announced which give “government bodies permission to analyse aggregated and anonymised location data”.

New government action plan reveals change in attitude towards CSOs and human rights

New government action plan reveals change in attitude towards CSOs and human rights

Following the "Ibiza scandal", elections were held in September 2019. Although the support for the far-right Freedom Party Austria (FPÖ) dropped, Sebastian Kurz’s conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) won 37.1% of the votes and formed a coalition with the left-leaning Green Party. While the hard line of the government on migration-related issues remains, it has shown a more positive attitude in relations to human rights and CSOs.

Background

On 29th September 2019 elections took place in Austria. This came as a result of the ‘Ibiza scandal’, where during a sting operation Austrian deputy chancellor and leader of the far-right Freedom Party Austria (FPÖ), Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on video making an offer to an unidentified woman who was posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch at a luxury resort in Ibiza. He made an offer to the woman to award public contracts in exchange for campaign support. This led to Strache’s resignation and for Chancellor Sebastian Kurz from the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) to call for new elections.

The results of the election were in line with the concern expressed by human rights consultantMarianne Schulzethat after the fall of the government “people are relieved, but they are also worried that [the far right] will come back a lot stronger after the elections”. Although the support for the far-right Freedom Party Austria (FPÖ) dropped from 26 percent to 16.2 percent (compared with the previous election held in October 2017), Sebastian Kurz’s conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) won 37.1% of the votes and formed a coalition with the left-leaning Green Party. Kurz is once more the Chancellor, while the leader of the Green Party was appointed as the Vice-Chancellor. 

Association

During the pre-election period, Kurz continued his smear campaign against civil society and sided with (former) Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on migration issues. Kurz stated that the policy of closing ports and returning migrants to their country is the right approach to solving illegal smuggling and people drowning in the Mediterranean. Additionally, he claimed that the rescue operations by NGOs would attract an influx of refugees and would promote the business of illegal smuggling. 

In the post-election period, the hard line of the government on migration-related issues remains. These issues mainly fall under the responsibility of the ÖVP party. The Green Party claims they had to reach “painful compromises” in order to push forward their agenda on climate action. The government still adopts a no tolerance approach on illegal migration, the Global Compact on Migration and the UNHCR resettlement plan. Despite this criticism, international law expert Wolfgang Benedek believes that the new government has shifted its attitude and its programme in other aspects of human rights. For instance, references to strengthening human rights have increased within the government’s programme from 5 to 21 times. References to the rule of law increased too, from 4 to 27 times compared to the previous plan.

Additionally, the government has declared it will resume the work on a human rights action plan which was interrupted by the previous coalition. In this regard, a long-standing demand from human rights organisations, i.e. the establishment of a complaint office for allegations of ill-treatment from the police, will be set up. Another programme which will resume relates to fighting racism, discrimination and right-wing extremism. The stalled negotiations on the Austrian catalogue of fundamental rights will also resume.

Lastly, regarding the narrative towards civil society, the new coalition has emphasised the positive role CSOs have in every social process. This differs from the stigmatisation and smear campaigns carried out by the previous government, as reported previously on the Monitor. However, it remains to be seen how this coalition will work in practical terms.

Peaceful Assembly

In June 2019 protests by students and climate activists from Ende Gelände and Extinction Rebellion were held in Vienna, with estimated numbers ranging from 5,000 (estimate by police) to 35,000 (estimate by organisers). Climate activist Greta Thunberg joined the protest in Vienna.

Videos on social media captured police using excessive force against protesters:

  • one video documented police holding down a man on the ground and repeatedly punching him.
  • a second video merged of a German activist whose head was pinned under a police vehicle. At the very last minute, the activist’s head was removed from underneath the car as it began to drive off.

Following complaints from climate groups about police violence, the Vienna Police Department's Special Investigation Unit (RBE) is currently investigating the allegations. It is reported that a total of 92 activists were arrested for allegedly blocking a main road in the city during the march. 

Thousands of students and activists marched in Vienna on 8th June 2019 over the police violence used in the previous climate protest. The protest was organised by ‘System Change, not Climate Change’, an Austrian social justice climate movement. The group was joined by Communist Youth of Austria (KJO).

Expression

The Austrian public TV broadcaster ORF has traditionally been significantly independent because they do not rely entirely on public funding to operate. However, there have been several verbal attacks and threats by representatives of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) towards ORF journalists, as reported by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). 

“We are very worried by the fact that Austria’s ruling coalition not only flouts the basic press freedom rules but also tries to silence critical and independent media outlets by all possible means, including hate speech,” - Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk.

In addition, the FPÖ party has appointed one of its representatives as a member of ORF’s board, which has the power to strongly control decisions around broadcasting. FPO aims to prevent external and independent funding and is thus forcing the public channel to rely on public funding only. This makes it easier for government to exert influence. However, as the government fell, this proposal has been put on hold.

During an interview with Ö1 radio prior to the elections, ÖVP chairman Sebastian Kurz sharply criticised the coverage by the Vienna weekly newspaper, "Falter". After a question posed by a journalist around campaign expenditure irregularities by the Peoples Party as reported by Falter newspaper, the ÖVP chairman warned the ORF presenter that the question was worded incorrectly. "I find the formulation highly problematic," said Kurz, interrupting the journalist in the middle of her question. He then told her "to be very careful with accusations that you cannot prove". Briefly after this, he continued criticising the media in Austria in general. Kurz has also filed a lawsuit against the Falter newspaper to stop it from further publishing claims regarding the party’s’ secret campaign budget. 

Following the formation of the new government, The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) conducted a review of media freedom on the ground in conjunction with local and international partners. It made the following joint calls to the new ÖVP-led government:

  • Secure the independence of the public service broadcaster (ORF)
  • Refrain from intimidating journalists
  • Introduce a Freedom of Information Act in line with international standards
  • Journalistic government control instead of “message control”!
  • Media diversity must be strengthened
  • Clear positioning of political parties in favour of press freedom