CIVICUS

MonitorTracking civic space

Austria

Live rating: Narrowed

Last updated on 25.04.2019 at 22:15

Overview

Austria retains a healthy space for civil society to operate freely, campaign and challenge authority through free speech and protest.

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Civil society space narrowing  in Austria as CSOs face smear campaign and restrictions

Civil society space narrowing in Austria as CSOs face smear campaign and restrictions

In November 2018, CIVICUS Monitor downgraded Austria’s civic space rating from open to narrowed in response to the worsening space for civil society due to systematic restrictive policies towards critical civil society organisations (CSOs) under the coalition government between the Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party (ÖVP) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) that took office on 18 December 2017.

As it is also demonstrated in the below update, covering the period October 2018 to March 2019, the current government continues to refuse engaging in a structured dialogue with civil society. Instead, senior government officials made a number of derogatory remarks towards critical CSOs that is harming and undermining their work and reputation.

Association

A new empirical study conducted by the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration and the CSO Interest Group of Public Benefit Organisations (IGO) argues that the Austrian right-wing populist policy toward civil society resembles the patterns familiar from authoritarian countries. The research found that the “situation of civil society has become much more difficult in recent years” as Austria has taken the following restrictive steps: first, using rhetoric to polarise CSOs sector; second, limiting CSOs participation; third, using funding as a means of power (as the current government has made cuts to funding “affecting critical and diversity-oriented NGOs” ; fourthly, undermining fundamental rights – highlighting recent restrictions on freedom of assembly such as extending the time limit for meetings and setting up so-called protection areas and the number of alleged attempts to undermine the judiciary and human rights.

Amendments to the Environmental Impact Assessment Act restrict environmental CSOs participation

In early October 2018, a last-minute amendment to the Environmental Impact Assessment Act was introduced by the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ). According to the new amendment, environmental organisations with fewer than 100 members will not be able to take part in environmental impact assessments in future.

Officially, the aim of the amendment is to accelerate the impact assessment process. However, Greenpeace Austria argued that only an average of two out of 26 projects are appealed by environmental NGOs annually. NGOs have expressed concerns that the requirement to have at least 100 members is too restrictive which complicates the access of environmental organisations to environmental impact assessments. According to Greenpeace, about two-thirds of the approximately 60 environmental NGOs in Austria will not be able to fulfil the requirements under the new regulation.

The original draft bill went even further by requesting all organisations with more than 100 members to disclose "a list of the members of the association with name and address", in order to be involved in the impact assessment process, a measure that breaches the right to privacy and that was strongly opposed by CSOs as a potential tool for the government "to legally create blacklists of alleged political opponents". Subsequently this measure was excluded from the law that was passed. 

Government officials use public vilification to de-legitimise critical CSOs

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).

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.”

Association

Rules for the formation and operation of civil society groups in Austria are unobstructive and CSOs can operate without restriction.

Civil society in Austria mostly operates without formal restrictions and groups can form and register organisations to pursue a wide range of goals. Tens of thousands of associations take advantage of this freedom, operating both registered and unregistered societies and clubs in pursuit of a wide range of collective interests. During 2018, civil society organisations, and particularly those supporting refugees and migrants, have faced a more hostile reception from the government. Political leaders have made a number of derogatory remarks about non-governmental organisations. This includes Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who accused international humanitarian NGO - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) of cooperating with people smugglers. Also in 2018, the environment minister introduced amendments which will significantly limit consultation with many NGOs working to protect the environment in Austria. Funding to NGOs in many sectors has also been drastically reduced. There have however been instances in the past when provisions in the criminal law were used to silence civil society. One case concerned a group of animal rights activists charged with establishing a criminal organisation. Many organisations depend on state funding for their survival, raising some concerns within the sector about potential state influence on civil society as well as its sustainability as an independent sector.


Peaceful Assembly

Although police do not interfere with most protests in Austria, there have been instances where authorities have used excessive force through batons, pepper spray and water cannon.

Although police don't interfere with most protests in Austria, there have been instances where authorities have used excessive force, such as batons, pepper spray and water cannons. In late December 2017, during protests in the wake of the most recent elections in Austria, three arrests were made and a smoke grenade was reportedly fired. Protests against the new government also took place in January 2018, in the face of a heavy police presence, helicopters and water cannon.

The constitution and the Assembly Act guarantee freedom of peaceful assembly in Austria, and in practice this right is rarely restricted. However a law passed in 2017 by the former SPÖ-led government coalition is restricting the freedom of peaceful assembly, by increasing the notice period required for protests to 48 hours and designating certain “protection zones”, in which protests are prohibited.

In recent years, there have been anti-Islam protests on the streets of Vienna, some of which have involved counter demonstrations, and violence erupted on at least one occasion. In 2002, a ban on wearing face coverings during public assemblies was introduced. The ban, which has been criticised by civil society, carries a penalty of up to six weeks in jail or a fine.

Expression

Austria is ranked 11th on the 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

Although Austria retained its ranking of 11th on Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index, its score declined slightly, reflecting worsening conditions for the media under the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government. A wide range of opinions is reflected in a free media; however, a concentration of ownership in the sector has caused concern for some time. Austria has an access to information law but it has been criticised for imposing strict rules on what kind of government information can be released, thus limiting access to primary sources and elevating the importance of secrecy rules. While the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed in the constitution, criminal defamation remains on the statute books, although the severity of penalties and the rate of conviction has been declining in recent years. Internet access is unrestricted, and 81 percent of people in Austria accessed the Internet in 2014. As in many countries today, Austria has struggled to come to terms with the phenomenon of fake news or disinformation; however, a new initiative was launched in 2017 to produce more fact-based and well-researched content for the Austrian media. In 2018, freedom of expression came under more sustained attack, with government ministers denigrating journalists and the media. One minister even went so far as to expressly instruct officials not to brief certain media outlets which are critical of the government. Earlier in the year, media monitors in Austria reported a spate of attacks, including online hate speech, directed at independent media. Also in 2018, the CIVICUS Monitor reported worrying moves by Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache to weaken Austria’s public broadcaster, ORF.