Political gains made by the Green party and increasing dialogue between government and civil society has led to an improvement in civic space in Austria, prompting a ratings upgrade from narrowed to open. This ratings decision by the CIVICUS Monitor was taken following a thorough assessment of conditions in the country for the free exercise of civic freedoms, as protected by international law. In 2018 under the ÖVP-FPÖ (Peoples Party - Freedom Party Austria) coalition government, Austria was downgraded to narrow following a deterioration in civic space. However, the September 2019 election outcome has resulted in a positive change, as the far-right FPÖ party was replaced in the coalition by the Green party. The Green party has been more open to dialogue with CSOs, which presents the sector with the unique opportunity to make themselves heard again.
Political gains made by the Green party and increasing dialogue between government and civil society has led to an improvement in civic space in Austria, prompting a ratings upgrade from narrowed to open. This ratings decision by the CIVICUS Monitor was taken following a thorough assessment of conditions in the country for the free exercise of civic freedoms, as protected by international law.
In 2018 under the ÖVP-FPÖ (Peoples Party - Freedom Party Austria) coalition government, Austria was downgraded to narrow following a deterioration in civic space. During this period, the government refused to engage with civil society organisations (CSOs) but instead pursued smear campaigns against them. In addition, funding to NGOs in many sectors was also drastically reduced. More specifically, NGOs working with migrant and refugee rights were labelled as ‘human traffickers’ by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Freedom of expression came under threat as government officials attempted to prevent independent media from reporting on certain briefings and subjected them to online attacks.
However, the September 2019 election outcome has resulted in a positive change, as the far-right FPÖ party was replaced in the coalition by the Green party. The Green party has been more open to dialogue with CSOs, which presents the sector with the unique opportunity to make themselves heard again, as described in more detail below.
Financial support to the civil society sector during the pandemic
Austria has been the only European country, together with Ireland, to introduce a special grant package for CSOs during the pandemic. Since early July 2020 non-profit organisations (NPOs) are entitled to demand compensation for income losses due to the pandemic, through a 700 million Euro fund, set up exclusively for NPOs. From the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, the main NPO platform in Austria, "Bündnis für Gemeinnützigkeit" (Alliance for Public Benefit), was heavily involved and regularly consulted during impact assessments and the creation of the fund.
CSOs, fire brigades, churches and other religious organisations as well as organisations owned by them may apply for cost recovery, with a cap of 2,4 million Euro or the total amount of income loss compared to 2019. CSOs in the cultural and economic sectors depending on such funding have access to additional emergency funds. Some provinces have also announced additional measures to support CSOs, especially targeting the volunteer sector.
After two years of largely being ignored by the government, CSOs are starting to be heard by Austrian authorities. When the extreme-right party FPÖ was replaced by the Green party in a coalition with the ÖVP party in October 2019 it gave CSOs the unique opportunity to improve the relationship between civil society and government.
The Interest Group of Public Benefit Organisations (IGO) reported that some flagship projects, such as the implementation of a national satellite account for national statistics of the third sector and the joint evaluation of volunteer legislation as a test case for (digital) participation, are now being discussed with the new coalition between conservatives and greens.
Close relations between government and the Red Cross criticised
While the above positive developments are much welcomed, some rescue organisations report feeling excluded by the coronavirus crisis management. The government allocated funding and health equipment to manage this emergency exclusively to the Red Cross, as if it were the only recognised civil society body.
The lack of transparency and the historical relations between the Red Cross and Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz’s ÖVP party is a cause for great concern. The president of the Red Cross, Gerald Schöpfer, was previously an ÖVP politician and state councillor and many party members were formerly part of the Red Cross.
Following mass protests against racism in the US after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer, Black Lives Matter protests have spread across the globe, including in Austria. After many years, the largest demonstration in Austria took place on 4th June 2020. A mass protest for #BlackLivesMatter brought 50,000 people to the streets in Vienna. As it was the first big meeting since the outbreak of the pandemic, there were many doubts about health and safety guarantees.
Following this, the government decided to call a round table with health authorities and protest organisers to find a solution. Three points emerged by consensus from the round table:
Fines considered faulty and invalid
Since the end of March 2020, a wave of numerous warnings, requests for justification, criminal orders and fines have been circulating throughout the country. According to Dr Gregor Klammer, a lawyer at the Austrian Lawyers' Office, some of the allegations were quite strange and incomprehensible. In Vienna, in particular, the fines have been extremely high, around 500 Euros, and more than 3,300 administrative criminal proceedings have been appealed in June 2020. A large part of the regulations which restrict freedom of movement during the pandemic has already been revoked by the Constitutional Court, thus making most of the fines invalid.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Austria warns that a new Austrian bill to combat hate speech on social media and online platforms, which was presented on 3rd September 2020 in Vienna, should not repeat the same mistakes made by the German federal government with its controversial German Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG). The bill makes provision for a 'fast- track procedure' where users who are subjected to hate seech online can request the deletion of such content.
“We welcome the initiative's objective of better protecting people in the digital space from hate speech. Media professionals are particularly exposed to this phenomenon. At the same time, despite some positive adjustments, the law pursues similarly problematic approaches as those already adopted in France and Germany and could also lead to restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press in these countries," - Rubina Möhring, President of Reporters without Borders (RSF) Austria.
However, RSF notes that the bill must consider the risk of 'overblocking' social media patforms and make provision for users to appeal decisions through an independent body.
"It is crucial that platforms will no longer be able to delete contributions without explanation. The right to freedom of information must be safeguarded," -Rubina Möhring President of Reporters without Borders (RSF) Austria.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
#Polizeigewalt war bei unserem antikapitalistischen Klima-Protest am Freitag kein Einzelfall. Auf diesem Video sieht man, wie @AnselmSchindler brutal auf dem Boden fixiert wird und beinahe ein Polizeiwagen über seinen Kopf rollt.#Wien #autofrei #Klimacamp2019 pic.twitter.com/jDiI646QH8— Ende GeländeWagen (@RADikalAutofrei) June 3, 2019
#Polizeigewalt@florianklenk @derStandardat @KURIERat @Ende__Gelaende @klimacamp @kleinezeitung @profilonline @krone_at @DiePresse_Pol @michelreimon @XRebellionAT @Heute_at @orf_at @ORFBreakingNews @ORF @WienHeute @ZIGETV @WienTV @Oe24at @pressefreiheit @NEWS @Peter_Pilz pic.twitter.com/kQV7cWwCCZ— Marcus MoD (@Marcus_MoD) June 1, 2019
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).
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: