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.
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.
Bundeskanzler Sebastian Kurz hat heute öffentlich schwere Vorwürfe gegen Seenotretter und unser Team auf der "Aquarius 2" erhoben, die nicht den Tatsachen entsprechen & der Realität am #Mittelmeer und in #Libyen nicht gerecht werden. Hier unsere Antwort auf seine Anschuldigungen. pic.twitter.com/vJwSaNsu5K— Ärzte ohne Grenzen (@MSF_austria) October 13, 2018
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).
Wenn man Sachkritik an einer Behörde übt, erwartet man keine Strafanzeige als Antwort.— Annemarie Schlack (@anneschlack) October 2, 2018
So geschehen 2018. In Österreich.
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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.”