Government official oversteps mandate threatening to fire reporters with state broadcaster
As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, freedom of expression is under increasing pressure in Austria due to attacks against journalists and a proposal by the governing coalition that could undermine the sustainability of the public media sector.
Move away from direct interaction with press
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache also recently announced a decision to move away from the Austrian tradition of direct meetings with the press, and instead, introduce an official government spokesperson. The move was strongly criticised by the Austrian office of Reporters Without Borders and the Austrian Journalism Club (ÖJC). ÖJC president Fred Turnheim asserted that:
“As journalists, our work is based on first-hand information. If you want to avoid false interpretations, you need to dissolve the function of the governmental spokesperson”.
Foreign correspondents threatened
On 13th April, during an interview with newspaper Salzburger Nachrichten Steger, Norbert Steger, Freedom Party (FPÖ) member of the board of trustees at the Austrian public broadcaster ORF, claimed that he could fire one third of the foreign correspondents in the company “if they do not behave correctly” and carry out “more objective reporting”, citing the Hungarian elections as a case in which ORF's international correspondents had allegedly engaged in "biased" reporting.
16 Korrespondentenbüros des ORF sind unverzichtbare vom Publikum höchst geschätzte Säule der internationalen Berichterstattung in TV,Radio und Online.Bis 2020 kommen noch 2 weitere Standorte dazu #public value— Alexander Wrabetz (@wrabetz) April 13, 2018
In response, ORF Director Alexander Wrabetz noted that the dismissal of correspondents is not under the authority of the board nor does the government have the power to dismiss correspondents. On Twitter, Wrabetz announced the decision to prolong a contract with Budapest correspondent Ernst Gelegs, who had covered the Hungarian elections. He also stressed that ORF foreign offices are an “indispensable pillar of international coverage in TV, radio and online” and for this reason, ORF will strengthen and expand its presence abroad by 2020.
The ORF editorial board wrote:
“None of the threats of Steger have something to do with factual criticism but are part of a systematic attempt to undermine the credibility of the ORF. Such a procedure is a pity for journalism and politics as a whole. To threaten correspondents with dismissal for party-politically motivated reasons is a direct attack on public service broadcasting and a new low point of media policy".
Rubina Möhring, President of Reporters without Borders Austria, also reacted, stating that:
“This kind of intimidation of journalists is profoundly antidemocratic and endangers the freedom of information”.
Cyber surveillance law
Professor and chair of media policy and media economics at the University of Salzburg, Josef Trappel, warned that:
“[In April] the current government passed a law on 'cyber security' which observers rather call “cyber surveillance law” [...] This law allows for far reaching control of citizens with regard to their personal rights (such as confidentiality of personal mail, CCTV, data storage etc.)”.
Positive court judgment
On 17th May 2018, the Vienna Regional Administrative Court ruled in favour of a Greenpeace activist who put a respiratory protection mask on the Monument of Maria Theresa in Vienna in May 2017. The protest was carried out to highlight high levels of of nitrogen dioxide on busy roads in front of Austrian schools. A Greenpeace study showed that the levels exceeded the legally permitted EU limit of 40 micrograms per cubic metres of air. According to Kurier.at, the Court classified the crime as a minor infraction because of the "gentle way in which it was carried out" and that it was committed "out of respectable motives" (Translated from German).
Following the formation of a coalition between the Austrian People’s Party (OPV) and the nationalist-leaning Freedom Party (FPÖ), civil society finds itself at a time of uncertainty. Contrary to expectations, during the first few months of the new government, there has not been any move to cease cooperation with civil society. However, it is becoming more difficult to meet government officials informally and CSOs feel that the government is not interested in the work of civil society and that the government is moving to centralise its control over the sector.
Civil society's role in providing services to asylum seekers under threat
For example, a new law on immigration envisions a new Federal Agency for Care and Support Services to be established under the supervision of the Minister of Interior. The Agency would provide both accommodation and legal advice to asylum seekers, in place of the legal advice provided by NGOs. As a result, the agreement between the Ministry of the Interior and the civil society consortium for legal counselling is expected to be terminated after the end of 2018. The proposal was criticised in a letter to the Chancellor by one hundred prominent citizens because it would entail a violation of EU regulations. As reported by derStandard, if these plans were implemented, independent legal advice for asylum seekers would be de facto terminated. The letter stresses that the planned "nationalisation of legal advice" is "a matter of great concern" (translated from German). At the time of writing, the Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen was expected to meet the heads of non-profit aid organisations to discuss the issue.
Civil society funding concerns
Worries over civil society's future are also linked to funding. One source told the CIVICUS Monitor that:
“One issue of concern among NGOs at the moment is whether financial support, - on which our work is based, - will continue or be cut. So it is a time of uncertainty but not restriction”.
The government is already moving to cut funds available for organisations addressing sensitive issues, such as migration, gender-based violence, and services and protections for vulnerable groups. For example, in mid-April the government announced that the budget for family counselling centres would be reduced by one million EUR, thus affecting 18,000 families. The centres not only tackle the issue of physical and psychological health but also sexual violence.
Nevertheless, while civil society is already witnessing a centralisation of power, the government is publicly responding to civil society. For example, in mid-May during Austria World Summit debate on climate change, the Austrian Chancellor offered a public platform to an activist protesting against the government’s policy on environment and climate change. The event was widely reported and welcomed by many members of the public.
Die Aktion richtete sich gegen den Beschluss des EU-Kanada-Freihandelsabkommens im Ministerrat. Zeitgleich protestierten Gewerkschafter gegen die Gesundheitsreform.... https://t.co/36glppy3fF— TTIP-Aktionsbuendnis (@Werner_Nosko) May 17, 2018
In mid-May, about 30 activists from Greenpeace chained themselves to the entrance of the Federal Chancellery in Vienna in protest against the EU-Canada Free Trade Agreement (Ceta). Trade unionists also demonstrated against the plan to cut the health sector budget. The demonstrations were peaceful and the Council of Ministers meeting was able to take place as planned.
The CIVICUS Monitor has learned that some CSOs are nervous about the possibility that the government could tighten regulations on the right to freedom of assembly. The issue had been on the conservative parties' agenda last year but was was not put forward because of the presence of a socialist party in the previous coalition. Some in civil society believe that the government could now move forward with its agenda due to the new political scene. Executive Director of Amnesty International Austria, Annemarie Schlack, said in regards to the potential threat that:
"This is clearly incompatible with the constitution and human rights. [...] The existing regulations on the right of assembly are perfectly adequate. Anyone who tries to doctor the right of assembly with vague wording tramples underfoot a hard-earned right". (Translated from German)