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

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