Palestinian activists face lawsuit and ban; climate activists threatened with SLAPPs

Palestinian activists face lawsuit and ban; climate activists threatened with SLAPPs
Climate activists are facing threats of SLAPPs (Photo by Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images).

Introduction

Presidential elections were held in Austria on 9th October 2022. Incumbent President Alexander van der Bellen from the Greens was re-elected for another term in the first round by securing more than 50 percent of the votes. 

On 13th July 2022, the European Commission presented the 2022 Rule of Law Report which contains a synthesis of both the rule of law in the EU and an assessment of the situation in each Member State. The chapter on Austria notes positive developments concerning the rule of law such as the consolidation of a system for stakeholder consultation on draft laws (although challenges remain), and continued parliamentary and judicial oversight of COVID-19-related restrictions. In addition, the Austrian National Human Rights Institution has been re-accredited and has now obtained A-Status. Although civil society has benefitted from further financial support related to the COVID-19 pandemic and dialogue with the Government has strengthened, it raised some concerns over the possible impacts of new anti-terrorism legislation on freedom of association, which could restrict its operating space.

Association

NGOs struggle due to rising inflation

Due to rapid inflation and soaring energy prices, a growing number of non-for-profit organisations (NPOs) in Austria are struggling to keep up their work. Many organisations are already in a precarious financial situation due to the long-term decline in funding as well as the consequences of COVID-19. Inflation continues to worsen the situation. In a recent survey, four out of five NPOs stated they were strongly affected by inflation, with one out of five stating that they are so severely affected that their continued existence is uncertain.

In many cases, NPOs do not have reserves as the build-up of reserves is prohibited or very severely restricted by law. In addition, since current revenues cannot usually be reallocated by the organisations to support different or unexpected expenses, the organisations have little opportunity to take countermeasures internally. Therefore, NPOs are asking the government to act.

Umbrella organisations Bündnis für Gemeinnützigkeit and IGO along with others are pushing the government to adopt support measures for NPOs, which include the creation of an anti-inflation fund for NPOs. They also advocated for the inclusion of NPOs in projects aimed at promoting a green transition.

"Non-profit organisations are mentioned in the energy cost subsidy for companies, but the measure covers only a small part of those affected. Unlike manufacturing companies, they have high personnel costs, especially in the area of services of general interest, and therefore rarely reach the required energy cost share of 3 percent," explains Bündnis’s Director Franz Neunteufl.

A particular difficulty for NPOs arises from the long-term funding agreements with which the affected associations typically work. The costs were calculated with prices at pre-crisis levels, but the contracts must now be fulfilled with significantly higher expenses. In addition to the anti-inflation NPO fund, two-thirds of the organisations are therefore calling for a retroactive inflation adjustment of the subsidy and benefit contracts with the federal, state and local authorities.

“Operation Luxor” long-term effects on Muslim communities in Austria

The report “Operation Luxor”, jointly published by CAGE, a UK-based NGO against Islamophobia, and the Austrian NGO Assisting Children Traumatised by Police (ACT-P), investigates the largest police operation in Austrian peacetime history in the aftermath of the ISIS attacks in Vienna during November 2020.

The operation considered raids carried out simultaneously on 70 homes across four federal states, mobilising 930 people including police officers, special unit agents and constitutional protection officials. It concluded that while none of the people affected by the raids have been charged with any offence to date, they suffer from long-term consequences such as trauma, discrimination, loss of employment and social exclusion. ACT-P documented that children affected by the raids reported the psychological violence perpetrated by heavily armed police officers and agents. 93,8 percent of children reported suffering from ongoing psychological trauma as a result of the raids, with some even showing early signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Parents have reported that their children continue to have severe nightmares and suffer from insomnia, in addition to screaming and crying at night.

Peaceful Assembly

‘Lobautunnel’ project is pulled as activists are threatened with SLAPPs

In December 2021, after long and intense protests by climate organisations and scientists, the ‘Lobautunnel’ project was put on hold by climate and transport minister Eleonore Gewessler. The entire project, which is part of a larger traffic concept for a fast-growing Viennese district, will be re-evaluated in the light of its climate impact.

Nonetheless, the Municipality of Vienna threatened to initiate court proceedings against individual protesters - some of them minors - scientists and civil society organisations involved in the demonstrations against ‘Lobautunnel’. Amnesty International, Greenpeace and other organisations called on the City of Vienna, Mayor Michael Ludwig and City Councillor Ulli Sima to immediately withdraw the intimidation letters and issue an apology to those affected.

"With these intimidation attempts, the City of Vienna has massively violated the right to freedom of expression. We know such so-called 'SLAPPS' – Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation – from other governments or companies. Silencing people who report or speak out on important issues in the public interest hurts public discourse. This also curtails people's right to access information and citizen participation," says Annemarie Schlack, Managing Director of Amnesty International Austria.

“Last Generation” activists protest government inaction on climate change

Activists of climate movement "Last Generation" have been staging protests in Austrian cities to pressure the government to act on urgent climate change-related issues. In October 2022, activists glued themselves to the pavement of central traffic routes in Vienna and Graz to demand the establishment of a 100 km/h speed limit on highways as a simple yet effective measure to counter emissions.

Report shows evidence of police violence and calls for accountability

In December 2021, Amnesty International Austria published a report on the excessive use of force by the Austrian police during May Day demonstrations on 1st May 2021. The report documents massive misconduct by the police during the operation, but also highlights the lack of investigation around the events and the allegations against the authorities. Specifically, allegations of ill-treatment have not been effectively investigated and the authorities have not followed up on clear indications of abuse. Amnesty launched a campaign to demand accountability and the establishment of an independent complaint office for victims of police violence.

The incidents at the May Day demonstrations were not isolated. A video of a police operation carried out in April 2022 on the construction site of the ‘Lobautunnel’ occupied by protesters shows one of the officers kicking a young activist from an excavator.

Expression

Palestinian activists face lawsuit and ban in Vienna

A member of BDS Austria is being sued for defamation by the municipality of Vienna over a social media post. On 29th August 2021, BDS Austria published a Facebook post with a picture of a poster stating “Visit Apartheid” that was stuck on a billboard with the official logo of the City of Vienna. The post had a sarcastic caption, which stated, “We are pleased that the City of Vienna also takes note of apartheid and publicly states it”.

The municipality of Vienna proceeded to sue a member of BDS Austria for defamation arguing that the BDS movement “incites hatred against Israeli people” and the depiction of the situation in Israel/Palestine as ‘apartheid’ associated with the logo of the City of Vienna constitutes damage to the reputation of the city. The European Legal Support Centre (ELSC) is supporting the activist in the lawsuit. ELSC believes that 

this case sheds light on the underlying hostile context for Palestinian rights advocates in Austria, who are deliberately targeted as part of a systematic campaign to shield the Israeli apartheid from legitimate criticism and exposure”.

On 6th April 2022, a judge ruled in favour of the City of Vienna and ordered that the BDS activist must no longer use the logo of the City of Vienna in connection with any publication or public statement. The judge also approved the City’s request for damages (€3,500) and for legal fees to be paid by the BDS activist. With the support of ELSC, the activist has appealed the ruling and reversed the decision on the fine.

On 20th May 2022, four UN Special Rapporteurs wrote to the Municipality of Vienna in relation to the case to express concern over the implementation of the anti-BDS motion adopted in 2018 by the City of Vienna which bans groups belonging to the BDS movement from using municipal premises or facilities. According to the Special Rapporteurs, the resolution “follows a worrying trend of unduly limiting the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and of association”. They stated that:

the lawsuit filed against a member of BDS Austria may hinder the peaceful activities of human rights defenders committed to monitor and denounce human rights violations in occupied Palestine, shrinking the civic space available to them to express legitimate grievances”.

On 8th July 2022, the Austrian authorities replied to the SR communication, reiterating their claim that: “Their [BDS] movement’s campaigns are often referred to as antisemitic” and denying any violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In another case, Palestinian scholar Dr. Walaa Alqaisiya was banned from speaking at a conference in Vienna for her support of the BDS movement. As an academic specialised in gender and queer studies and de-colonialism, she was expected to give a lecture based on her forthcoming book Decolonial Queering in Palestine on 30th May 2022 at an event organised by the Mumok Museum, the Academy of Fine Arts of Vienna and cultural organisation Verein K. After pressure exerted by the Austrian Union of Jewish Students and KESHET Austria, Dr. Alqaisiya was disinvited. They alleged that “the Lecturer openly supports the antisemitic organisation BDS and explains its agitation as an important global struggle against the ‘international ties of Israeli settler-colonialism’ …she is an obvious proponent of Israel-related antisemitism”.

The ELSC mobilised an international network of organisations and academics to express solidarity with Dr. Alqaisiya and sent a letter to the contributors and the curators of the programme, condemning the ban. Finally, the organisers of the event decided to withdraw the remainder of the event from the premises of the Academy of Fine Arts and held it elsewhere.

In October 2022, the Academy of Fine Arts announced that it would be hosting a year-long course entitled “Antiantianti: Conflicts about Anti-antisemitism and Antiracism in the Politicized Art World” using Dr. Alqaisiya's disinvitation as a case study. According to the ELSC, this is likely to fuel further erasure of the Palestinian narrative and censorship of genuine anti-racist discourse.

Author of “Ibiza video scandal” sentenced to 3.5 years in prison

After more than a year of pre-trial detention and seven days of trial since September 2021, Julian H., the author of the "Ibiza video", was sentenced on 30th March 2022 to 3.5 years of unconditional imprisonment on drug and documentary charges. The judgment is not final.

Amnesty International and epicenter.works, which have observed the trial from the beginning, expressed concerns that the entire investigation and trial is politically motivated and based on partly fabricated allegations. They fear that the verdict will have a deterrent effect on whistle-blowers and lead to a restriction of freedom of expression, press and information in Austria.

Apart from the sentencing, the two organisations also criticised the fact that important principles of the criminal process were not adhered to during the trial. They believe that the duration of pre-trial detention of more than one year alone is extremely problematic in terms of human rights and represents a massive encroachment on personal freedom, especially against the background of the evidence that arose in the main proceedings through contradictory witness statements. In addition, they argue that the principle "in case of doubt for the accused" was not observed, after the two main witnesses repeatedly contradicted each other and themselves in their statements.

Journalist faces insults and court proceedings for covering extreme-right protest

Mapping Media Freedom reports that on 2nd October 2022 journalist Michael Bonvalot was insulted by a demonstrator while covering an extreme-right march in Vienna. The demonstrator attempted to climb a fence to reach the journalist in a directed attack and shouted his name. A year previously, Bonvalot had been targeted with acts of vandalism and threats for his reporting on right-wing extremist circles.

Public broadcaster announces service cuts

Roland Weissmann, who has been the managing director of the Austrian public broadcaster ORF since August 2021, announced plans to change the editorial strategy of popular online news website ORF.at. The number of written articles published on the website will drop by half and audio-visual content will become more central. Media experts are warning that this will reduce the amount of quality reporting in the country. On the other hand, private media fear unfair economic advantage after a ruling of the Austrian constitutional court removed restrictions for the public broadcaster to provide content online. Cuts to the public ORF radio stationsFM4 and Ö1 are also planned, causing criticism within Austria’s music and culture scene.

Media pluralism at risk as oldest newspaper faces reform

As a part of a media reform package presented in October 2022 by media minister Susanne Raab, the oldest daily newspaper, the Wiener Zeitung, is set to disappear in its written form. The newspaper, owned by the State, will continue to exist in online format. In addition, it will also produce a regular print publication, which must appear at least monthly or even weekly. The government has agreed on a new public service mandate for the newspaper and on the abolition of mandatory publications. The Austrian daily newspaper market is quite small and concentrated, with 14 important media outlets. According to commentators, the threat of the Wiener Zeitung’s demise would further weaken media pluralism.

No progress on FOIA legislation despite CSOs pressing the government

With a view to addressing the perceived standstill in the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act and the lack of involvement of the broader civil society in the process, organisations participating in the Freedom of Information Forum decided to extend an invitation to Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler (Greens) and Chancellery Minister Karoline Edtstadler (ÖVP) to discuss any concerns and solutions at a round table with civil society on the occasion of the 20th International Freedom of Information Day.