Freedom of the Press
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The Austrian media atmosphere is stable, and both state and nonstate actors generally respect press freedom. However, a number of legal shortcomings—including the existence of criminal defamation and the weakness of access to information legislation—remain major concerns.
- Legislators unveiled a draft freedom of information law, but media workers and watchdogs criticized several of its provisions, including a restrictive definition of “information,” vague and expansive exceptions, a lengthy response window, and the lack of an independent oversight body.
- In February, police in Vienna interfered with media professionals who were covering a demonstration, detaining several journalists for allegedly obstructing the public gathering.
- In August, a district court in Burgenland fined the online platform Dossier €2,000 ($2,200) for trespassing, finding that its journalists had violated property rights while interviewing asylum seekers at a controversial privately owned housing facility; the court did not take public interest into account in its ruling.
Legal Environment: 8 / 30
The Basic Law of 1867 and the Media Law of 1981 provide the foundation for freedoms of expression and the press, and the government generally respects these provisions. However, stringent civil and criminal defamation legislation remains on the books, and press freedom advocates continue to urge the government to revise these measures.
In 2014, the Austrian Constitutional Court implemented a European Court of Justice ruling against a much-debated European Union (EU) data retention law from 2006. The legislation required telecommunications companies and internet service providers to store user data for up to six months, and the Constitutional Court’s move compelled authorities to cease retention and delete data that had been stored while the law was in effect. In January 2015, following terrorist attacks on the office of the Charlie Hebdo magazine as well as a grocery store in Paris, senior Austrian politicians suggested reintroducing data retention legislation in order to improve security against militant extremism. No legislation had been adopted at year’s end, and critics of the proposal maintained that the potential benefits of data retention outweigh the risks to civil liberties.
The 2010 Terrorism Prevention Law penalizes the preparation and organization of terrorist acts as well as training for terrorist purposes. Under the law, individuals who incite hatred or contempt against any group can face up to two years in prison. While some watchdogs have warned that this provision could be used to curb freedom of expression, there were no convictions on such charges in 2015. There was no evidence during the year that a contentious 2012 amendment to the Security Police Act, which enables state authorities to monitor, wiretap, film, and locate individuals, had been used to deter journalistic work or intimidate investigative reporters.
The constitution includes a provision on official secrecy, and the overall legal framework on access to information—containing vague criteria for compliance and lacking a strong appeals mechanism—is among the weakest in the world. In 2015, during a parliamentary inquiry into the failed Hypo Group Alpe-Adria bank, legislators themselves experienced difficulties gaining access to information and documents through official channels. Domestic and international advocates of transparency and media freedom have campaigned for a new freedom of information law as well as the abolition of official secrecy, and official discussion of draft legislation began in 2015. The journalistic community criticized several portions of the bill, including a restrictive definition of “information,” vague and expansive exceptions, the response window of up to eight weeks, and the lack of an independent oversight body. A public consultation process concluded in December, and no further progress had been made at year’s end.
The Austrian Communications Authority regulates broadcast licenses and manages frequencies, and is also responsible for the legal supervision of audiovisual services and the public broadcaster. Its five members are appointed for six years by the head of state on the recommendation of the federal government.
The self-regulatory Austrian Press Council handles complaints regarding content in newspapers and magazines. However, membership is not obligatory for such outlets, and the three largest newspapers—Kronen Zeitung, Heute, and Österreich—do not participate in the council. The functioning of the council elicited generally positive reviews from the media community in 2015, particularly for regulating coverage of the refugee crisis facing Europe. In October, the council reported that it had dealt with 807 cases since its reestablishment in 2010, and that Kronen Zeitung, Heute, and Österreich had been the most frequent subjects of complaints; the latter has unsuccessfully sued the council for questioning the ethics of some of its articles.
Political Environment: 9 / 40 (↓1)
Political influence at the Austrian Public Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) remained an issue in 2015. Elections for members of ORF management, scheduled for 2016, are expected to produce a significant leadership change, as most members of the ORF Foundation Council, which selects the broadcaster’s leadership and controls its budget, have ties to the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). The Austrian government faced criticism during the year for granting ORF reporters exclusive access to the country’s refugee shelters, excluding private broadcasters.
There is no official censorship, but some legal constraints—for example, a ban on any form of Nazi propaganda or anti-Semitism—allow the authorities to restrict access to websites that promote certain content.
Journalists in Austria operate without threat of harassment, intimidation, or violence. However, media professionals experienced exceptional difficulties while covering politically sensitive stories in 2015. In February, police in Vienna interfered with journalists who were covering a rally held by the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) movement and a simultaneous counterdemonstration. In addition to blocking access to the full assembly site, police also detained several journalists along with counterdemonstrators under article 285 of the criminal code, which prohibits obstructing a registered and approved demonstration.
Separately, in August, a district court in the Burgenland region fined the online platform Dossier €2,000 ($2,200) for trespassing, finding that its reporters had violated property rights while interviewing asylum seekers at a privately owned housing facility. In its lease with the owner, the government had required that all nonstate visitors have prior permission from the state refugee agency. The defendants noted that they had secured permission from their interviewees, and that their investigation—concerning whether the facility’s owner had addressed grave shortcomings in sanitary and safety conditions previously revealed by Dossier—was in the public interest. A regional court upheld the ruling in December.
The case of Stephan Templ, a journalist and writer convicted in 2013 of fraud in a property restitution claim, continued to cause controversy in 2015. Templ, a regular contributor to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and a critic of the government’s treatment of property seized by the Nazi regime, began serving his one-year prison sentence in October. In late December, Templ’s legal representatives discovered state records disproving the prosecution’s claim, and were continuing efforts to overturn his conviction at year’s end. Domestic and international watchdogs widely maintained that the case was politically motivated.
Economic Environment: 6 / 30
There are several competitive national dailies, but regional newspapers dominate the print sector, enjoying up to 90 percent of their respective markets. Austria’s public broadcasting network operates alongside numerous private outlets. Cable and satellite services are widely available and offer content from both Austrian and German stations. Approximately 84 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2015.
Although Austria’s Cartel Court has the authority to monitor the media environment to ensure diversity, media ownership remains highly concentrated. In many regions, the largest newspaper also owns the only private regional radio station. The Media Transparency Law, which took effect in 2012, forced public agencies to disclose their media advertisements for the first time. A 2013 law on corruption defined ORF journalists as public-service employees and set strict rules regarding their acceptance of benefits. In July 2015, the parliament adopted a small broadcasting reform package that, among other things, reduced bureaucratic hurdles for founding, operating, and merging outlets. The reforms also eased and clarified restrictions on sponsor references during ORF broadcasts.
The government has provided all daily and weekly newspapers with annual direct payments since 1974, with higher amounts given to newspapers that are considered especially important to the diversity of opinion. In 2015, legislators discussed a proposal to increase these subsidies in order to ensure the sustainability of the print sector, but had not adopted changes at year’s end.