Austria in EU hotseat with broadcasters in uproar over ’political muzzle’

By Jane Whyatt

As Austria assumes the Presidency of the European Council, its own public service broadcasters are protesting about alleged ’political censorship’. And opposition politicians fear the TV licence fee may be used as a financial weapon to attack the broadcaster’s political neutrality.

Austria in EU hotseat with broadcasters in uproar over 'political muzzle' The logo of Austria's presidency. Image: EU Commission

The row blew up after Alexander Wrabetz, director-general of the public broadcaster ORF  sent a memo to journalists and presenters in the TV and radio services. It warned them not to tweet or post on Facebook messages that criticise politicians. And that meant they must also refrain from commenting on politics on their private social media feeds.

Several ORF presenters hit back on Twitter. Radio Home Affairs Correspondent Stefan Kapacher said on the Ganz offen gesagt podcast that “This is like a muzzle for us“ 

Defending the memo in an interview with ÖSTERREICH magazine, Wrabetz claimed it was only a draft guideline, similar to the rules  for political objectivity at the BBC (UK public service broadcaster). 

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, elected just six months ago and now in the European spotlight for the next six, distanced himself from the idea that broadcasters should not share political opinions. He has just promised on behalf of his nation to build “A Europe that protects“ during the EU presidency. ECPMF Chair Henrik Kaufholz says:

Protecting press and media freedom should be high on the list of priorities. Europe needs public service media that it can trust

But the ORF controversy is like a sneeze: a quick, loud outer symptom of something unhealthy inside the Public Service Media system. 

Opposition liberal party NEOS (New Austria) has diagnosed an attempt to use the licence fee (called GIS in Austria) to exert political pressure on journalists and broadcasters.  NEOS is calling for reform of the licence fee and political independence for public service broadcasting. A petition on the party’s website has gathered 163,568 signatures. 

However with only nine Members of Parliament, NEOS is in  small minority in the Vienna government and in Strasbourg they have only one MEP, Angelika Mlinar.  Still the idea of licence fee reform is popular because at 298.56 EUR per year, Austria’s GIS is the fourth highest TV licence fee in Europe. 

Pinocchio insult on Vice-Chancellor's Facebook

Under previous governments ÖRF faced accusations of being ’Rotfunk’ or ’red broadcasting’. In February 2018 a meme on the personal Facebook feed of Vice Chancellor Hans Christian Strache (of the right-wing Freedom Party) showed ORF news anchor Armin Wolf with a picture of Pinocchio, the Italian fairytale character whose nose grows longer when he tells lies. The caption on the picture read: “There is a place where lies become news. It’s the ORF“. The post was labelled ’Satire’ but nonetheless sent shockwaves through the Austrian media. 

Media freedom campaigners see this as part of a new trend observed by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “Ever since the refugee crisis in 2015, there has been widespread mistrust of the media, and the label Lügenpresse (“lying press”) that was coined by Germany’s anti-Islam movement Pegida, is now heard more and more in Austria as well, “ says RSF in its annual report. Austria lies in 11th place, just behind Costa Rica, in the 2017 World Press Freedom rankings compiled by RSF. 

ECPMF has undertaken two fact finding missions on the “lying press“ violations of media freedom in Germany.

'Red alert' for political control over media outlets

Meanwhile the latest report from the Florence-based research centre the Centre for Media Plurality and Freedom raises a red alert for political control over media outlets and lack of political autonomy, as well as concentration of media ownership.

The CMPF report says: “Regarding the Public Service Media, experts criticise the lack of clear independence from political entities, which is likely to create conflict in the company’s management  nevertheless, PSM journalism is considered to be of relatively high quality; c.f. Seethaler 2015)“. This situation amongst private media outlets, particularly print media is even worse, according to the CMPF: 

Mutual influence between politics and media is especially evident in a kind of barter deal in which advertisement investments are traded for favourable reporting 

The Austrian presidency of the EU Council runs until December 2018.