Is Austria facing its own Orbán moment?

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (2-R), Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (2-L) and Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (R) meet in 2020. [OLIVIER HOSLET]

The ‘Orbánisation’ of Austria has become a standing term in the Austrian political discourse. But what is behind the allegations about vanishing media and judiciary independence in the Alpine republic?

Allegations of ‘Orbánisation’ date back to the Ibiza-Gate video leaked in May 2019, which showed the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) leader and later vice-chancellor, Hans Christian Strache, portraying Hungary as a role model for Austria.

“I want a role like Orbán,” Strache said in the leaked video, referring to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. “We want to build a media landscape similar to Orbán’s.”

Two years later, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) are being criticised for his perceived influence on the Austrian media and his dealings with the judiciary.

The accusations by the opposition are fierce:

“The Kurz party is attempting to rebuild Austria along the lines of the authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán,” Federal Chairman of the SPÖ, Christian Deutsch, told EURACTIV.

“Just like Orbán, the Kurz-ÖVP are trying to bring the media under their control,” Deutsch said, pointing to the total message control, threats against journalists, and the placement of government advertisements as examples for the alleged Orbán-style influence on the media.

However, while Austria still ranks considerably high in the World Press Freedom Index Score compared to other EU countries, its standing has steadily deteriorated in recent years.

The country now ranks 17th in the world, outperforming other European countries like France (34th place) or the United Kingdom (33rd place), and far higher than Hungary (92nd place).

However, there are “developments that are reasons for concern,” media scientist and board member of Reporters without Borders, Fritz Hausjell, told EURACTIV.

He referred to dubious media acquisitions and government advertising as some examples of these worrying developments.

Kurz’s office, contacted by EURACTIV to comment on the allegations, did not respond.

Media acquisition

The leaked 2019 video showed that Strache was keen to buy into the Austrian media landscape and shape the Austrian political discourse in his favour.

“And indeed, we have somebody who hadn’t been active in the media sector before acquiring significant shares of Austria’s biggest newspapers,” Hausjell said.

In the spotlight: Real estate magnate René Benko, whose assets are estimated at €4.7 billion. Benko, a supporter of Kurz, considered to belong to his innermost circle, had bought into two of the largest Austrian newspapers just a few months before Ibiza-Gate.

He currently holds around 25% of two of Austria’s biggest media companies and has the “explicit wish to become more active as a co-owner,” Hausjell told EURACTIV.

When Benko wanted to buy a €60 million property in the heart of Vienna, the district court was opened specially for him over the holidays and an official was brought back from vacation to push the transaction through.

The case gave rise to allegations that this was in return for political favours.

“There would have been other applicants, but the government preferred an entrepreneur here. This begs the question of whether one of the elements of this so-called ‘Orbanisation’ has begun to emerge here,” Hausjell said.

Government advertisements and PR apparatus

There are also other ways of influencing the media, including through government-paid advertisements in newspapers.

In 2020, the government placed advertisements worth €47 million in the media, three times as much as the previous government. The government-friendly tabloid media are the big beneficiaries of the lush advertising budget.

“There is an overlap here when it comes to government friendliness and the placement of advertisements,” Hausjell said.

Austrian media outlets are financially dependent on these government advertisements, which puts them under pressure to report more favourably on government affairs.

“Due to the way in which government advertisements have been further developed in recent years, many political events no longer reach the media stage,” Hausjell said, criticising the dependency and reporting restrictions of many media companies.

Kurz has also expanded the government’s PR apparatus to a level previously unknown: around 60 people are employed in the Federal Chancellery alone.

“That’s definitely a problem,” Hausjell said, referring to the disproportion between the government’s PR apparatus and the shrinking size of editorial staff in newspapers. “In this amalgamation, journalism is under considerable pressure,” he stressed.

Investigations against Kurz’s minions

Since Kurz, who turns 35 in August, took over the chancellorship, many of the most important political posts have been assigned to personalities loyal to him.

The chat logs of Thomas Schmid, the former sole director of independent holding company Österreichische Industrieholding’s (ÖBAG), which have been made public, show how the post had worked in practice.

Schmid got the board position in ÖBAG in 2019, through direct intervention by Kurz and Finance Minister Gernot Blümel.

Blümel wrote to him that “SchmidAG is ready” immediately after the ÖBAG decision on his appointment and referred to Schmid as “family”. “You can get anything you want anyway,” Kurz assured him, to which Schmid replied: “I’m so happy, I love my Chancellor.”

The Economic and Corruption Public Prosecutor’s Office (WKStA) said that the chat protocol could be hinting to a potential trade of favours between the two.

But Kurz’ system is starting to falter. Eight top representatives of the ÖVP are currently under investigation by the Economic and Corruption Public Prosecutor’s Office (WKStA) for various reasons, including not only Finance Minister Blümel, but also Kurz himself.

In response, the ÖVP went on the offensive. After the investigation against Blümel was announced in February, the Chancellor said in relation to the prosecutor’s office: “There has been so much misconduct that I believe that there is an urgent need for change there.”

Many top lawyers saw the move as an attack on the independence of the judiciary.

Christian Deutsch (SPÖ) also criticised the move and told EURACTIV that the attacks on the judiciary “are endangering democracy” and are “undermining the trust” in the independence of the judiciary.

The ÖVP’s tirades against the prosecutors, however, are continuing. Just recently, the ÖVP club chairman August Wöginger described the investigation against his party colleagues as “politically motivated.”

Constitutional lawyer Franz Merli told EURACTIV that the ÖVP would be well advised to “let the public prosecutor’s office work in peace.”

However, despite the recent scandals surrounding the Kurz’ network, his party can still rely on considerable support from the electorate. The ÖVP is currently polling at 33%, with its biggest competitor – the Social Democrats – lagging 8 percentage points behind.

Austrian contaminated sites

The problem of the influence of politics in the media sector is a phenomenon that has haunted Austria for a long time. For example, there has been repeated speculation about the influence on media reporting by governments that were already under the leadership of the SPÖ.

In addition, Austria has a long tradition of party newspapers, a trend that has been reinforced by digitalisation.

The FPÖ, SPÖ and ÖVP all run their own online newspapers, although their appearance is as neutral as possible so that readers are often not even aware that it is a party newspaper. In some cases, these online media generate more hits than established newspapers.

The influence of politics on the media landscape is therefore nothing new in and of itself. However, a clearly negative trend can be identified under the Kurz government.

“The problem is not one that was developed by Kurz, but it was intensified by Kurz,” Hausjell said.

As far as the ‘Orbanisation’ of the Austrian judiciary is concerned, however, the debate seems exaggerated: The attack on the judiciary is only verbal, for now, and in any case, Austria is a long way from rebuilding itself in Orbán’s image.

“I can only say that there is a tendency to mess with the judiciary. But that doesn’t have to be a bad sign, because an unconditional belief in the objectivity of the judiciary is also not the best thing for a democratic society,” Alexander Somek, a law professor at the University of Vienna, told EURACTIV.

“We cannot currently estimate where this will go.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Josie Le Blond]

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