A “catastrophic crash” in press freedom, which the organization “Reporters Without Borders” (RSF) recorded in this year's ranking, is being discussed with some excitement in Austria.

The country has been downgraded from 17th to 31st place.

One place ahead is the Dominican Republic.

EU countries such as the Netherlands and Slovakia, where criminals have killed journalists for their work in recent years, are also ahead of Austria.

Stephen Lowenstein

Political correspondent based in Vienna.

  • Follow I follow

Politicians, especially from the left-liberal opposition, but also from the co-governing Greens, are demanding new laws.

The concern expressed extends right up to the Federal President: Alexander Van der Bellen sees a “warning” that the trend must not only be stopped, but reversed.

The chancellor party ÖVP, on the other hand, has so far been reluctant to comment.

No wonder, because she, or rather the government policy she has been responsible for since 2017, has been more or less explicitly identified as the main cause of the deterioration.

Which in turn has raised questions about a political bias in the assessment of the organization, which enjoys a high international reputation for its commitment to protecting media freedom.

In summary, the Austrian section of RSF gives the following reasons for the downgrading: attacks on journalists that took place in the course of Corona demonstrations, "harassment" by the police, "paid surveys in tabloid media and a policy fueled by corruption and bribery is embossed".

The former Federal Chancellor and ÖVP chairman Sebastian Kurz, who resigned last autumn, is specifically mentioned.

In addition, it is complained that the "call for a sensible media promotion law that promotes quality instead of tabloids (circulation) ... has so far remained unheard" and that a freedom of information law has already been prepared, but has "still not" been passed by parliament.

"The constant party-political influence on the ORF must also come to an end as a matter of urgency."

New laws as an explanation for the demotion?

So there are new developments such as the aggressiveness that journalists face in certain public situations, mostly verbally, of course, and not only in Austria.

But the main point of the criticism relates to the allegations that have also shaken Austrian domestic politics in recent months, up to and including Kurz's resignation, keyword: "corruption of advertisements".

The grievance that in Austria disproportionately high sums of money are distributed by the state and state-owned companies in the form of advertisements can hardly be disputed and can be seen from the figures.

But this is a phenomenon that was by no means invented by Kurz.

The former SPÖ chancellor Werner Faymann is considered to be his early master, and the city of Vienna is still the current leader.

Other points of criticism, such as the ORF law, are also nothing new.

Can the reforms that have been carried out also be an explanation for this drastic downgrade?

When asked, Fritz Hausjell, chairman of RSF Austria since this year, refers to the "order of magnitude" of the advertisements under Kurz.

In contrast, the fact that Vienna spends so much is due to the extensive infrastructure with municipal companies.

In addition, there are investigations by the public prosecutor against Kurz and others.

On the other hand, it can of course be argued that Kurz's resignation could also be seen as a positive sign for media freedom.

"The crash can also be explained by the fact that we didn't look closely at it before and the measuring instruments weren't sharp enough," says Hausjell, referring to a questionnaire that has recently been expanded to include economic aspects.

It contains 123 questions that are evaluated for the ranking.

The evaluation takes place in the international RSF headquarters in Paris.

To protect the evaluators, no information will be given about who fills out these forms for Austria.

There are scientists, practitioners, also international observers, a rather small number.

He himself is not among them, says Hausjell, who says he does not belong to any party, but was persuaded to join the “preliminary organization” BSA (Association of Social Democratic Academics) about 15 years ago.