ANALYSIS: The Kurz corruption scandal exposes Austria’s press freedom problems

The corruption scandal that recently forced Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to leave his post has exposed the 'open secret' of unhealthy ties between politicians, polling companies and the media, with critics renewing calls for reform.

Austrian newspapers about Sebastian Kurz
The Austrian press is largely dependent on state funding, creating a risk that government ad spending could influence coverage, say critics. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

The scandal erupted this month when prosecutors raided locations including the chancellory and the finance ministry.

They are currently probing allegations that Kurz’s inner circle used public money to pay for polls skewed to boost his image. Prosecutors also suspect that in return for running the surveys, and other fawning coverage of Kurz, a major tabloid received lucrative public adverts.

Kurz and all those under investigation deny any wrong-doing. But the fact that government adverts are used as a means of influencing the press has long been an “open secret”, says Yilmaz Gulum, a political journalist with public broadcaster ORF.

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In the small EU member state of 8.9 million people, large swathes of the press have become reliant on public money as “their economic model of print media has been destabilized by the internet”, says Fritz Hausjell, deputy head of  the media and communications department at the University of Vienna.

By far and away the largest source of public funds has been ad spending by regional and national government, which has grown to €220 million ($256 million) a year.

However, many official ads seem to have little informational content and are used instead to show beaming ministers or mayors wishing citizens a “Merry Christmas” or “sunny summer”.

According to media expert Andy Kaltenbrunner from the University of Salzburg, the Österreich and Heute freesheet tabloids are the most dependent on government funds, accounting for 20-40 percent of their revenues. Gulum says the way the ads are placed across the sector amounts to “market distortion” with tabloids receiving much higher sums than the broadsheets, some of which are more critical of the government.

Former Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl said in May this year that when she took office in 2017 and made huge cuts to the ministry’s ad budget “many were horrified”. The aim of ad spending was generally seen as “buying goodwill in press coverage,” she explained to a parliamentary committee investigating corruption.

Huasjell points out that the system can be used to exercise influence in both directions. Tabloids like Oesterreich can exert pressure on government by saying: “If you don’t buy lots of ads, then we’ll take you down or disregard you.”

Henrike Brandstötter, an MP for the opposition liberal Neos party, says the upshot of the system is that “with some media (the audience) can’t have confidence that what’s written is always correct”.

“That’s endangering democracy,” she says.

Sebastian Kurz is surrounded by media as he arrives to attend the parliamentary session at the Austrian Parliament in Vienna, Austria, on October 14th. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

The advertising issue is one reason Austria has slid 10 places down the press freedom rankings compiled by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) pressure group since 2015. In its latest report on Austria, RSF said that despite the entry of the Greens into government — “a party that claims to respect the highest press freedom standards” — there has been little progress on “press financing reform”.

The press is therefore likely to remain “dependent on state funding for some time”, it added.

Brandstötter sees the solution lies in capping the amount the government spends on ads and instead upping the amount of direct public subsidy. Advocates of this route say subsidies would be less liable to manipulation by the government of the day as they would be shared more equitably across the sector and on a more stable basis.

The other aspect of the media landscape cast in a dubious light by the latest scandal is polling. Kurz’s aides are suspected of commissioning polls which were massaged in order to smooth his path to the chancellery. Brandstötter calls them a “manipulation of public opinion”.

The polling company that carried them out was not a member of the polling industry association VdMI because it didn’t meet the group’s quality control standards. These include a minimum of 800 respondents per survey and avoiding using online-only polls.

Christoph Hofinger of the SORA polling institute — one of the country’s most respected — called for improvements in his field.

“When polls appear that aren’t up to standard, they shouldn’t be used in public debate,” he said.

By Blaise Bauquelin

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Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen has hit out at Austria's naturalisation process, saying "the hurdles are too high". But how hard is it to get Austrian citizenship - and will the criticism lead to change?

Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Austria’s federal president Alexander Van der Bellen, who is eyeing a second term in office in the autumn elections, has said that the hurdles for citizenship are too high in the alpine country.

“Citizenship is a valuable asset. I think the hurdles for obtaining it are too high.”, he said in an interview with the newspaper Kleine Zeitung.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does Austria’s presidential election work?

Van der Bellen mentioned a case with a German citizen who has lived in Austria for 20 years and cannot obtain dual citizenship: “He can vote neither here nor there. And that is the European Union?”

Austria does not allow for dual citizenship of naturalised citizens except in very few cases (including naturalisation of those who are descendants of Holocaust victims).

This is one of the many hurdles to citizenship in the country.

What makes Austrian citizenship so difficult to get?

Citizenship through naturalisation, meaning you are not the son or daughter of an Austrian citizen, is particularly hard to get.

First of all, the majority of applicants will need to give up any other citizenships they hold. So, a British citizen taking Austrian nationality through marriage or residence time will have to give up their British passport.

READ ALSO: Which European countries have the toughest rules for gaining citizenship?

Besides severing that connection to a home country where people might still have many ties, this can lead to difficulties in matters of inheritance and property ownership, for example.

The naturalisation process is also long and expensive in Austria. In Vienna, the application costs €130. If successful, the new Austrian citizen can expect to pay from € 1,100 to € 1,500 just for the award – that doesn’t include costs with documentation, translation, and issuance of documents such as an Austrian passport.

The length of the process varies, but it can take more than a year for citizenship to be awarded.

The requirements will also be different depending on how long the person is legally an Austrian resident and what is their connection to the country.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Will my children get an Austrian passport if born in Austria?

For example, after 30 years of residence in Austria, you need to prove you are not a danger to the country and that you can support yourself.

You also need to prove German skills and pass a citizenship test.

The minimum amount of time of legal residency after which you can require citizenship is six years for people who fall into specific categories, such as legal and uninterrupted residence in Austria and possession of the citizenship of an EEA state, birth in Austria or German at a B2 level.

Will Austria change its citizenship rules?

It is improbable that there will be any significant changes soon. Despite Van der Bellen’s statements, citizenship laws are not within the federal president’s competence and mostly depend on legislative changes.

The party leading the ruling coalition, ÖVP, is against any changes, claiming that making the process easier would “depreciate” Austrian citizenship.

READ ALSO: ​​Why has naturalisation in Austria doubled in 2022 – and who are the new citizens?

Austria has recently seen a jump in naturalisation numbers, but that can largely be viewed as a one-off phenomenon after changes in the process for descendants of Nazi victims.

While junior partner Greens have been in favour of easing some rules, little is expected to happen with the ÖVP in power. The next parliamentary elections are set for 2024, though. If the SPÖ continues climbing in the polls, an SPÖ-Green coalition could push forward different rules.

Also, if the Red-Green-Yellow ruling coalition in Germany does succeed in easing naturalisation rules in the neighbouring country, Austria could see further pressure for domestic changes.

But that remains to be seen, mainly depending on the 2024 election results.