Independent journalism under threat, not just in Russia

Dr Oliver Hartwich
19 October, 2021

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize was an inspired choice. By recognising Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa, two journalists working in adverse conditions in Russia and the Philippines, the Nobel Committee sent a powerful message to support an independent media.

In the same context, another worthy recipient would have been the Viennese Economic and Corruption Prosecutor’s Office. Because their investigations revealed there are threats to a functioning media not just in autocracies but in well-established democracies, too.

In a strange coincidence, three days after the news about the Nobel Peace Prize for free journalism, Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz resigned.

As far as international media covered Kurz’s resignation at all, it was portrayed as just another corruption scandal. However, it goes deeper than that since it sheds light on the state of journalism in Kurz’s country.

To add a bit of background to the Kurz affair, we need to look at the Austrian media scene.

In 2020, Austrian government institutions spent 222 million Euros on advertising, according to journalism advocacy group Medienhaus Wien. This figure includes spending by the federal government in Vienna, federal states, municipalities and companies in public ownership.

Some government advertising, of course, may be appropriate, especially in a pandemic. Nevertheless, there have been more than a few peculiarities about how the Austrian government engages the media.

Revenues from government advertising and direct media funding made up between 5 and 10 percent of the revenues of Austria’s regional publishers. State advertisements and subsidies accounted for 20 to 40 percent of publisher revenues in 2020 for free-sheet publishers.

There has long been a discrepancy between the different types of publications receiving government support in Austria. Though most newspapers received some government advertising revenue, the tabloid end of the market got the lion’s share. Combined, Austria’s four newspapers of record (Die Presse, Der Standard, Wiener Zeitung and Salzburger Nachrichten) received less funding in this way than either the tabloid Kronen Zeitung or the freely distributed newspaper Österreich.

When a newspaper depends for up to 40 percent of its revenue on the government, especially if it does not have any revenue from its readers, it is easy to imagine conflicts of interest. Would such a newspaper report critically of a government that, effectively, underwrites its existence?

But this dependence goes further. It is not just that critical reporting will go amiss. The government might also see a dependent newspaper as an easy option to influence public opinion.

In this context, it is worth keeping in mind that the ministries controlled by Sebastian Kurz’s party, the right-wing ÖVP, accounted for 95 percent of all government advertising – his Greens coalition partner only signed off on 5 percent of advertising.

Even in a world of saints in government and the media, the politics-media interdependencies would have been hard to ignore. But, as the Kurz scandal shows, there were not just saints involved.

Never mind that Sebastian Kurz has always presented himself as a saviour, if not a saint. The 35-year-old ex-Chancellor had long been the wunderkind of European centre-right politics. When he became Foreign Secretary, at 27, most of his contemporaries were in their first jobs after graduation. At 31, he led his party and went on to become Chancellor before his 32nd birthday. Kurz’s rise was nothing short of meteoric. Unlike the grey political establishment of the Alpine republic, he was young and spoke well.

But Kurz did not want to rely solely on his charisma. This seems to be the case based on material now unearthed by the public prosecution service.

Early in 2016, the Austrian government and a tabloid publisher entered agreements for advertising and media cooperation, according to prosecutors. Kurz and his team were laying the groundwork for a future takeover of the conservative people’s party at the time.

One of Kurz’s friends in the finance ministry, so the assumption goes, brokered the deal which, essentially, guaranteed good coverage for Kurz in exchange for some extra funding. As part of the deal, so the allegation goes, opinion polls favourable to Kurz were fabricated.

Kurz denies all allegations. Following his resignation, he vowed to fight them in court, and the Austrian Parliament is about to lift his immunity from prosecution. In the meantime, Kurz remains Austria’s most important politician, albeit as leader of his party’s parliamentary faction.

It is hard to predict what will happen over the coming months. Will the public prosecution service find enough evidence to make the case for a conviction of the former Chancellor? And will that be the outcome of a possible criminal trial?

In legal matters, there is never a guaranteed outcome. The safest bet appears to be that Kurz will not return as Austria’s Chancellor, no matter how much he would like to. In his home country, the scandal has caused too much reputational damage. Then again, Kurz might be a candidate for a role in Brussels in a few years if the centre-right is looking for a successor to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

Still, the affair should raise questions about the state of the media regardless of Kurz’s legal responsibility or his potential political future in Europe.

While we should celebrate the courage of journalists like Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa, we should not lose sight of the threats to media independence even in countries that appear to be safe.

Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perception Index ranked Austria 15th, ahead of countries such as the US, France and Ireland. Reporters without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index ranked Austria 17th, ahead of Australia, the UK, and Spain.

But the Kurz affair has revealed a media climate that is too cosy with the country’s ruling elite. And herein lies the lesson.

Good journalism means more than standing up to autocrats. It means not getting into bed with politicians of any kind, not even democratic ones – and not even those one agrees with. And certainly not those who fund the newspaper you write for.

So three cheers to the brave journalists in Russia and the Philippines. And at least one enormous cheer for the Viennese Economic and Corruption Prosecutor’s Office.


Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates