Vienna, October 15, 2021
by Otmar Lahodynsky, former AEJ President
“Poison for democracy and for rule of law”
Reform of media funding has been discussed in Austria for many years.
Even the changes in Austria’s Media Transparency Act now being proposed are inadequate, and cannot solve the key problem. By allocating state advertisements, and therefore money, politicians try to buy good behaviour and influence reportage. The first “black-blue” (govt alliance of conservative ÖVP and rightist FPÖ Freedom Party) government even forced out an inconvenient provincial editor by threatening to cut off advertising.
This is a lord of the manor allocation of taxpayers’ money, as the boss of a magazine publisher hit by advertising cancellations called it, and must be halted as soon as possible. It is inadmissible to restrict a basic task of the media as the so-called fourth power in the state, which is control of the government.
The scandal over allocation of advertising and mixing this with publishing controlled opinion polls by Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) and his circle proves the urgency for reforms.
But after controversial advertising contracts by then-Transport Minister Werner Faymann (Socialist SPÖ), a fundamental reorganisation was allowed to lapse.
In 2020 almost half the federal government’s expenditure on print and online advertising went to three tabloids. Quality papers received just 10%.
Leading lawyers set out the obvious problem in their anti-corruption petition launched last summer: “Advertising corruption, political dependencies, and (party) political pressure on media are poison for democracy and the rule of law.”
The information work of ministries and other public bodies should therefore be legally-regulated by personnel and budgetary ceilings, including an obligation by media to be transparent about this.
The AEJ, then still under my leadership, made a basic demand: the existing regulation, under which makes the extent of subsidies for print media is dependent on the printed circulation, must be abolished. In Switzerland, where a vote will soon be taken on a newly-designed media subsidy, the awarding of subsidies has long been tied to quality criteria. In Sweden, there are subsidies for print media if they serve sparsely populated regions. Subsidies could also be based on the number of journalists employed.
Media freedom and media diversity are irreplaceable if a democracy is to function. Unfortunately, there are also more and more restrictions within the EU: in Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia, independent media critical of the government have been brought into line, bought up by oligarchs, simply closed down, or in the case of the Slovene state news agency, starved of money.
In Western Europe, too, encroachments on media freedom are becoming more frequent. The Austrian ÖVP-led government should see the ongoing investigations by the judiciary in the advertising affair as an opportunity to adopt new rules for the media sector, above all to ensure the continued existence of independent quality media.