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World Press Freedom Day – blank page protest

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by Otmar Lahodynsky. Vienna, May 3, 2023   

Today, World Press Freedom Day: Austria is only at 29th place in the new global ranking.

Wars, crises and the worldwide spread of authoritarian, repressive systems, have further restricted press freedom in the past year. This is painfully obvious in the new press freedom ranking published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) today, on International Press Freedom Day.

The almost complete suppression of independent reporting in Russia as a result of the Ukraine war, mass arrests of media workers in Turkey, the rising number of imprisoned journalists in China, and the further increase in aggression against reporters on the fringes of demonstrations in Germany, France, and other EU countries has meant that many countries slipped down the ranking.

Eloquent front pages, coffee house, Bad Ischl, Upper Austria, World  Press Freedom Dad, May 3 2023

According to the RSF index, the situation of press freedom is “very serious” in 31 countries, “difficult” in 42, there are “identifiable problems” in 55, and the situation is “good” or “satisfactory” in only 52 states. Working conditions for media professionals are problematic in about 70% cent of countries worldwide, much the same as last year. Three countries slipped into the worst category of “very serious” this year: Tajikistan, India, and Turkey.

Austria reaches a “satisfactory” 29th place in the ranking this year, a slight improvement from the disgraceful fall to 31st place in 2021. But even after the introduction of the new RSF rating system, Austria does not manage to make a leap towards the top rankings. Scandinavian countries such as Norway (1st place), Sweden (4th place), Denmark (3rd place), and Ireland (2nd place) are in the top positions.

Austria still has no reason to be happy about two better places: if only the legal framework were counted, we would be in 33rd place this year (-1.63 points), in the political framework even only 39th place (-3.81 points).

According to Reporters Without Borders, there are many reasons for this poor performance: the Freedom of Information Act has still not been passed, making Austria the only EU country without one. The draft law on journalism funding is half-hearted and ignores diversity, inclusion, innovation and the smaller media, which are equally important for a democracy.

There is still no cap on public funds for advertisements and as long as it does not become compulsory to award advertising contracts exclusively on the basis of factual, verifiable criteria, this system of political pressure will not end.

Hausjell – Austrian govt attitude “completely inadequate”

“Corruptive relationships between government and media have not been put a stop to by the new media transparency law, which is only available as a draft in 2022. The government can continue to award advertising contracts and enter into media cooperations without any consequences. This does not prevent the control of journalism,” said Austrian RSF President Fritz Hausjell, summing up the inadequate response of the federal government to serious accusations by the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Economic Affairs and Corruption.

More recent incidents such as the government’s decision to discontinue the print edition of the Wiener Zeitung, the oldest daily newspaper still published anywhere in the world, and in its place setting up a “Media Hub”, a journalist training programme controlled only by the Federal Chanceller have not even been taken into account in the assessment. Nor has the newly-regulated financing of the ORF state TV and radio broadcaster.

That is why almost all Austrian daily newspapers appeared today with a blank front page to draw attention to the unfair competition of private media houses with the public service ORF. The latter receives ten times as much public funding as all private media houses together. “With at least 710 million euros that the ORF receives from the fee payers, the ORF is now increasingly competing with the private journalistic media,” the Association of Austrian Newspapers (VÖZ) sounded the alarm. “Austrian media diversity is thus existentially threatened!”

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