By Linus Hoeller, Northwestern University
Reports Without Borders consistently ranks Austria among the best countries when it comes to press freedom in their annual investigations. In RSF’s 2021 report, Austria ranked 17th – putting into the second-highest bracket of countries altogether and near the top even of the European countries. Curiously, there are some discrepancies between RSF’s interpretation of the situation in Austria and Freedom House’s. While this NGO awards Austria an impressive 93 out of 100 possible points for its overall freedom, one area in which they subtracted points was media, with Austria only scoring three out of four points in that category.
A few points of concern stand out in Freedom House’s assessment. For one, the existence and use of libel laws, which have been used by some politicians – almost exclusively politicians of the far-right party and increasingly of the center-right ÖVP – to sue journalists and try to prevent critical reporting. A second point is the high concentration of ownership of the media, particularly of local papers outside of Vienna. Further, Freedom House voiced concern over the way that the publicly-funded (i.e., state-run) broadcaster was led: ORF continues to dominate the TV and radio landscapes, and Freedom House argues that there are insufficient safeguards for editorial independence and that there have been recent cases of the government intervening in the broadcaster’s reporting. A final concern is a rather contemporary one, stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, when the Austrian government – currently a coalition of the center-right ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party) and the Greens – blocked all media but the state-run ORF and Austrian Press Agency (APA) from attending press conferences, citing anti-infection measures. This particular episode has also been cited by Reporters Without Borders as a threat to press freedom in the country.
To understand the present state of news media in Austria, it is important to understand the history that led up to the current point. As is much of Austria’s culture, its journalism history is inextricably linked and intertwined with the happenings in the country’s neighbors – because of the history of the Habsburg Empire up until 1918, and later, because of Austria’s central position in Europe, neutrality during the Cold War and relatively small size, among other factors.
The European and cross-border nature of Austrian journalism has been evident since the early days of global print journalism. The first example of a newspaper published in Austria is claimed to have been printed in Vienna in 1488, but reporting on the capture of Maximilian the I. in the (then Austrian) province of Flanders – located in modern-day Belgium. Less than half a century later, in 1540, Johannes Singriener became the first person to receive the court’s permission to print “all novelties relating to the state.” By 1620, there were already three weekly newspapers in Vienna, which roughly split the reporting between them so that one reported on local topics, one reported exclusively on foreign topics and one focused primarily on court matters. Print publications flourished throughout the 18th century, and aside from a large number of regular newspapers, this period saw the emergence of more niche publications as well, such as various trade journals.
This period of relative freedom came to an end with the death of Emperor Joseph II and was replaced with a period of stronger censorship that picked up in the late 18th century and continued throughout much of the rest of the Austrian Empire’s existence. Its impact was that the number of papers, especially independent newspapers or ones dealing with political topics, dropped precipitously by the 1840s.
Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a brief period of turmoil, the Austrian first republic was declared. In it, a highly polarized society emerged, split largely into the factions of the Christian People’s Party on the right and the social democrats on the left. Much of the media landscape reflected this situation, with papers largely aligning themselves with one or the other faction and newspapers issued by the political parties or directly linked to them becoming important and dominant players in the media sphere.
The first republic ultimately came to its end when the right-wing chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß seized complete power and dissolved the parliament in 1933. In February of 1934, a civil war broke out, and by May, the first republic was declared obsolete and a new “Christian-German Corporative State” was declared, with Austrofascism being the guiding ideology. The new constitution had no provisions for any democratic institutions and free media – particularly communist or social democrat-aligned publications – were systematically shut down.
In 1934, the National Socialists – who, perhaps contrary to what seems intuitive – were enemies of the newly-formed Austro-fascist state, attempted a coup that was supported by Nazi Germany. While they succeeded in assassinating the chancellor at the time, it was only in 1938 with the annexation to Germany that Austria fell to the Nazis.
Naturally, under the Third Reich, there was no such thing as independent media, for Hitler’s empire was a totalitarian state that sought not just to control the political sphere, but completely and irreversibly alter society as a whole.
However, under the Nazi rule of Austria, broadcast infrastructure was significantly expanded. Radio had played an increasingly important role in Austria as early as the 1920s, and by the time of the Austro-fascist state, most important political events were broadcast on the airwaves. During the Nazi German times, radio infrastructure was vastly expanded and further developed – also out of military necessity – and (propaganda) radio programs were broadcast throughout the entire territory of the Reich and received by millions daily. Germany was also among the first to make serious breakthroughs in the field of television, although there was relatively little of this that happened in Austria or directly benefited the country. (However, on a fun personal side note, the buildings that now house the international school near Berlin that I attended were a Nazi research facility from 1938 to 1945 and contributed significantly to the development of television for military purposes, developing remote-controlled “seeing bombs,” among other things.)
Following Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, Austria, too, was split into zones between the allies, with Vienna, like Berlin, being split internally, too. Although the occupation lasted for ten years (until 1955) – much longer than that of Germany – Austria largely ran its internal affairs independently. Further, although the radio broadcast facilities and studios mostly fell into the Soviet part of Vienna, the stations were largely free of excessive Soviet influence, with contemporaries reporting that the introduction of a “Russian hour” – a few minutes of Russian-language programming on some days of the week – was perceived with considerable outrage as an overstepping of unspoken boundaries.
Unlike West Germany, which was dominated by the U.S., Austria remained nominally neutral during the Cold War and while part of the Marshall Plan and generally more western-aligned than for instance Yugoslavia, the U.S. did not take an as direct approach in remodeling the country’s civil society and by extension media landscape as it did in Germany.
However, unlike much of the West, Austria had heavy state involvement in many sectors of the industry and maintained completely nationalized essential sectors ranging from steel production over the railways and into the media sphere. Soon after the second Austrian republic emerged, the national broadcast institution – ORF, Österreichischer Rundfunk (“Austrian broadcasting”) – was founded. It operated, and still does so to this day, all the public broadcasting in the country, both on television and radio. Especially for the first few decades, whoever held the majority in parliament – which was always either the center-right People’s Party or the center-left Social Democrats – had not insignificant influence over the ORF’s personnel choices and programming. However, in the 70s, a reform was instituted under a social democratic government that led to greater editorial independence for the publicly-funded broadcast agency. While government influence on the broadcaster is probably greater than it is, for instance, in Germany, perhaps partly linked to Austria’s poorer performance in corruption indices, it is by no means a government mouthpiece and today serves as a solid and well-rounded source of news – domestic and international – for the Austrian population on radio, television and online.
Because of Austria’s neutrality, its role as a hub between the east and west and its connectedness in the Balkans, Austrian media – including and particularly the ORF – have had an outsized role in reporting on several important historical events in the region. During the 1968 Prague Spring, it was Austrian journalists who largely provided the rest of the world with information of what was happening in Prague; The loosening of the Communist censorship and the idea of “Socialism with a humane face.” There were even several “broadcast experiments” set up jointly by the – newly relatively independent – Czechoslovak broadcaster and the ORF, including live-transmitted dialogues between residents of Vienna and residents of Prague. (Before the loosening of restrictions, it would have been unthinkable for Czechoslovak television to broadcast such an unscripted and potentially politically critical show, especially live). Because of this close cooperation, enhanced by the historically close ties between Bohemia and Austria, it was also Austrian journalists who were best positioned to watch the invasion of the other Warsaw Pact states and the forceful crackdown on socialism with a humane face. Hugo Portisch, a recently deceased world-class Austrian journalist, retold this story in his biography and noted that the footage from inside Prague during the crackdown that was broadcast by all the other European and global news stations were simply screen-grabs of the ORF at the time. This is because the Austrian journalists had managed to establish networks within Czechoslovakia that allowed for the film footage – taken by Czechoslovak journalists, who risked their lives but refused to give up their new-found press freedom – to be smuggled out of the country and across the border to Austria, where it was developed and broadcast to the world from Vienna. This, he claims, was a constant flow of information and meant that the footage shot in Prague was visible to the world within just a few hours, despite the media blackout imposed by the occupying forces. Because of the Geographic closeness, Austrian journalists were also able to pick up the increasingly desperate broadcasts by Czechoslovak journalists who, after the Warsaw Pact troops had stormed the television station, continued broadcasting for many more hours from an improvised studio on the outskirts of Prague, pleading for the world to pay attention and spread the word of what was happening.
Similar roles – albeit perhaps less technologically cutting-edge, as live broadcasting was no longer a novelty – were played by Austrian journalists and media outlets during the fall of communism in 1989 (the Austro-Hungarian border was the first part of the physical iron curtain to be dismantled) and the Yugoslav Wars, which happened right in Austria’s backyard and in the Balkans, which have historically had and maintained close ties with Austria politically, culturally and socially.
On the broadcast side of things, it is quite noteworthy how late Austria allowed private television to operate. The first private stations emerged in the 1990s; however, they operated in a legal grey area and did not result in a huge upset of the ORF monopoly. Some of these broadcasters even operated from across the borders into Austria, including quite ironically from recently opened Hungary. The (justifiably) perceived backwardness of the Austrian media landscape often resulted in pundits nicknaming the country Europe’s “Media-Albania” and “Media-Kazakhstan,” countries that were considered synonyms for lacking press freedom. In fact, it was only in 2001 that a law was passed regulating (and legalizing) private television stations. And it was only in 2003 that ATV became the first private, terrestrial television station in Austria – making it the last European country to have this niche filled.
The legal situation for private radio stations was clearer throughout the second half of the 20th century, in that private radio was simply not permitted. This led to the emergence of several broadcasters specifically aimed at Austrian audiences broadcasting from nearby countries, including from Hungary starting as early as 1989. It was only in the 90s that the radio landscape was liberalized and diversified and private radio stations started to emerge. To this day, they mostly operate on a city- or state level, and there are few nationally broadcast private radio stations. This might partly be ascribed to the natural terrain of the country: Two-thirds of Austria are covered in the Alps, making it unusually difficult and costly to provide comprehensive radio coverage even in relatively populated valleys.
Two decades later, ORF still dominates the broadcast landscape. This is most evident in the radio sphere, where ORF absolutely dominates all competition: Most recent data from April 2020 show that the public broadcaster holds a 74% share of the listenership. Within that, the nation-wide hit radio station Ö3 is by far the most listened to, with 2.4 million listeners daily (in a country of less than 9 million). This gives Ö3 alone a market share of 31.1% – an immense market share, especially when compared to the largest private station at 8.8%. Ö3 alone beats the combined market share of all private radio stations, which is 26.6%.
ORF is also the dominant force in the TV market, with its stations holding a 33.2% market share (and seeing an increase in their market share as a result of Covid). The largest single private station is the Red-Bull-owned Servus TV, which alone holds a 3.4% market share. As a conglomerate, the largest private television media group in Austria is ProSiebenSat.1 Media, who hold a 16.8% market share – although they come out well ahead of the ORF for the “advertising target group” of 12 to 49-year-olds.
In the print sphere, however, there is no such thing as a “public service paper,” and this is where much of the Austrian media landscape’s diversity can be found. There are a few national papers, but the majority of the output takes place in regional papers, with Kleine Zeitung – a regional paper with separate editions for the states of Styria and Carinthia – being one of the dominant ones. By far the most-read paper according to recent data, however, is the boulevard Kronen Zeitung, which is issued nationally, and commands an astounding 25% market share. Kleine Zeitung is the second-largest paper nationally, holding a slightly larger than 10% share on a national level. Considering it is only published in two of the nine states, this gives an approximate impression of its importance within those states and which is very apparent when on the ground. Heute, a nationally distributed paper that is available free of charge from the iconic Austrian distribution bags hanging from street signs, has the third-largest market share, at 9.5%. It is also interesting to note that in the magazine world, Red Bull’s publishing house dominates, commanding nearly a third of the market share.
Austria’s media in a European context took a very individual path over their course of development but today, the country is in a good place and has a robust and healthy media landscape. However, the high concentration of state ownership in the broadcast sector might be considered a vulnerability to the press freedom if the wrong people end up in power – something that recent experiences with the far right and even the center-right people’s party have underscored. Informal but commonly perceived and accepted alliances between some print publications and certain political parties mean that print publication in Austria might be more partisan than in some other countries with similarly very high press freedom ratings – this not necessarily being something bad, but simply a noteworthy observation.
Going forward, Austrian politicians, particularly of the right-of-center parties, ought to return to a certain level of respect for the media and its independence and rather than undermining these institutions that have taken so long to fully blossom, they should support them as a strong, independent fourth pillar of democracy. The publicly-funded broadcaster is a major asset for the republic, but it should not be misused for political gains; Rather, its editorial independence should be maintained and its reach used to educate, inform and entertain.
With continued safeguards and respects for the democratic institutions of the Austrian second republic, the country seems well-positioned to maintain its lead as one of the most livable and democratic places in the world.
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 This is mostly based on the perception of the people I spoke to
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