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Austria – (C2) Independence of the news media from power holders

Score in short:

Overall, a special status is granted to journalists by several laws emphasizing the value of independence for journalistic work. However “promise and practice” often diverge.

Score in detail:

The ORF-Act grants fundamental independence from power holders to the ORF (ORF Gesetz, 2009, § 32). Nevertheless, the close relation to political parties and authorities becomes obvious in staff decisions made by the board (Stiftungsrat), which is also in charge of appointing the general director (ORF Gesetz, 2009, §§ 20 & 22)4. To some observers, party affiliation is of importance in staff decisions limiting the political independence of the ORF (Kaltenbrunner, 2010, p. 119). However, content analysis of the main ORF news formats (Zeit im Bild) showed that the news coverage of the ORF was well balanced and that the in-depth reporting on democratic values and political issues was comparable to that of quality newspapers (lengauer 2006, p. 374).

Survey results among journalists show that the importance of Kronen Zeitung and ORF for the political agenda is unrivaled. In fact, 78 % of journalists think Kronen Zeitung has a very great influence on the political agenda; 59 % have the same opinion of the ORF (Kaltenbrunner 2010, p. 119f). even though Kronen Zeitung has declared itself as independent and political ambitions have been denied several times, the former longtime editor, Hans Dichand, published his own political preferences regularly in his commentaries. furthermore, our respondent from Kronen Zeitung emphasized the importance of media campaigns initiated by the newspaper and their impact on democratic developments. In 2008 the importance of the newspaper for the political agenda became evident once again when leading politicians of the Social Democratic Party announced a change in the party’s position on european issues, in particular the lisbon Treaty, in an open letter to the editor that was published in Kronen Zeitung (Gusenbauer & faymann 2008, p. 4).

At least two important non-media institutions are present in the Austrian media sectors: the Catholic Church (Katholischer Medien-Verein, Styria Media Group) and the financial service provider Raiffeisen Holding (Kurier, Verlagsgruppe News, Profil, Mediaprint, Krone Hit, Sat1 Austria, etc.). Both are active in all media sectors (book publishing, print, radio and television). Our respondents from news media related to those non-media institutions confirmed regular but informal contact to ownership representatives, however totally denied any direct impact on journalistic daily routines.

Concerning the daily journalistic practice, the president of the journalists’ union admitted that attempts to directly influence journalists or newsrooms are made by politicians, and in some cases are also effective. What he considered worse was that political parties were at the same time important advertising clients, which limits the resistance to external influence and can negatively affect the newsrooms’ independence.