BERLIN — Sebastian Kurz, the made-for-Instagram Austrian chancellor who rose to prominence by harnessing the power of social media, is racing to take back control of his story.
Facing uncomfortable questions at home about his manhandling of the press and a tsunami of political scandals, Kurz is due to travel on Tuesday to Munich, where he’s to receive the “Media Prize of Freedom” from a German publisher.
For the image-obsessed Kurz, 34, whose personal photographer feeds Instagram and Facebook with images of the chancellor’s every move, the event is the stuff of PR gold (past recipients of the prize from the Weimer Media Group include Mikhail Gorbachev and Jean-Claude Juncker). Just after lunch, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will introduce his Austrian friend during a live-streamed ceremony at Munich’s storied Bavaria Film Studios.
It’s a fitting setting for an honor Kurz’s critics say is about as genuine as the replica Brandenburg Gate that another famous Austrian — Hollywood legend Billy Wilder — erected on the Bavaria lot (for his film “One, Two, Three,” a political comedy where nothing is what it seems).
Far from promoting “freedom of expression, political dialogue and democracy,” as the prize citation reads, Kurz’s detractors say he has sought to systematically undermine Austrian media through a combination of financial pressure, access control and outright intimidation.
Kurz “doesn’t accept that journalists stand on the other side of the fence, that their job is to check facts and report,” said Helmut Brandstätter, a veteran Austrian broadcast and print journalist who left the profession in 2019 to run for parliament, where he now serves as an MP with the liberal Neos party. “The guiding principle is to not accept that journalism is a check on power because, according to him, journalism should only involve passing along official announcements.”
It’s a similar playbook that Central Europe’s self-styled “illiberal democrats” — from Poland to Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic — have relied on in recent years to undermine critical media.
Unlike those former communist countries, however, Austria has been anchored in Western Europe’s liberal political traditions since the war, its democracy underpinned by a vibrant press. Whether that history will make the Alpine nation more resilient against an authoritarian turn is an open question. But the country’s trajectory is already causing alarm in some quarters; this year, Austria recorded its lowest ranking ever in Reporters Without Borders’ annual scorecard of media freedom, which was released in April.
Cash for media
The government’s main tool for rewarding its media allies is its generous PR budget. Kurz’s coalition, which includes his party and the Greens, recently earmarked €210 million for media spending until 2024.
In the past, most of that money has been spent on advertising, a practice critics see as a hidden subsidy for the country’s powerful tabloids, which support Kurz and have received most of the cash. Last year, for example, the coalition spent €47 million on such advertising, or triple what the previous government did.
“These money flows remind me of the initial years of the [Hungarian] Fidesz government,” said Milan Nič, who heads research about Central and Eastern Europe at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank. Such tactics, common in the region, occur in the spirit of “if something is not forbidden, it’s allowed,” Nič added.
Kurz’s office declined requests to comment for this article. But last week, on World Press Day, Kurz tweeted that press freedom and independent media were “important pillars of our liberal democracy.”
“As the federal government, our support for the freedom of the press and media is unlimited,” he added.
Even as he has lavished his media allies, Kurz has been less generous with Austria’s public media. A government decision to end a requirement that legal announcements be printed in the publicly-owned Wiener Zeitung has the future of that newspaper, which was founded in 1703 and is one of the world’s oldest, in question. Though owned by the government, the paper is editorially independent. Kurz, who supports an online-only model for the paper, recently said that “operation and financing of a newspaper isn’t the responsibility of the republic.”
The ORF, the state broadcaster with a news division often critical of the government, is on stable financial footing, thanks to its financing mix of mandatory license fees from viewers and advertising. But journalists who work there say the broadcaster, the primary source of information for most Austrians, faces persistent interventions from Kurz’s government in news coverage. Many fear Kurz will use the upcoming election of a new ORF director, which the chancellor can influence through the board of governors, to install a political crony.
“There have been critical phases in the past, but it has never been as bad as it is now,” said a senior ORF journalist who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
While there’s nothing out of the ordinary about political leaders trying to spin stories in their favor, the recent publication of text exchanges from within Kurz’s inner circle has pulled back the curtain on the lengths the chancellor is willing to go to steer the media.
Kurz’s critics say the only thing that’s unlimited about the chancellor’s approach to the media is his desire to influence it. Armed with a generous budget and a communication staff of 80 that includes writers, photographers, videographers and PR specialists, Kurz’s media operation is larger than many Austrian newsrooms. In addition to promoting the chancellor and his government, the team serves another purpose of equal urgency: to snuff out critical press coverage.
In July 2020, Alexandra Wachter, an Austrian television journalist who works for private broadcaster Puls 24, confronted Kurz with accusations in the German media that he regularly attacks the EU to deflect attention from domestic problems and curry favor with his base. Kurz’s response: “You have a brain of your own.”
Sensing it would reflect poorly on the chancellor, his chief press aide asked the broadcaster to cut the exchange, which it did (Puls 24 later decided to make available the full interview online).
“Kurz is manic about how the media portray him, how he is perceived, photographed and judged,” Hubert Patterer, the editor of Kleine Zeitung, a conservative regional paper, concluded after a series of run-ins with Kurz and his handlers in a widely-read column dedicated to the chancellor’s “message control” strategy.
While most politicians are vain to some degree, the journalists who follow Kurz closely say his fixation with the media goes beyond casual narcissism.
“At times,” Patterer wrote, “it has the quality of an obsession.”
Editors on speed dial
Patterer got a taste of that fixation in the early phase of the pandemic after his paper ran an article and photographs showing Kurz flouting social distancing rules during a visit to the western part of the country. For weeks, the chancellor had been stressing the necessity of pandemic restrictions to Austrians and the pictures of him being celebrated at an impromptu rally by fans created an uproar.
Kurz called several times to complain, Patterer said, going as far as to send photographs of the event taken by his own photographer to argue his case.
Patterer said in an interview that he didn’t so much regard the calls as an intervention as much as a sign that the chancellor can’t handle criticism.
“You could see how his confidence abandons him when he’s confronted with pictures that don’t align with his self-image,” he said. “He refused to acknowledge that he had made a mistake.”
Patterer, whose paper is the largest in southeastern Austria, a region that has long supported Kurz’s party, wasn’t the only journalist the chancellor has on speed dial. Editors from several other newspapers that covered his trip reported receiving similar calls.
“It was the first time that his message control didn’t work,” Patterer said. “He became a victim of the power of the pictures.”
Kurz isn’t the first Austrian chancellor to intervene with the press or to reward titles that support him with government advertising. But Austrian editors say that under Kurz, these practices have intensified to a degree they’ve never seen.
“The difference now is two-fold,” Brandstätter said. “First, the perfection of the surveillance and, second, the brutality of the interventions.”
When he was editor-in-chief of the daily Kurier newspaper, Brandstätter said Kurz, then foreign minister, regularly called both him and the owner of his newspaper to air grievances. On one occasion, Kurz called from New York to complain about a picture the paper had run of him, he said.
Both Patterer and Brandstätter recall Kurz asking them the same question in private: “Why don’t you like me?”
Brandstätter suspects his own exit as Kurier editor in 2018 was accelerated by Kurz’s interventions with the paper’s proprietor, a banking group traditionally close to the chancellor’s conservative party. Though Kurz has denied those suggestions, he told an associate in one of the text exchanges that recently came to light that he believed Brandstätter “hates” him.
A centrist newspaper with a strong following in and around Vienna, Kurier is important to Kurz’s camp because its readership comprises many middle-class swing voters, the very demographic the party needs in order to maintain its dominance.
“The message they wanted to send was that we were under permanent supervision, that they have 80 people monitoring what we do at all times and that if they don’t like something, they would call as many times as it took to get what they wanted,” Brandstätter said.
Recently, Kurz has gotten little of what he wanted when it comes to media coverage.
He has faced awkward questions over why, after never missing an opportunity to post photographs of himself traveling in economy class, he hopped on a private jet to fly from Israel back to Vienna in March. Even more awkward, the luxury jet that ferried him is owned by Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch and Vladimir Putin ally whom the U.S. has sought to extradite over his alleged involvement in organized crime.
Meanwhile, a clutch of investigations by Austrian authorities into allegations of government corruption have triggered a steady flow of embarrassing details about Kurz’s inner circle, including the discovery of more than 2,000 pornographic images on the government-issued iPhone of a close Kurz associate.
Kurz’s campaign against critical media has also hit speed bumps. The chancellor’s Austrian People’s Party lost a lawsuit last month that it had filed against Der Falter, the Vienna investigative weekly, for writing that Kurz’s team had intentionally violated campaign finance rules in 2019.
Ten days after the ruling, an online platform operated by Kurz’s party attacked Falter editor Florian Klenk with a flurry of baseless accusations about the journalist’s involvement in the “Ibiza” scandal that brought down Kurz’s first government with the far-right Freedom Party in 2019.
The piece would likely have drawn little notice if Kurz, who has hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, hadn’t shared it on Twitter.
Klenk says Kurz’s move was an attempt at “intimidation.” If so, it backfired because instead of triggering a debate about Klenk, Kurz raised questions about why the chancellor of Austria would spread false information about a prominent journalist online.
Those setbacks underscore why Kurz’s Germany trip is so important. Throughout his short political career, he has cultivated the German press. During the refugee crisis, for example, Kurz was a regular on Germany’s talk show circuit, campaigning for tougher migration rules in Europe.
Kurz’s primary motivation with such visits doesn’t appear to be to improve his image among Germans, but rather to show Austrians that he is a politician of international renown. And though some German media view him with a critical eye (just last week, Jan Böhmermann, a prominent German satirist, subjected Kurz to a withering takedown on his TV show), overall, the coverage of the chancellor has been positive, at times fawning.
For German conservatives frustrated by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s left-leaning views on migration and many other social issues, Kurz has been a breath of fresh air.
Wolfram Weimer, the German publisher behind Kurz’s media award, said Merkel’s Christian Democrats, now trailing the Greens in many polls, could only dream of the kind of dominance Kurz has achieved in Austria. (Despite the recent difficulties, Kurz‘s party still has a comfortable lead in the polls.)
In other words, for German conservatives, Kurz represents both what once was and what could be again.
Weimer said his organization was eager to recognize Kurz for the role he has played as a “bridge builder” between Eastern and Western Europe. As for the corruption scandals surrounding the government and Kurz’s treatment of the media, Weimer, who operates a small stable of publications about politics and business, said he hasn’t really focused on the details of what he called “domestic Austrian issues.”
“These are things I don’t really know that much about or — to be honest — really care about,” he said.
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