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BERLIN — Sebastian Kurz, the made-for-Instagram Austrian chancellor who rose to prominence by harnessing the facility of social media, is racing to take again management of his story.
Going through uncomfortable questions at residence about his manhandling of the press and a tsunami of political scandals, Kurz is because of journey on Tuesday to Munich, the place he’s to obtain the “Media Prize of Freedom” from a German writer.
For the image-obsessed Kurz, 34, whose private photographer feeds Instagram and Fb with pictures of the chancellor’s each transfer, the occasion is the stuff of PR gold (previous recipients of the prize from the Weimer Media Group embrace Mikhail Gorbachev and Jean-Claude Juncker). Simply after lunch, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will introduce his Austrian good friend throughout a live-streamed ceremony at Munich’s storied Bavaria Movie Studios.
It’s a becoming setting for an honor Kurz’s critics say is about as real because the duplicate Brandenburg Gate that one other well-known Austrian — Hollywood legend Billy Wilder — erected on the Bavaria lot (for his movie “One, Two, Three,” a political comedy the place nothing is what it appears).
Removed from selling “freedom of expression, political dialogue and democracy,” because the prize quotation reads, Kurz’s detractors say he has sought to systematically undermine Austrian media by a mix of monetary strain, entry management and outright intimidation.
Kurz “doesn’t settle for that journalists stand on the opposite facet of the fence, that their job is to test information and report,” mentioned Helmut Brandstätter, a veteran Austrian broadcast and print journalist who left the career in 2019 to run for parliament, the place he now serves as an MP with the liberal Neos social gathering. “The guideline is to not settle for that journalism is a test on energy as a result of, in response to him, journalism ought to solely contain passing alongside official bulletins.”
It’s the same playbook that Central Europe’s self-styled “intolerant democrats” — from Poland to Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic — have relied on lately to undermine vital media.
In contrast to these former communist nations, nevertheless, Austria has been anchored in Western Europe’s liberal political traditions for the reason that warfare, its democracy underpinned by a vibrant press. Whether or not that historical past will make the Alpine nation extra resilient towards an authoritarian flip is an open query. However the nation’s trajectory is already inflicting alarm in some quarters; this 12 months, Austria recorded its lowest rating ever in Reporters With out Borders’ annual scorecard of media freedom, which was launched in April.
Money for media
The federal government’s predominant instrument for rewarding its media allies is its beneficiant PR price range. Kurz’s coalition, which incorporates his social gathering and the Greens, just lately earmarked €210 million for media spending till 2024.
Prior to now, most of that cash has been spent on promoting, a apply critics see as a hidden subsidy for the nation’s highly effective tabloids, which help Kurz and have obtained a lot of the money. Final 12 months, for instance, the coalition spent €47 million on such promoting, or triple what the earlier authorities did.
“These cash flows remind me of the preliminary years of the [Hungarian] Fidesz authorities,” mentioned Milan Nič, who heads analysis about Central and Japanese Europe on the German Council on Overseas Relations, a Berlin-based assume tank. Such techniques, widespread within the area, happen within the spirit of “if one thing shouldn’t be forbidden, it’s allowed,” Nič added.
Kurz’s workplace declined requests to remark for this text. However final week, on World Press Day, Kurz tweeted that press freedom and unbiased media have been “essential pillars of our liberal democracy.”
“Because the federal authorities, our help for the liberty of the press and media is limitless,” he added.
At the same time as he has lavished his media allies, Kurz has been much less beneficiant with Austria’s public media. A authorities determination to finish a requirement that authorized bulletins be printed within the publicly-owned Wiener Zeitung has the way forward for that newspaper, which was based in 1703 and is likely one of the world’s oldest, in query. Although owned by the federal government, the paper is editorially unbiased. Kurz, who helps an online-only mannequin for the paper, just lately mentioned that “operation and financing of a newspaper isn’t the duty of the republic.”
The ORF, the state broadcaster with a information division typically vital of the federal government, is on secure monetary footing, due to its financing mixture of necessary license charges from viewers and promoting. However journalists who work there say the broadcaster, the first supply of data for many Austrians, faces persistent interventions from Kurz’s authorities in information protection. Many concern Kurz will use the upcoming election of a brand new ORF director, which the chancellor can affect by the board of governors, to put in a political crony.
“There have been vital phases prior to now, nevertheless it has by no means been as unhealthy as it’s now,” mentioned a senior ORF journalist who requested to not be named for concern of reprisals.
Whereas there’s nothing out of the atypical about political leaders attempting to spin tales of their favor, the latest publication of textual content exchanges from inside Kurz’s inside circle has pulled again the curtain on the lengths the chancellor is keen to go to steer the media.
Kurz’s critics say the one factor that’s limitless concerning the chancellor’s strategy to the media is his need to affect it. Armed with a beneficiant price range and a communication employees of 80 that features writers, photographers, videographers and PR specialists, Kurz’s media operation is bigger than many Austrian newsrooms. Along with selling the chancellor and his authorities, the staff serves one other function of equal urgency: to snuff out vital press protection.
In July 2020, Alexandra Wachter, an Austrian tv journalist who works for personal broadcaster Puls 24, confronted Kurz with accusations within the German media that he recurrently assaults the EU to deflect consideration from home issues and curry favor together with his base. Kurz’s response: “You have got a mind of your individual.”
Sensing it could mirror poorly on the chancellor, his chief press aide requested the broadcaster to chop the trade, which it did (Puls 24 later determined to make accessible the complete interview on-line).
“Kurz is manic about how the media painting him, how he’s perceived, photographed and judged,” Hubert Patterer, the editor of Kleine Zeitung, a conservative regional paper, concluded after a collection of run-ins with Kurz and his handlers in a widely-read column devoted to the chancellor’s “message management” technique.
Whereas most politicians are useless to a point, the journalists who comply with Kurz carefully say his fixation with the media goes past informal narcissism.
“At instances,” Patterer wrote, “it has the standard of an obsession.”
Editors on pace dial
Patterer bought a style of that fixation within the early section of the pandemic after his paper ran an article and images displaying Kurz flouting social distancing guidelines throughout a go to to the western a part of the nation. For weeks, the chancellor had been stressing the need of pandemic restrictions to Austrians and the images of him being celebrated at an impromptu rally by followers created an uproar.
Kurz known as a number of instances to complain, Patterer mentioned, going so far as to ship pictures of the occasion taken by his personal photographer to argue his case.
Patterer mentioned in an interview that he didn’t a lot regard the calls as an intervention as a lot as an indication that the chancellor can’t deal with criticism.
“You possibly can see how his confidence abandons him when he’s confronted with footage that don’t align together with his self-image,” he mentioned. “He refused to acknowledge that he had made a mistake.”
Patterer, whose paper is the most important in southeastern Austria, a area that has lengthy supported Kurz’s social gathering, wasn’t the one journalist the chancellor has on pace dial. Editors from a number of different newspapers that coated his journey reported receiving comparable calls.
“It was the primary time that his message management didn’t work,” Patterer mentioned. “He turned a sufferer of the facility of the images.”
Kurz isn’t the primary Austrian chancellor to intervene with the press or to reward titles that help him with authorities promoting. However Austrian editors say that underneath Kurz, these practices have intensified to a level they’ve by no means seen.
“The distinction now’s two-fold,” Brandstätter mentioned. “First, the perfection of the surveillance and, second, the brutality of the interventions.”
When he was editor-in-chief of the every day Kurier newspaper, Brandstätter mentioned Kurz, then international minister, recurrently known as each him and the proprietor of his newspaper to air grievances. On one event, Kurz known as from New York to complain a few image the paper had run of him, he mentioned.
Each Patterer and Brandstätter recall Kurz asking them the identical query in non-public: “Why don’t you want me?”
Brandstätter suspects his personal exit as Kurier editor in 2018 was accelerated by Kurz’s interventions with the paper’s proprietor, a banking group historically near the chancellor’s conservative social gathering. Although Kurz has denied these recommendations, he instructed an affiliate in one of many textual content exchanges that just lately got here to mild that he believed Brandstätter “hates” him.
A centrist newspaper with a robust following in and round Vienna, Kurier is essential to Kurz’s camp as a result of its readership contains many middle-class swing voters, the very demographic the social gathering wants so as to preserve its dominance.
“The message they wished to ship was that we have been underneath everlasting supervision, that they’ve 80 folks monitoring what we do always and that in the event that they don’t like one thing, they might name as many instances because it took to get what they wished,” Brandstätter mentioned.
Just lately, Kurz has gotten little of what he wished in terms of media protection.
He has confronted awkward questions over why, after by no means lacking a possibility to put up pictures of himself touring in economic system class, he hopped on a non-public jet to fly from Israel again to Vienna in March. Much more awkward, the luxurious 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.
In the meantime, a clutch of investigations by Austrian authorities into allegations of presidency corruption have triggered a gentle movement of embarrassing particulars about Kurz’s inside circle, together with the invention of greater than 2,000 pornographic pictures on the government-issued iPhone of a detailed Kurz affiliate.
Kurz’s marketing campaign towards vital media has additionally hit pace bumps. The chancellor’s Austrian Individuals’s Social gathering misplaced a lawsuit final month that it had filed towards Der Falter, the Vienna investigative weekly, for writing that Kurz’s staff had deliberately violated marketing campaign finance guidelines in 2019.
Ten days after the ruling, a web-based platform operated by Kurz’s social gathering attacked Falter editor Florian Klenk with a flurry of baseless accusations concerning the journalist’s involvement within the “Ibiza” scandal that introduced down Kurz’s first authorities with the far-right Freedom Social gathering in 2019.
The piece would possible have drawn little discover if Kurz, who has a whole bunch of 1000’s of followers on social media, hadn’t shared it on Twitter.
Klenk says Kurz’s transfer was an try at “intimidation.” If that’s the case, it backfired as a result of as an alternative of triggering a debate about Klenk, Kurz raised questions on why the chancellor of Austria would unfold false details about a distinguished journalist on-line.
These setbacks underscore why Kurz’s Germany journey is so essential. All through his brief political profession, he has cultivated the German press. Through the refugee disaster, for instance, Kurz was an everyday on Germany’s discuss present circuit, campaigning for harder migration guidelines in Europe.
Kurz’s major motivation with such visits doesn’t look like to enhance his picture amongst Germans, however relatively to point out Austrians that he’s a politician of worldwide renown. And although some German media view him with a vital eye (simply final week, Jan Böhmermann, a distinguished German satirist, subjected Kurz to a withering takedown on his TV present), general, the protection of the chancellor has been constructive, at instances fawning.
For German conservatives pissed off by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s left-leaning views on migration and plenty of different social points, Kurz has been a breath of recent air.
Wolfram Weimer, the German writer behind Kurz’s media award, mentioned Merkel’s Christian Democrats, now trailing the Greens in lots of polls, might solely dream of the type of dominance Kurz has achieved in Austria. (Regardless of the latest difficulties, Kurz‘s social gathering nonetheless has a snug lead within the polls.)
In different phrases, for German conservatives, Kurz represents each what as soon as was and what might be once more.
Weimer mentioned his group was keen to acknowledge Kurz for the function he has performed as a “bridge builder” between Japanese and Western Europe. As for the corruption scandals surrounding the federal government and Kurz’s remedy of the media, Weimer, who operates a small secure of publications about politics and enterprise, mentioned he hasn’t actually centered on the main points of what he known as “home Austrian points.”
“These are issues I don’t actually know that a lot about or — to be trustworthy — actually care about,” he mentioned.