Austria’s Strache Scandal Shows Why Media Freedom Matters

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EU Should Act on Curbs to Media Freedom in Hungary and other EU States

The Austrian populist rightwing Freedom Party (FPÖ), until Monday part of the country’s governing coalition, has suffered after its attempt to take over a leading newspaper became public. FPÖ leader and Austrian vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on tape – speaking just months before the 2017 Austrian elections – plotting with a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch about turning the most widely read newspaper in Austria, Kronen Zeitung, into an FPÖ mouthpiece.

Strache appeared to be using the Orban government in Hungary as an inspiration. In his 6 hour marathon conversation with the Russian woman, Strache several times expressed his admiration for Hungary and Orban, saying things like “if we had an absolute majority, we could do things the way Orban does” and “we want to build a media landscape similar to Orban’s.”

Indeed, Strache even recommended Heinrich Pecina to the Russian woman, the same businessman who bought and shut down the biggest print newspaper Nepszabadsag in Hungary in 2016.

Instead, shortly after the story broke, Strache resigned, and the governing coalition collapsed. Fresh elections will take place in September.

Strache’s and FPÖ’s fall in Austria are directly linked to the ability of independent media to work freely in Austria and elsewhere despite undergoing attempts to curb it. The media was able to report the story, prompting Austrians to take to the streets in protest, calling for new elections.