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Oppressed civil society in the fight for the future

If politicians or industry overlook or ignore significant grievances, the voices of the people are called for. But people don't always like to hear them, and some activism is even actively opposed. Never before have there been so many different opinions, never before has our society been so divided. In particular, the topics of immigration, the climate crisis and of course the controversial corona measures are causing a stir. Nice that there is freedom of expression in the Alpine Republic. Even if some opinions don't suit us.

Even before Corona: Difficult ground for civil society

The reality speaks a different language, like the last report by the NGO CIVICUS about Austria shows: As early as the end of 2018, even before Corona, CIVICUS classified its assessment of Austria from "open" to "narrowed" due to the deterioration in civil society's scope for action. According to an empirical study by the Vienna University of Economics and Business and the CSO Interest Group of Public Benefit Organizations (IGO), Austria’s right-wing populist policies towards the civil society the patterns known from authoritarian countries. The investigation found that the “civil society situation has become much more difficult in recent years” as Austria has taken restrictive steps. Mind you, there is no new report for the term of office of the current government.

Record killings of activists

And the alarm bells are also ringing globally: According to NGOs, at least 227 environmental activists alone have been Global Witness murdered in 2020. The number has never been higher, having reached a record of 2019 in 212. "As the climate crisis deepens, violence against defenders of the planet is escalating," the published study said.

Auch Amnesty International warns: In at least 83 of the 149 countries included in the 2020 Annual Report, government actions to contain the COVID-19 pandemic have had a discriminatory impact on already marginalized groups. Some states, such as Brazil and the Philippines, rely on the use of disproportionate force. The corona pandemic was also used as an excuse to further restrict freedom of expression, for example in China or in the Gulf States.

reprisals against critics

In any case, restrictions on freedom of expression have no place in a democracy. However, there is now no doubt that this is progressing in Austria and other countries and is clearly showing authoritarian tendencies. The means used could not be more different: critics are monitored, taken to court, the right to freedom of assembly undermined, publicly discredited and arrested. Numerous individual cases, which, however, meanwhile indicate a worrying development.

Bad habit: Politicians complain

Above all reprisals against critics, political lawsuits have long been a tradition in Austria. Especially when politicians are caught lying, they rely on "attack as the best defense" - against citizens, with the help of taxpayers' money. Most recently, the medium Falter was "heated up": It claimed that the ÖVP deliberately misled the public about their 2019 election campaign costs and also deliberately exceeded the election campaign costs. "Permissible," said the Vienna Commercial Court and gave ÖVP Chancellor Kurz a clear rejection. By the way: Due to similar facts, France's ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy was found guilty of illegal campaign financing and sentenced to one year in prison.

violence against protesters

The climate on the street has also deteriorated significantly. Shocking climax: On May 31, 2019, activists from the environmental protection initiatives “Ende Geländewagen” and “Extinction Rebellion” blocked the ring at the Urania. A video shows the brutal action taken against a demonstrator: while the 30-year-old was pinned to the ground with his head under a police bus, the vehicle drove off and threatened to roll over the demonstrator's head. Nevertheless, the officer was held accountable for abuse of office and false testimony and sentenced to a conditional sentence of twelve months.

"Prisoner of ÖVP politics"

Seven activists had a similar experience distributing leaflets before the start of the ÖVP election campaign in Upper Austria. Dressed in pig costumes, they wanted to inform people in front of the Design Center about the painful fully slatted pig floor. The handcuffs clicked shortly thereafter, followed by six hours in police custody. VGTChairman Martin Balluch is angry: "It is incredible how this ÖVP ignores fundamental rights and the Constitutional Court. And this despite the fact that there is a very recent finding by the Constitutional Court, which states in clear words that despite the prohibition and restricted area, leaflets may be peacefully distributed. And these animal rights activists did nothing else yesterday." David Richter, VGT Vice-Chairman, was there: "We were prisoners of ÖVP politics for more than six hours. It is incomprehensible that such police violence can be “ordered” by one party. Everything has been cordoned off so that no one can express displeasure, and those who dare offer leaflets to passers-by are removed by force, with pain and threats of more force. So that the ÖVP could hold an election campaign event "without blemish".

Oil industry monitors critics

But it's not just politicians who get their hands dirty. In April, environmental protection organizations warned of the escalating, systematic surveillance of civil society by the oil and gas industry, "Especially for us young activists, it is frightening to hear that a powerful corporation like OMV is working with shady investigative specialists, apparently to monitor the environmental movement . Companies like Welund make a living from staging peaceful protests like our school strikes and young people who are campaigning for a good future for all of us as an existential threat and monitoring them on behalf of the oil industry,” reveals Aaron Wölfling from Fridays For Future Austria, among others shocked.

Corona: no criticism allowed

Corona measures skeptics also have to endure reprisals. One thing is certain: Even if not all critical arguments are justified, freedom of expression must be respected in a democracy. Gudula Walterskirchen, previous editor of the NÖ Nachrichten NÖN, was probably doomed by her own opinion. She lost her job. Unofficially, it was heard that the journalist's anti-vaccination line was sour. NÖN is owned by the NÖ Pressehaus, which in turn is owned by the diocese of St. Pölten (54 percent), the press association in the diocese of St. Pölten (26 percent) and Raiffeisen Holding Vienna-Lower Austria (20 percent). The proximity to the ÖVP is well known.

For example, in order for people to be able to work to protect and promote human rights, they must be able to exercise their right to freedom of association and freedom of expression. International human rights standards should ensure this. These are the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" and in this context also the "International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights" and the "European Convention on Human Rights". The Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, UNGA Res 53/144, 9 December 1998) also contains a number of rights that apply to global civil society.
“According to the declaration, civil society organizations (CSOs) have the right to freedom of association and expression (including the right to request, receive and impart ideas and information), to advocate for human rights, to participate in public processes, the right to access and to exchange with international human rights institutions and submitting proposals for legislative and policy reforms at local, national and international levels. In this context, states have an obligation to create an enabling environment and to guarantee that people can come together in groups and organizations without being prevented from doing so by states or third parties,” explains Martina Powell, spokeswoman for Amnesty International.

Photo / Video: VGT, extinction rebellion.

Written by Helmut Melzer

As a long-time journalist, I asked myself what would actually make sense from a journalistic point of view. You can see my answer here: Option. Showing alternatives in an idealistic way - for positive developments in our society.

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