Killing Free Speech in Austria

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) recently published its sixth monitoring report on Austria.

ECRI, which describes itself as “independent”, is the human rights monitoring body of the Council of Europe — not to be confused with the European Union. The Council of Europe is composed of 47 member states, including all of the 27 European Union member states.

ECRI is an unelected body with members designated by their governments (one for each member state) who are supposed to have “in-depth knowledge in the field of combating intolerance…. and recognised expertise in dealing with racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance”. It was founded in 1994 by the heads of state of the Council of Europe with the mandate, among other things, to “review member States’ legislation, policies and other measures to combat racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance, and their effectiveness”.

Thanks in large part to the efforts of ECRI and the Council of Europe, Europe now has a huge web of hate speech laws and policies. Gatestone has previously reported on ECRI’s monitoring of Germany and of Switzerland.

In its sixth monitoring report on Austria, ECRI wrote that “progress has been made and good practices have been developed in a number of fields”.

“Austria has taken several initiatives to thwart hate speech by developing a counter-narrative. The authorities have worked with civil society to improve the detection and recording of online hate and to provide support to victims of such incidents… in… 2018, the authorities concluded an agreement with social network providers to remove hate speech within 24 hours”.

However, according to the ECRI, Austria must do more:

“ECRI notes with concern that Austrian public discourse has become increasingly xenophobic in recent years, and political speech has taken on highly divisive and antagonistic overtones particularly targeting Muslims and refugees. The arrival of asylum seekers in large numbers during the European migration crisis in 2015 also saw an escalation of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments, portraying newcomers as a threat to security, national identity or culture”.

ECRI ignores that there may be a context and a reason for “portraying newcomers as a threat to security”. It does not consider the proliferation of Islamic terrorism in Europe or research showing that terrorists have migrated into Europe disguised as asylum seekers, who have gone on to perpetrate deadly terrorist attacks. It also does not acknowledge that, in the words of a 2016 New York Times article about Austria:

“… the challenges of integrating the refugees have become clearer as concerns about crime, sexual mores and cultural clashes come into stark relief across Europe, highlighted by the New Year’s Eve assaultson German women by Arab or North African men in Cologne”.

Similar sexual assaults, by migrant men on Austrian women, but on a far lesser scale, also occurred in Salzburg and Vienna on that same night. Crime statistics for 2017 from the Austrian police showed that 39% of crime suspects were “foreigners”.

Instead, the report notes:

“ECRI is concerned about the sharp rise in intolerant discourse against Muslims. Two different studies conducted in 2017 suggest that 28% of the Austrian population would not want Muslim neighbours and 65% of them were strongly opposed to further migration from Muslim states. Such high levels of Islamophobia are confirmed by a FRA-EU survey, in which 32% of Muslim respondents reported having experienced harassment due to their ethnic or immigrant background in the last year. Certain politicians and media persist in portraying Muslims in a negative light. Claims about a presumed lack of integration of Muslims in Austria and about their alleged opposition to ‘fundamental Austrian values’ leading to violent extremism remain common in public discourse and contribute to a climate of mistrust and fear of Muslims. Research indicates that this trend has further been exacerbated by legislative initiatives, often in connection with security concerns, that affect Muslims, such as the Islam Act of 2015 and the Anti-Face Veiling Act of 2017”.

Again, ECRI does not mention that Austria has experienced serious problems both with integration and with radical Islamism. As previously reported by Gatestone in 2017, the Austrian Integration Fund (ÖIF), a department of the foreign ministry published a study, “The role of the mosque in the integration process” in which government representatives surveyed 16 mosques in Vienna:

“According to the study, six of the 16 mosque associations examined (37.5%) pursue ‘a policy that actively impedes integration into society and to some extent exhibits fundamentalist tendencies.’ Half of the 16 mosques examined ‘preach a dichotomous worldview, the pivotal tenet of which is the division of the world into Muslims on one side, and everyone else on the other.’ Six of the mosques were found to practice ‘explicit denigration of Western society’.”

In its 2018 annual report, Austria’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counter-Terrorism (BVT) warned:

“For Austria, the greatest threat remains… from Islamist extremism and terrorism. Although… fewer Jihad travelers (Foreign Terrorist Fighters) have returned to Austria than expected, this group of so-called ‘returnees’ poses a significant threat to internal security… in view of the current territorial dissolution of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS), further security challenges consist of the possible smuggling of jihadists in the course of migration movements to Europe… into Austrian society…”

None of this context exists for ECRI, which appears to operate in a vacuum, unencumbered by real world facts. Instead, ECRI commends Austria for having “several measures in place… which aim to combat hate speech by developing a counter-narrative.”

“For instance, in 2016, the National Committee for the ‘No Hate Speech’ campaign of the Council of Europe was set up. After launching another campaign #makelovegreatagain in 2017, it still runs various awareness-raising activities with the involvement of several actors, including state authorities and NGOs. Since July 2018, in cooperation with the public prosecutor’s office, Neustart, which is the Austrian probation service, has initiated the programme ‘Dialog statt Hass’ (Dialog instead of Hatred), which aims at developing a constructive response to hate speech by creating a sense of wrongdoing and reflection among offenders, subsequently leading to behavioural change”.

Still, even these initiatives do not suffice:

“Immediate and public condemnation of hate speech is not common. Rare examples of good practice include the call for a tolerant and diverse nation, free of ideological and racial hatred by the President of Austria in January 2017…” states the report and asks “that political leaders on all sides take a firm and public stance against the expression of racist hate speech and react to any such expression with a strong counter-hate speech message. All political parties in the country should adopt codes of conduct which prohibit the use of hate speech and call on their members and followers to abstain from using it”.

Furthermore, victims of hate speech need to have more support:

“In September 2017, the counselling centre #GegenHassimNetz (Against online hate), which is financed by the Federal Chancellery, became operational… for victims and witnesses of online hate. Counselling includes strategies for effective responses to hate messages and information on available legal remedies against perpetrators or website operators. Other measures such as the counselling on the removal of hate messages from social media or other websites are also being supported. This initiative has already yielded positive results, as shown by the increasing number of reported incidents concerning online hate speech… The ICT-security portal (, which is an inter-ministerial initiative, also provides an overview of effective prevention measures, reporting mechanisms as well as counselling centres on hate speech”.

ECRI finally notes:

“In 2018, the Federal Minister for Constitutional Affairs, Reforms, Deregulation and Justice concluded an agreement pursuant to which Facebook will check notifications of illegal content regarding hate speech within 24 hours and will remove or lock down such content… In addition, Internet users and civil society can report racist content via the Internet- Reporting Office on the website of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism”.

ECRI welcomed the information that a governmental working group of experts is being set up “to develop the legal basis for effective action against hatred on the Internet.”

“On a related note, the authorities further informed ECRI that new legislation, namely the ‘Federal Act on Diligence and Responsibility in the Network’ was proposed in April 2019, aiming at combating online hate speech by requiring social media users and online commenters to provide their real identities to the online platforms, which would then be responsible for verifying the information… In this respect, ECRI recalls that the authorities should ensure that anyone who engages in hate speech as covered by Article 283 of the Criminal Code is duly prosecuted and punished”.

In Austria, more censorship is clearly on the way.

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