Sebastian Kurz’s media war

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.

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