Austria: Responding to hate speech

This report examines legislation and practices related to ‘hate speech’ in Austria, with a particular focus on the media. It examines how relevant legislation complies with international standards on freedom of expression and offers recommendations for improvement.

Although the problem of ‘hate speech’ in Austria is by no means new, finding effective ways to tackle the issue is now much-discussed in Austrian society, in particular as it relates to the online world. Although the main targets of ‘hate speech’ in recent years have been migrants and refugees, ‘hate speech’ and hate crime, as well as prejudice and discrimination more generally, target other minority groups in society. These attitudes are reflected in the media, particularly in certain tabloid newspapers.

Although Austria is typically understood to have strong protections to the right to freedom of expression, reports do show concerns around media pluralism. Also, despite the fairly robust protection afforded both to the right to freedom of expression and equality by Austrian law, the existing legal framework on ‘hate speech’ does not fully comply with international human rights standards.

Relevant protections against ‘hate speech’ are found in a range of laws, which contribute to confusion about this topic. Criminal law provisions, including those on incitement, are predominantly applied when responding to ‘hate speech’ – with varying levels of effectiveness. There is a lack of clarity on the distinctions between levels of ‘hate speech,’ depending on the degree of severity, and the need to adapt responses accordingly. Higher courts have often issued contradictory decisions in comparable ‘hate speech’ cases, creating legal uncertainty about how relevant provisions should be interpreted by the lower courts. Austrian criminal law also contains a number of speech-related provisions which do not comply with international standards (e.g. criminal defamation or blasphemy), which are often conflated with ‘hate speech,’ leading to further confusion on what speech can be legitimately restricted.

There is no evidence that victims of ‘hate speech’ find recourse in remedies other than criminal law – in particular, administrative or civil law. There are several equality bodies with mandates to protect individuals from discrimination in the workplace, particularly on the grounds of disability. However, Austria lacks clarity on the role of these institutions in addressing the systemic roots of discrimination, and their role in addressing ‘hate speech’ is minimal. None of these institutions is tasked with systematic collection and documentation of the forms and roots of ‘hate speech,’ nor with providing effective assistance to victims of ‘hate speech.’

The Austrian media regulation framework is not sufficient to address ‘hate speech’ in the media. The self-regulatory institution, the Press Council, does not appear to be an effective mechanism either to provide remedies or deter future incidents of ‘hate speech’ in the media.

Summary of recommendations

  • All relevant legislation – in particular criminal law provisions – should be revised into compliance with the international human rights standards applicable to ‘hate speech;’
  • The applicable provisions of the Criminal Code and related legislation should undergo comprehensive review: all offences that are not compatible with international freedom of expression standards should be abolished, including criminal defamation, insult, and blasphemy prohibitions;
  • The advocacy of discriminatory hatred which constitutes incitement to hostility, discrimination, or violence should be prohibited in line with Articles 19(3) and 20(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, establishing a high threshold for limitations on free expression (as set out in the Rabat Plan of Action);
  • The government should consider merging various anti-discrimination acts at the federal and provincial levels into a single piece of legislation in order to make the complex legislation accessible and to improve the protection of victims;
  • All equality bodies – at both federal and provincial levels – should be made fully independent from other state authorities, at institutional, political, and functional levels. They should be equipped with a more robust mandate to address problems of discrimination and intolerance. In particular, their mandate should be extended to cover monitoring of instances of ‘hate speech’ with a view to addressing root causes of the problem and looking towards tackling structural discrimination. They should also be tasked with providing comprehensive support to victims in courts, including legal representation and legal aid;
  • The government should ensure that victims of ‘hate speech,’ as well as other forms of discrimination, have an easily accessible set of civil and administrative remedies to ensure the protection of their rights, including adequate financial compensation for violations;
  • The government should develop a comprehensive policy on ‘hate speech’ in the media in cooperation with public broadcasters and media regulators;
  • Public officials, including politicians, should acknowledge that they must play a leading role in recognising and promptly speaking out against intolerance and discrimination, including instances of ‘hate speech.’ This requires recognising and rejecting the conduct itself, as well as the prejudices of which it is symptomatic; expressing sympathy and support to the targeted individuals or groups; and framing incidents as harmful to the whole of society. These interventions are particularly important when intercommunal tensions run high, or are susceptible to being escalated, and when political stakes are high, such as in the run-up to elections;
  • Media organisations and media outlets should recognise that they play an important role in combatting ‘hate speech,’ intolerance, and prejudice in public discourse. They should intensify their efforts to provide adequate responses. They should ensure that they fully respect relevant ethical codes, as well as ensuring that ethical codes of conduct on ‘hate speech’ are effectively implemented, and that effective measures are undertaken to address any violations. Ethical codes of conduct should be incorporated into practice by journalists and media outlets in order to ensure full compliance. Media outlets should increase ethnic, religious, and gender plurality amongst journalists, editors, media workers, and other employees of public service broadcasters; and
  • The Austrian Press Council should increase its internal diversity and, in particular, ensure that it includes members from minorities and other groups who are subject to discrimination. Effective measures should be taken to address violations of ethical codes of conduct. The Press Council should also organise regular training courses and updates for professional and trainee journalists on human rights standards on ‘hate speech’ and freedom of expression, and on the relevant ethical codes of conduct.

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