Austrian ruling parties want to make parliamentary work more secretive

Journalists threatened with penalties for reporting

The method of regulating several different issues in one legislative project in order to make questionable ones in the slipstream of popular changes is called "Paperclipping". A current example of this is the reform of investigative committees in Austria. There, unlike in Germany, for example, such bodies can only be decided by a parliamentary majority, not by a qualified minority. This makes the work of opposition parties much more difficult.

Now the two governing parties, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (oVP) and the Social Democratic Party (SPo), have held out the prospect of remedying this situation – if parliament agrees to a secrecy ordinance that stipulates that what is discussed in such an investigative committee must be classified in one of four secrecy levels ("Restricted", "Confidential", "Secret", "Strictly Secret") can fall into. If a member of such a committee leaks information to the media, journalists who report on it may face fines and imprisonment.

Currently, the six parties represented in the Austrian National Council (SPo, oVP, FPo, Grune, NEOS and Team Stronach) are negotiating about the details. For the main opposition party FPo, Norbert Hofer has already signaled that he considers secrecy to be reasonable for reasons of personal privacy. However, the major part of the documents should not be automatically classified as secret. This is exactly what the Grunens fear, who speak of a "a step backwards from the previous regulation" .

austrian government parties want to make parliamentary work more secret

The Austrian National Council building. Photo: Gryffindor. Editing: Peter Wuttke. License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

The rejection is even clearer in the Austrian Journalists Club (oJC), where President Fred Turnheim speaks of an "an attack on the freedom of reporting", "damage to democracy" and the demand of anti-democratic ideas" speaks. A Twitter ban for members of parliament, which is being considered by the Austrian People’s Party (oVP), also shows that they are not familiar "has not yet seriously dealt with the dynamics of [social] media".

Gerald Grunberger, the managing director of the Association of Austrian Newspapers (VoZ), also fears in a public statement a "criminalization of the control function", which would send a "devastating signal" would send out. Furthermore, in his opinion, a secrecy ordinance is unnecessary because the currently applicable media law provisions for the "protection of the central security interests of the country" are fully sufficient. Instead of more "secrecy" Grunberger calls for more transparency. According to him, this would also "benefit the political institutions in austria", because they "distrust and skepticism" and "strengthen citizens’ trust in the state".

Even outside the media associations, the response is unanimously negative: Franz Fiedler, former president of the Austrian Court of Audit and current honorary president of Transparency International, speaks of an "overly bureaucratic" system "overbureaucratic" and "excessive" regulation, which "incredibly complicated for both the administration and the authorities" sei. One of the policy "desired side effect" would be, according to him, that "things do not come to the surface that should", because parties use the protection of files as a pretext.

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