By Leela Schooler


Flag of Austria

I. Intro

Austria, ranked 11 on the World Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders), has a slightly complicated history, being under control of different countries and empires until 1867 when it finally became its own country. Since independence, freedom of speech and press have been fairly free, with a few exceptions, including during the World Wars. After World War II, however, laws were put into effect in an attempt to help stifle Anti-Semitism, something that was very common in Austria before the war. While it may have more laws related to possibly limiting free speech and free press than the United States, Austria still ranks higher on the Freedom Index, in part because of the way that the United States treats whistleblowers. This ‘Island of the Blessed’ is trying to learn from its past of Anti-Semitism that was spread through the exploitation of free expression.

II. Historical Background

Austria was a part of the Holy Roman Empire under Germany until 1867 when it became Austria-Hungary after being officially separated from Germany a year prior (Wilson). All historical ties to the Roman Empire were cut, and the government focused on its ties to Medieval Germany. Discarding the traditions of the Roman Empire, the leaders of Austria decided to romanticize German traditions in ways that were out of context with their actual roots. Throughout the time that it has been its own country, there has been relative freedom for the citizens, with a freedom for an opinionated press to form and for people to freely express those opinions, which has led to some dark times in Austria.

Despite Austria separating itself from the Roman Empire, there was still a strong Catholic influence within the country, and the church found itself in charge of things like marriage and schooling. When laws were passed in the 1860s to give those powers to the government in an effort to make the country more secular, Catholic priests and their supporters were upset. Rather than blame the government leaders, however, they attributed these laws to the Jewish people of Austria and blamed them in an effort to be more “politically expedient” (Pauley). This kind of Anti-Semitism was common in Austria. Jewish citizens often found themselves legally discriminated against, only to be protected when a new leader came in, and then when yet another leader came in, they would find themselves discriminated against yet again. This back-and-forth was jarring, yet the Jewish population was able to grow to a point where they were able to erect synagogues, and to become prominent in the business of writing and publishing. Even before the First World War, they were prominent in newspaper publishing and news. Even with the brief censorship of the press during World War I, they were able to keep that influence and continue between World War I and World War II.

In 1938, the Jewish citizens of Austria were thrown into discrimination yet again when the Nazi regime came and seized all Jewish-owned organizations in one night. In a matter of weeks, Jewish citizens had their businesses and homes taken away from them. Within months, 220,000 Jewish citizens – judged by the Nazi’s definition of what Jewish meant –  were forced to emigrate, or were deported to either work or concentration camps. 65,000 lost their lives during World War II (Pauley).

After World War II, Austria was forced to cut ties with the German Third Reich in 1945, and the Second Republic was born. Instead of starting from scratch, they decided to reinstate the constitution that was in place before the annexation of 1938. Under their new government, they passed religious defamation laws, as well a law that made the glorifying of the Nazi era. Despite the country being thrown into economic chaos, they were able to stay afloat with help from the United Nations and the Marshall Plan from the United States, a relief program to help European countries recover from World War II (Britannica). In 1955, Austria officially became a part of United Nations, and became a member of the Council of Europe in 1956. Its nickname, Island of the Blessed, was inspired by an Austrian catholic bishop dubbing Austria the “Island of the Fortunate” in 1971 (Wilson). After a referendum in late 1994, Austria became a part of the European Union in January of 1995, incorporating the euro and retiring its old currency, the schilling.

In recent years, the Freedom Party, the conservative party in Austria, has had more representation in the Austrian government, thanks to growing skepticism of migration. In the early 2010’s, the migrant crisis worsened, as well as an increased number of terror attacks in Europe. However, during the same time as this, the Freedom Party went through scandals, including the leader of the party posting an anti-Semitic cartoon on his Facebook page. In the 2016 election, the Green Party candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, narrowly won the presidential race over the Freedom Party Candidate. The margin was close enough to challenge the results, and closer inspection resulted in a new election, where Van Der Bellen won with a clear majority, giving a small hope to the centre-left in Austria (Britannica).

III. Free Speech

Historically, Austria has had fairly free speech. Before the World Wars, there were laws that protected people from legal repercussions talking about religious groups, as long as they were talking about the religion as a whole and not individual followers of the religion. This was often used against Austrian citizens who were Jewish, blaming the group as a whole for a variety of problems in Austria and calling them “people without a land” (Pauley). Jewish citizens, many in the writing and publishing business, attempted to fight back at these claims, stating that Austria was their home and would remain that way. There were no legal consequences for the people speaking against them, because a specific individual was never mentioned. The claims and articles made against Jewish citizens increased the Anti-Semitism of the time, no doubt contributing to the treatment of them during World War II.

Today, while the population of Jewish people in Austria has not quite reached the magnitude that it was before they were forced out (either by emigration or deportation), Austria now has specific laws against Anti-Semitism and expressing those beliefs. Austria now has a religious defamation law, designed to keep people from defaming citizens of a religion as a whole, not just an individual. In addition, they also have the Terrorism Prevention Law, passed in 2010, that “penalizes the preparation and organization of terrorist acts as well as training for terrorist purposes” (Freedom House).  This law applies these actions towards any group, and free speech advocates believe that it could be detrimental to free expression. Austria, along with several other European countries, and the European Union in 2007, also have laws against Holocaust denial (Bilefsky). Another law that Austria has passed since World War II is one that punishes glorifying the Nazi era. In February 2017, a 25-year-old man was spotted in several places in Austria, including Vienna and finally Braunau am Inn, Adolf Hitler’s birthplace, dressed in the Nazi uniform. He styled his hair and mustache in the same way as Hitler did, and people dubbed him a Hitler lookalike. The man, whose legal name is Harald Zenz, reportedly called himself Harald Hitler (BBC). As of April 2016, no updates on this case have been reported.

Despite these laws, Freedom House ranks Austria as free. While the laws most definitely have the potential to curb free expression, they appear not to be so oppressive that they silence the majority of its citizens.

IV. Free Press

Just like Austria has had a considerably good history of free speech, the country has a similar history for free press. There was some press censorship, but it was relaxed in the 19th century. Die Presse, founded in 1848 by August Zang, was the first of a long line of politically opinionated periodicals in Austria (Bushell), taking on the form of feuilleton. Feuilleton, according to, is “a part of a European newspaper devoted to light literature, fiction, criticism, etc.” Zang hired Michael Etienne and Max Fiedländer as editors-in-chief, and the men became known as the fathers of professional journalism in Austria (Bushell). While this was only the first of many similar newspapers, Die Presse was the most successful. With the freedom that the press had in Austria, the number of publications grew, many of the different publications came to be owned by Jewish Austrian citizens. When Anti-Semitism was at its height in Austria, it was often called the “Jewish Press” and blamed for any perceived evils that happened in Austria (Pauley). The press was also accused of being responsible for the decay of intellectual and spiritual thought, and was considered to have been leading Christians like sheep (Pauley). When the Nazi regime annexed Austria, all of the Jewish-owned newspapers were seized by the regime. Using their own definition of what Jewish meant, the Nazi regime removed 220,000 Jewish citizens from Austria by forcing them to emigrate, or deporting them to work in concentration camps. After World War II ended, the press continued on, but the majority was not Jewish-owned like before.

For freedom of press, Austria ranks 23 out of 100, according to Freedom House, down one point from last year. The free speech laws outlined in the free speech portion are included in this analysis, as well as a political and economic analysis, and calls the status of freedom of press in Austria stable. “The Austrian media atmosphere is stable, and both state and nonstate actors generally respect press freedom. However, a number of legal shortcomings—including the existence of criminal defamation and the weakness of access to information legislation—remain major concerns” (Austria Country Report 2016).

The concerns of access to information are a result of a draft of an information law that was revealed in 2016, which included vague definitions and exceptions, as well as there being no independent oversight in the process (Austria Country Report 2016). The criminal defamation law, which also applies to public figures and officials, can have a detrimental effect on freedom of press. If reporters are worried about having criminal charges brought against them, then they may not publish something that the public needs to know about a public official. Advocates for free press have urged for new legislation, but have been unsuccessful as of the end of 2016.

Another major concern for proponents of free press is the possibility of being charged for trespassing while investigating a story. In 2015, a court ordered Dossier, a news publication in Austria, to pay €2,000 ($2,200) for trespassing after a landlord for a housing suite for asylum seekers sued the reporters ( The investigative journalists got permission from the asylum seekers living in the housing to interview them and investigate the living conditions that they were in. There had been a previous article written on the property, showing the horrendous living conditions that the residents were in. The 2014 visit was a follow-up to see if the landlord had addressed the issues, and they found that the landlord had not. Despite the fact that this story was in the public interest, the court ruled that the permission from the residents of the housing was not sufficient, and that because they did not get permission from the landlord, that it was considered trespassing. The outcome had the editor-in-chief of Dossier questioning whether or not to continue investigating other housing in Austria.

These laws and court rulings directly affect the freedom of the press in Austria. Not only might journalists be wary to publish negative stories about public officials, but they might also be wary to do any kind of investigative journalism for fear of being prosecuted for trespassing, or other possible charges.

V. Critical Comparison

When looking at the different laws and incidents in Austria, it is interesting to see the contrast between them and the United States. While the United States is actually ranked lower than Austria on Reporters Without Borders (Austria is ranked 11 while the United States is ranked 41), the ranking difference seems to be more attributed to the issue of whistleblowers of the government in the United States and how they are treated than any specific laws.

When it comes to specific laws, like criminal defamation and freedom of information, the First Amendment protects citizens of the United States. While states have passed libel and defamation laws, many of them have been struck down by the United States Supreme Court for being too broad or for infringing on First Amendment rights. There is a very small portion of speech that is not protected under the First Amendment, according to the Supreme Court. Even if the speech is highly offensive, or even hateful, the Supreme Court has confirmed the speaker’s right to say it as long as there is no immediate danger. However, this has not always been the case.

In 1952, the Supreme Court decided the case of Beauharnais v. Illinois¸ which was about an Illinois law that criminalized publication of false, hateful speech towards race, religion, or class of citizens (Lewis). However, that decision was undone in 1964 with New York Times v. Sullivan, a case that protected libel under the First Amendment and made it harder for public figures and officials to have a successful libel case. The Supreme Court has since been consistent with Sullivan, and expanding on the decision in cases since. Hate speech is also considered protected by the First Amendment as long as it does not incite immediate action, as is showcased by Snyder v. Phelps, which included the Westboro Baptist Church and their hateful signs against gay people, Catholics, and the military.
As a result, if Harald Zenz, the man who dressed up as Adolf Hitler in Austria, were to come to the United States and do the same thing, there would be no law that would punish him for doing so. If someone were to deny the Holocaust, they would have the freedom to do it. Even Anti-Semitic sentiments are protected under the First Amendment in the United States.

As for the press, the United States does have more protections for journalists, also protected by the First Amendment. According to Freedom House, the United States is rated 21 out of 100, only two points better than Austria. While there are no legal hurdles for journalists to jump through, other entities do try to censor reporters. The report from Freedom House does not show any convictions of journalists in the United States, but it does mention the many journalists that were arrested while covering protests and barred from entry by police to various protests and events. However, if any of these reporters were brought up on charges for trespassing like the journalists in Austria, the charges would most likely be dropped because the argument of public interest would be taken seriously. Even in the case that there did happen to be a conviction, it would be overturned by appellate courts for the public interest and First Amendment aspect.

Austria’s freedom of information issue is a stark difference to the United States as well. The Freedom of Information Act in the United States requires that information from the government be made available to the public unless it is a matter of national security (Freedom House – United States). While the justification of national security can be seen – and most definitely used – as a broad definition, there is still an obligation for some transparency from the government to its constituents. Comparatively, in Austria, there is a measure in their constitution that stresses official secrecy with weak compliance standards on the government’s end. In some instances, even legislators themselves have issues obtaining information from the government (Austria Country Report 2016).

VI. Conclusion

While Austria has a way to go in the eyes of free speech and free press laws, the country it caught in a tension that is seen in many countries, including the United States – the tension between freedom and safety. This tension is common, as governments try to find a balance between the two, and Austria has gone a different route than the United States because of its history with what happened when their laws were different. Advocates for free expression should continue to push Austria to alter the defamation and information laws, however, because the ‘Island of the Blessed’ can always be more blessed when it comes to freedom.

This essay was last updated on April 30, 2017.



“Austria Country Report 2016.” Freedom House. n.d. Website. 2 March 2017. <;.

Austrian news site that reported on asylum centres sentenced for trespassing. n.d. website. 8 March 2017. <;.

Bilefsky, Dan. “EU adopts measure outlawing Holocaust denial.” New York Times 19 April 2007. Website. 15 March 2017. <;.

Britannica. n.d. Website. 5 April 2017. <;.

Bushell, Anthony. Polemical Austria The Rhetorics of National Identitiy: From Empire to the Second Republic. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013. Text. 28 February 2017. n.d. Website. 5 March 2017. <;.

Freedom House – United States. n.d. website. 22 March 2017. <;.

“Hitler lookalike arrested in Austria.” BBC. 17 February 2017. Website. 20 February 2017. <;.

Lewis, Anthony. Freedom for the Thought That We Hate. New York: Basic Books, 2007. Book.

Pauley, Bruce F. From Prejudice to Persecution: a History of Austrian Anti-Semitism. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Reporters Without Borders. n.d. 26 February 2017. <;.

Wilson, Peter H. Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard Univeristy Press, 2016. Text. February 2016.

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