Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache (Austrian Freedom Party), addresses the media during press conference at the sport ministry in Vienna, Austria, Saturday, May 18, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Michael Gruber

The Austrian populist rightwing Freedom Party (FPÖ), until Monday part of the country’s governing coalition, has suffered after its attempt to take over a leading newspaper became public. FPÖ leader and Austrian vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on tape – speaking just months before the 2017 Austrian elections – plotting with a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch about turning the most widely read newspaper in Austria, Kronen Zeitung, into an FPÖ mouthpiece.

Strache appeared to be using the Orban government in Hungary as an inspiration. In his 6 hour marathon conversation with the Russian woman, Strache several times expressed his admiration for Hungary and Orban, saying things like “if we had an absolute majority, we could do things the way Orban does” and “we want to build a media landscape similar to Orban’s.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, right, and Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz Christian Strache shake hands after holding a joint press conference in Budapest, Hungary, May 6, 2019.

© 2019 Szilard Koszticsak/MTI via AP

Indeed, Strache even recommended Heinrich Pecina to the Russian woman, the same businessman who bought and shut down the biggest print newspaper Nepszabadsag in Hungary in 2016.

Instead, shortly after the story broke, Strache resigned, and the governing coalition collapsed. Fresh elections will take place in September.

Strache’s and FPÖ’s fall in Austria are directly linked to the ability of independent media to work freely in Austria and elsewhere despite undergoing attempts to curb it. The media was able to report the story, prompting Austrians to take to the streets in protest, calling for new elections.

The type of independent media that brought Strache down hardly exists in Hungary, as most of the media landscape, especially broadcast, is in the hands of Orban and his cronies. The few existing independent and investigative outlets do good work but have limited reach. 

The Strache scandal shows the importance of media freedom, including diverse ownership. At a time when media freedom in the EU is under severe threat, it’s vital that EU institutions take concerted action to defend it in member states to stop Hungary’s example from spreading further.