April 19. 2024. 9:11

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Austrian media investigated in bribes-for-favourable-coverage case

Austria’s special corruption prosecutor has launched investigations into ex-chancellor Sebastian Kurz allegedly bribing various media to get favourable coverage in exchange for amending laws.

Last week, the Prosecutor’s Office for Economic Affairs and Corruption (WKStA) searched the management premises of AHVV Verlags GmbH, the publisher of the free tabloid newspaper Heute.

The investigation centres around redacted statements made by Thomas Schmid, former head of the Finance Ministry’s cabinet and a trusted aide of Kurz. His statements relate to newspaper advertisements and changes in an amendment to the law on foundations.

Allegedly, Heute publisher Eva Dichand had intervened with Schmid, who had shown himself willing to help to secure positive media coverage for Kurz, although Dichand denies these claims. The WKStA now wants to review all advertisements placed by the Finance Ministry in recent years as other media are also under suspicion, Der Standard reported on Monday.

According to Kurz, the statements by Schmid are “fictitious”.

“The WKStA gratefully accepts this since, after years of accusations against my team and me, there is still no evidence that we have been criminally guilty of anything,” he said in a Facebook statement.

Kurz resigned as chancellor after the start of the WKStA investigations in October 2021. The accusations date back to 2016 when he was still foreign minister. According to the prosecution, the Finance Ministry also used tax money to pay for polls that painted Kurz favourably.

This is one of several corruption probes that have hit Austria in the past years, beginning with the Ibiza gate affair that led to the collapse of the government in 2019 when a secretly recorded video was published showing then right-wing opposition politician Heinz-Christian Strache (who became vice-chancellor) discussing corruption and media interference.

As a result, Austria continued to fall in the 2022 Corruption Index of Transparency International, falling out of the Top 20 least corrupt countries, with its worst result since 2014.

In January, the Conservative-green government presented a legislative draft of a new anti-corruption law, which foresees expanding the criminal liability to purchase mandates and stricter rules for associations with political contacts. After the review period, which ends at the beginning of March, the law will be passed in parliament.

(Chiara Swaton | EURACTIV.de)