Country case study: Austria

Is media ownership transparent?
In law YES
In practice YES

IN LAW

According Media Law, as amended in 2011, it is possible to finds out who owns print, online and broadcast media through information reported directly to the public. All media must disclose directly to the public enough information for their real owners to be identified, including information on all shareholdings, beneficial owners back to a real person and those with indirect interests and control.

Information reported to the media authority, the Austrian Communications Authority (KommAustria), under the Audiovisual Media Services Act or Private Radio Broadcast Act will also reveal ownership of the broadcast media.

Greater transparency of media ownership came about as a bi-product of another law, the Media Transparency Act. This was introduced in late 2011 following years of concern about the amount of money state bodies spent on advertising in the media, in return for positive news coverage. The Media Transparency Act creates a public database to which all public bodies must report twice a year all subsidies, financial aid, grants and awards of advertising funds above EUR 1,000 to media outlets.

The original draft of the law made no reference to the need for transparency of media ownership and, despite considerable consultation with state bodies, media outlets and associations, it was only very late in the drafting process that this need was identified. Amendments to the Media Law requiring disclosure of ownership to the public were introduced and passed by Parliament in the space of a few weeks in December 2011.

 

IN PRACTICE

A review of the websites of 11 print and five broadcast media in late 2014 revealed that broadly speaking the 2011 amendments to the Media Law are being complied with and full ownership information for the media is available online. Two of the broadcast media reviewed failed to disclose any information and three of the print media complied partially, each of them failing to disclose shareholders’ indirect interests in other companies.

This latter omission may be connected to a lack of clarity in one part of the Media Act which was not amended in 2011; the 2011 amendments require all direct and indirect ownership to be identified, back to a real person, irrespective of the size of the shareholding, as well as trusts and silent partnerships. However it is not clear whether all direct and indirect interests of shareholders in other media companies must be disclosed or just where they have a 100% direct shareholding.

Greater ownership reporting requirements place further demands on both the media and the media authority. In order to find out how the requirement to report ownership information works in practice, interviews were carried out with one weekly magazine, one regional media company (which owns both print and broadcast media) as well as the media authority, the Austrian Communications Authority (known as KommAustria), to find out how they manage ownership information in practice.
KommAustria is the body charged with collecting ownership information for broadcast media under the Audiovisual Media Services Act and the Private Radio Broadcasting Act. Broadcast media have been required to report ownership information to Komm Austria since the airwaves were opened up to private operators. The 2011 amendments to the Media Law requiring all media to disclose information to the public has not therefore significantly impacted on KommAustria’s work in this area.

The work is carried out by the legal the department of the Austrian Regulatory Authority for Broadcasting and Telecommunications (RTR), a body which provides operational support to KommAustria. It is estimated that less than one full time staff person (out of a staff of 108 full time equivalents at RTR) works on tracing and documenting ownership issues. Ownership information is submitted in hard or electronic copy.

RTR staff proactively review at the ownership structures of a media outlet when they learn from media reports that there have been relevant changes or if they have not interacted with a media outlet for a long time. Approximately one media outlet per month is fined for failing to comply with the ownership disclosure requirements. These are usually smaller media outlets which do not have staff dedicated to complying with regulation and which forget to report changes. The fines are up to EUR 4,000 and, in theory, repeated violations could result in the licence being withdrawn but this has never happened.

Within the large media company interviewed, ownership information is managed by its legal department, in direct collaboration with the each of the various media outlets it owns. The information is checked quarterly and the published information supplemented as appropriate. It is estimated to take around 160 hours per year to manage this information which represents around 10% of one full time person, out of a workforce of around 3000 staff.

For the smaller weekly magazine (which has a staff of around 70), the Chief Executive Officer manages the ownership reporting but this is not seen as very time consuming either; when the amendments to the Media Act came into force in mid-2012, it took about hour to collect and publish the relevant information and no work has been needed since then. The information needed for the disclosure is easily accessible in various formats, including electronically.

Both companies view disclosure of ownership information positively and believe the system works well. Neither of them is aware of any sanctions being imposed for a failure to comply with the law. The increased level of disclosure required through the amendments to the Media Act is perceived to create greater transparency, particularly as information must now be up-to-date and not just published annually, as was the case previously. They view this as important to create trust and support from society. Public disclosure of ownership information also makes a company‘s life easier as it removes the need for the public to request ownership information directly.

Neither company is aware of any controversy over the more detailed reporting requirements or any concerns about further regulation of the media prior to the law being passed.

 

RELEVANT LEGISLATION

Law Media covered by law
Audiovisual Media Services Act, Official Gazette 84/2001, as amended TV
Private Radio Broadcasting Act, Official Gazette 20/2001, as amended Radio
Federal Law of 12 June, 1981 on the Press and other journalistic Media (Media Law) Print, broadcast and online media
Media Transparency Act, Official Gazette 125/2011 n/a

INFORMATION SOURCES

Access Info full country research: www.access-info.org/wp-content/uploads/tmo_austria_17july2013.doc

2018-11-13T10:12:10+00:00
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