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Austria’s media corruption scandal: What we know

Published on October 12, 2021

A media corruption scandal forced 35-year-old Sebastian Kurz to step down as Austrian chancellor last week after allegations of transgressions on his path to the top job.

Here is what has surfaced so far:

– The allegations –

The scandal surfaced when prosecutors raided several locations including the headquarters of Kurz’s People’s Party (OeVP) and the chancellery itself.

The warrant for the raids runs to more than 100 pages and the offences are alleged to have begun in 2016.

Kurz was foreign minister then and had, along with his allies, set his sights on ousting the OeVP leader Reinhold Mitterlehner and becoming chancellor.

Prosecutors say Kurz connived with allies to embezzle money from the finance ministry and fund opinion polls which were partially manipulated to enhance his image.

The Oesterreich tabloid newspaper is alleged to have published the polls and gushing articles about Kurz in return for lucrative public advertisements.

Prosecutors estimate the losses to the public purse to be “at least 300,000 euros ($347,000)”.

Kurz deposed Mitterlehner in 2017 as party chief and then won elections later that year, going on to enter government in coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).

– What’s the evidence? –

Much of the evidence is in phone messages, many of them sent and received by former finance ministry official and close Kurz confidant Thomas Schmid.

The messages give a damaging picture of the way Kurz’s inner circle viewed the press, particularly Oesterreich.

When an aide complains that the paper’s coverage has not been favourable, Schmid explains that “it’s because we haven’t offered them any money” and goes on to specify who exactly at the paper needs to be contacted “for the money… and for the content”.

The messages also reveal party infighting and skulduggery. At one point Kurz appears to try and sabotage more funding for childcare to prevent Mitterlehner from getting the credit.

While all those under investigation deny any criminal wrongdoing, Kurz said that some of the messages “were written in the heat of the moment and I would not express myself like that today”.

– Who is involved? –

In May, Kurz was put under investigation for allegedly making false statements to a parliamentary committee examining separate corruption allegations involving Schmid.

Kurz’s close ally and current Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel is also being probed in yet another inquiry.

The latest investigation targets ten people and three organisations, including Kurz and the OeVP itself. Those being investigated could face lengthy jail terms if convicted.

On Tuesday, authorities made a first arrest according to media reports, holding a pollster for allegedly destroying evidence.

She is suspected of having deleted data from the hard disk of her computer just before a raid, daily Der Standard reported.