Outrage over Austrian attempts to muzzle press

Far-right-controlled interior ministry calls for police to limit dealings with critical media

Austrian interior minister Herbert Kickl: facing calls for his resignation over “carrot-and-stick policy” to bring journalists into line.    Photograph: Florian Wieser/EPA

Austrian interior minister Herbert Kickl: facing calls for his resignation over “carrot-and-stick policy” to bring journalists into line. Photograph: Florian Wieser/EPA

 

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz has insisted his government is not attempting to limit press freedom after the far-right-controlled interior ministry suggested police limit contact with critical media outlets.

According to an email sent by the ministry, regional police force press offices should “limit communication . . . to the minimum legal requirement” when contacted by named publications.

These included Der Standard and Kurier newspapers as well as Falter weekly, which has reported extensively on the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), its interior minister Herbert Kickl and behind-the-scenes dramas at his department.  

The email accuses the three named media organisations of “very one-sided and negative reporting” of the ministry and police.

“I would ask you to be conscious of this and to consider the repercussions,” the mail adds, suggesting journalists from the three outlets should no longer be offered exclusive “treats” unless there is a likelihood of “neutral or even positive reporting”.

On Tuesday, the ministry confirmed as authentic the mail, which also suggested police highlight nationality and immigration status of suspects in public statements about criminal cases. The mail was not written by Mr Kickl but the ministry’s legal spokesman, the ministry insisted, and did not contain orders, but suggestions.

Populist party

Questioned about the statement, Mr Kurz, the chancellor, said that “any limit on press freedom is unacceptable”.

“Shutting out or boycotting specific media shouldn’t happen in Austria,” said Mr Kurz on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

News of the interior ministry email electrified Austria’s political and media scene. FPÖ critics say it confirms their worst suspicions about the populist party that took office a year ago as junior coalition partner in Vienna.

Der Standard said the mail presented Mr Kickl in public “as an enemy of press freedom”. Der Kurier said: “Our democracy should not die in darkness because a minister feels too weak to withstand criticism and is clearly unsuitable for this sensitive position.”

Opposition parties called for Mr Kickl’s resignation over what the Social Democrats (SPÖ) called a “carrot-and-stick policy” to bring journalists into line. Austria’s journalists’ union said the mail represented a “dangerous precedent”.

Mr Kickl has been dogged by scandal since taking office last year. The most serious controversy involved government raids on Austria’s BVT domestic intelligence agency in February.

An inquiry has been launched into the raids with the minister scheduled to give evidence in November.