On September 24, some troubling news broke: News outlets like Kurier and Der Standard published a leaked email that was sent from within the Interior Ministry to the press offices of the regional directors of the Austrian Federal Police. The memo recommended abstaining from communication with “critical media,” stating that certain newspapers should be avoided and only engaged with when absolutely necessary. Many journalists and media organizations are appalled, calling these instructions an attack on the freedom of the press.
Teilt das. Retweetet das.
Schaut, dass es jeder liest. Infosperre für die Schlimmen,
Zuckerln für die Braven. Die offizielle Informationspolitik von Innenminister Herbert Kickl.
— Florian Klenk (@florianklenk) September 24, 2018
(“Share this. Retweet this. Make sure, everyone reads it. Information ban for the bad guys, treats for the good ones. The official policy of disclosure of Interior Minister Herbert Kickl.” #kickl)
Austria's far-right interior minister has urged the police to name the nationality and asylum status of suspects in press releases, according to leaked emails, @derStandardat reports https://t.co/t2xRccSpNG
— Claire Barthelemy (@cbtly) September 25, 2018
Austria's radical right Interior Minister Herbert Kickl wants to change media: make propaganda tv series, emphasize "origins" of perpetrators, and minimize access of and contact to "critical media". #media #Austria #radicalright https://t.co/Cxw5W25dki
— Cas Mudde 🗣️ (@CasMudde) September 24, 2018
The Interior Ministry is headed by Herbert Kickl from the far-right Freedom Party. He is now under fire for allegedly trying to gain more control over the media.
Here are some of the statements found within the controversial email:
“In the future, I would ask you to mention the nationality of every offender in your press releases (…) Also, the current status of the perpetrators if they are seeking asylum (…) I also want you to use this kind of phrasing for future interviews.”
“With critical media, communication needs to be reduced to a minimum as their reporting is very one-sided and negative and ignores facts and explanations. Police officers are not to meet with journalists except if ‘neutral or positive coverage’ is guaranteed.”
The Interior Ministry is also planning a new TV show called “Live PD,” scheduled to start by the end of 2018. Their conditions: every episode has to be sent to the ministry first for approval and can only air if greenlighted by them.
The news outlet Kurier complained that recent requests for interviews or background talks have been denied to their journalists. Other media outlets had similar problems over the last few months. Kurier has also stated that they did not have these problems with the regional press offices of the Austrian police before – quite the opposite, there was a good working relationship. So presumably those offices had received the email in question.
Furthermore, the email included the suggestion to proactively send out press releases about sexual assault, “especially offenses that include a lot of force.” Until now, the police avoided doing so in order to protect the victims.
Kurier requested an official statement from the Interior Ministry. They declined to release one until later that night, stating that Minister Kickl had nothing to do with the email, neither writing nor receiving it. They referred to Christoph Pölzl, spokesperson of the Interior Ministry, explaining that Pölzl was only giving “advice and pointers” to the police, not ordering them to do anything. The purpose was to create a single, unified voice for the police and Interior Ministry. The statement also criticized the ongoing coverage by Kurier and Der Standard.
On September 25, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz gave a statement where he admonished and defended the Interior Ministry in the same breath. He pointed out that there should never be any “information ban” for certain newspapers whatsoever. But he approved of the Ministry’s intention to create a unified media strategy.
Austrian president Van der Bellen responded on Facebook: “Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are the foundation of our liberal democracy and the rule of law in Austria. Any limitation on press freedom is unacceptable (…) ”