In the leaked email, which several newspapers have published, the interior ministry instructed police press departments around the country to restrict communication with three “critical” newspapers – the centrist Kurier, the centre-left Der Standard and the left-wing weekly Falter – to the “legal minimum.”
The interior ministry has confirmed the email’s authenticity while pointing out that it was sent by the minister’s press spokesman, not the minister himself, and that it contained “advice” rather than “orders” on how to deal with media that were often “one-sided” in their reporting.
In recent months, the weekly Falter has published several investigative reports on the interior ministry’s internal functioning.
The current interior minister is a member of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), the junior partner in the coalition government headed by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP).
Although it is thanks to FPÖ support he is able to govern, Kurz was very critical when asked about the email in New York, where he was attending the United Nations General Assembly. The government had a duty to protect press freedom and independent journalism, he said.
“A boycott of certain media or measures designed to restrict certain journalists from exercising their right to inform is not only unacceptable but also unworthy of a democracy such as Austria,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s EU-Balkans desk. “Even if it was just advice, the interior ministry must stop this, because urging a certain kind of conduct towards a specific media outlet is tantamount to stigmatizing it.”
Press freedom has been increasingly threatened in Austria ever since the far-right FPÖ entered the government in December 2017. Until then, Austria had been one of the European Union countries with the best records and is ranked 11th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
Nowadays, both FPÖ and ÖVP politicians often berate journalists in public and the FPÖ’s frequent verbal attacks on Austria’s public radio and TV broadcaster has helped to tarnish the country’s international image.