September 25, 2018 / 11:25 AM / 3 months ago

Austrian leader rejects far-right plan to shut out some media

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s chancellor said on Tuesday a proposal by a far-right coalition partner to shut out several newspapers was unacceptable, suggesting further tensions between the ruling parties, though the far right later disowned the plan.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attends the news conference prior to the European People's Party (EPP) meeting ahead of the informal meeting of EU leaders, in Salzburg, Austria, September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

Two of Austria’s three main national newspapers on Tuesday published details of an email sent to police spokespeople by the Interior Ministry, controlled by the far-right Freedom Party (FPO). It suggested communications with the papers and one other be reduced to “what is absolutely necessary”.

“Any restriction of press freedom is unacceptable,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in a statement, although he avoided referring to the reports specifically.

“The shutting out or boycotting of selected media cannot take place in Austria,” he said. “That goes for those in charge of communications at all ministries and all public institutions.”

The email accused the broadsheets Kurier and Der Standard and left-wing weekly newspaper Falter of “very one-sided and negative reporting” about the ministry or the police, without providing examples or details.

The Interior Ministry confirmed that the email was authentic and sent by its chief spokesman but said it was not binding and consisted of suggestions rather than instructions.

The FPO is critical of some media for what it says is biased coverage, but its accusations are less frequent and generally less vociferous than the “fake news” charges made by some right-wing figures, such as U.S. President Donald Trump.

In a posting on Facebook in February, FPO leader and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache accused national broadcaster ORF of lying. He defended the posting as a prank but later agreed to pay damages to the news anchor pictured in the posting and issued an apology.

The FPO, which controls the foreign, interior and defence ministries, and Kurz’s conservatives have largely managed to avoid public disputes while in government together, but anti-Semitism scandals involving FPO officials and accusations of an attempted purge at an intelligence agency have caused tension.

Media rights advocates including the Vienna-based International Press Institute and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s media freedom representative condemned the memo. President Alexander Van der Bellen issued a statement similar to Kurz’s, and the ministry later rowed back.

“The formulations regarding dealing with ‘critical media’ do not meet with my approval,” FPO Interior Minister Herbert Kickl said in a statement issued by his ministry on Tuesday, adding: “A restriction of press freedom is unthinkable.”

Reporting by Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich and Francois Murphy, editing by Larry King

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