Shining light in the darkness; probing where necessary to control the powers that be; digging deeper where context is unclear so as to inform readers. That is the journalist's job, and that is why press freedoms exist. They allow newsrooms to work without fear of reprisal from those in power. A free press is the foundation of a strong democracy. But following last week's developments in Austria, it is unclear whether everyone in the government understands this principle.
On Austrian public broadcaster ORF, Interior Minister Herbert Kickl recently criticized "certain media outlets" that "endeavor each day to make public things that are not intended for the public." By doing so, he added, they are "kindling uncertainty."
What the minister refers to as "uncertainty" is generally referred to by journalists as divulging. And there has been plenty to divulge recently when it comes to the Interior Ministry. Only thanks to the reporting of several media outlets, including DER STANDARD, did the details of the late February police raid of Austria's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT), the country's domestic intelligence agency, become known. Soon, these findings will be the focus of a parliamentary investigative committee – just as a democracy normally functions.
Rumors Are Taken Seriously
In the same interview in which he discussed the BVT matter, Kickl also said that "media outlets too are partly a target of interest." Was that a threat aimed at journalists for bringing the BVT affair to light in the first place?
Rumors of possible newsroom raids have begun circulating among reporters working on the BVT story. If that were to happen, it would be an unacceptable attack on the freedom of the press in Austria. It is unclear whether there is anything to these rumors and, if such a raid is being considered, whether it will actually be carried out. But it is telling that the rumors are being taken seriously enough that several editors-in-chief are expressing their concerns in editorials published by leading Austrian outlets such as the Viennese daily Kurier, the country's largest newsmagazine News, the daily broadsheet Die Presse and the newsmagazine Profil. It wouldn't be the first time in the world that a government resorted to such means to hinder undesirable coverage.
Journalists can only perform their control function when they obtain information via confidential sources. To ensure that sources turn to the media with such information, they must be confident that newsrooms are able to protect them. This right to confidentiality is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and is anchored in the Austrian constitution.
Differentiating between Critique and Threats
According to an additional rumor, the government is also considering a requirement for real names to be used when posting comments to online forums. That means it would no longer be allowed to express opinions on the internet under a pseudonym. It is a regulation that would impinge on both press freedoms and the freedom of opinion.
Even if all these rumors prove to be inaccurate, it is important that politicians respect the value of press freedoms and the freedom of opinion. The freedom to criticize journalists must likewise be respected. But government ministers need to be able to choose their words carefully enough that it is easy to differentiate between critique and threats. "Insubordinate?" "Uncertainty?" We will continue to do our job. Undeterred. (Martin Kotynek, 1.7.2018)