Vienna – The Austrian Interior Ministry (BMI) under the leadership of Herbert Kickl, a member of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), is changing its approach to the media and policies regarding the information it makes public. The changes are outlined in a four-page letter that was recently emailed by the Interior Ministry to the communications officers at the state police headquarters of the country's nine states.

"Unfortunately, certain media outlets (for example STANDARD, Falter) continue to report in a one-sided and negative manner about the BMI and the police, and they have recently been joined by the Kurier," the letter warns. Both DER STANDARD and the Kurier have obtained copies of the letter, the authenticity of which has been confirmed by several officials.

The letter also includes a proposal for how to deal with the outlets named: "I would propose limiting communication with these media outlets to the absolute (legally defined) minimum and to avoid gifting them with, for example, exclusive stories ..."

From the perspective of the Interior Ministry, however, media outlets fortunately exist that have shown themselves to be willing to cooperate. In January, the broadcaster ATV plans to start a six-part series with the working title of "Live PD," which will depict the day-to-day realities of police work. But the BMI email doesn't make it sound as though the show is the product of independent journalism. "Every episode will be reviewed and will only be broadcast once it has been approved." The series, the letter makes clear, is part of its "image-promoting PR campaign, in accordance to which the issues dealt with can be determined by us."

For the last week, police communications officers have been implementing an additional desire expressed by the Interior Ministry, namely that the citizenship and residence permit status of crime suspects be included in press releases. The ministry has justified the policy change by referring to the need "for the greatest transparency possible and the justified interest of the population and the media."

Justice Ministry More Reserved

The Justice Ministry has a different view. The ministry's current media-relations policy, which has been in place since Aug. 1, 2014, contains the following passage: "When sharing information, the membership in an ethnic or religious group in addition to personal characteristics (skin color, etc.) should only be included if it is absolutely necessary for the understanding of the incident being reported."

A particularly savory detail: Only in July did a circle of experts, to which DER STANDARD also belongs, take up its duties at Vienna state police headquarters under the leadership of Police President Gerhard Pürstl. The group's goal is that of developing guidelines to ensure that police press releases are consistent with human rights. Despite pushback from the ministry, it is said that the circle of experts is going to continue its work.

The Interior Ministry also has an additional priority: Sex crimes are to be given greater prominence. The sender of the letter asks that: "special emphasis be placed on the provocative communication of offenses that were committed in public, followed a specific Modus Operandi (hugger muggers, for example), were especially violent or when there is no clear connection between the perpetrator and victim."

The Prioritization of Victim Protection

The request is odd since it has long been standard practice in cases of sexual assault and rape in which the perpetrator is unknown to include such details in the press release. In cases in which the perpetrator is known, however, police have given victim protection priority and sought to avoid further traumatizing the victim through a large-scale publicity campaign.

On Monday evening, the Interior Ministry stated that the email originated from the ministry spokesperson "and is in no way compulsory or directive in nature." It contains "in many passages the intention of encouraging a consistent media strategy for the police and the Interior Ministry in several areas." (Michael Möseneder, 24.9.2018)