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The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, publishers and leading journalists dedicated to defending media freedom, today sharply criticized a proposal by the Austrian Interior Ministry to restrict information for “critical media”.

In an email leaked to the press yesterday, a top ministry spokesman urged regional police spokespersons to “restrict communication with these media to only the most necessary (legally required) degree”.

The spokesman described the media outlets, including the dailies Der Standard and Kurier as well as the weekly Falter, of “very one-sided and negative reporting about the [Ministry of Interior] and the police”. The email also urged police departments not to grant critical media any “privileges”, such as police ride-alongs.

Following widespread media coverage of the leak, the Interior Ministry said in a statement that the email contained only “suggestions” that were not binding on the police departments. The statement also denied the involvement of Interior Minister Herbert Kickl of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which currently governs in coalition with the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

The statement added that the emails reflected “years of experience” with the media outlets named and defended the right of the ministry’s communication officials to “evaluate reporting based on information provided by [those officials] and draw qualitative conclusions”.

IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen described the proposal contained in the email as a “clear attempt to punish independent reporting”.

“Restricting media outlets’ access to official institutions in response to their critical reporting is an unmistakable attack on press freedom, one that has no place in a democracy”, he said. “It is the duty and the basic right of the news media – as protected by Austrian and European human rights law – to scrutinize the actions of the government. The Interior Ministry proposal regarding communication with critical media is a troubling development for the public’s right to receive independent information on matters of public interest.”

Kurz, who is currently in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, also criticized the proposal.

“The exclusion or boycott of selected media is not permitted in Austria”, he said. “That goes for communications officials of all ministries and public bodies.”

He added: “Any restriction of press freedom is unacceptable.”