Controversial plans floated by the governing Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) that would impose tough criminal penalties on journalists for quoting from leaked documents should be scrapped immediately, the Vienna-based International Press institute (IPI) said today.
IPI, a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, said that if passed, the new rules would seriously undermine press freedom in Austria and hamper investigative journalism.
On February 24, 2021, the ÖVP party headed by Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, suggested as part of a planned judicial reform that it was considering stricter criminal penalties for media which quoted or published leaked information from judicial investigations.
The ÖVP’s suggestion for tougher criminal penalties comes amidst media coverage of judicial investigations involving politicians, including Austrian Finance Minister Gernot Blümel, who is under investigation by the specialized public prosecutor’s office responsible for corruption-related crimes (WKStA).
Party officials have publicly criticized the judiciary and especially the WKStA in recent days. As part of a reform process under negotiation with the ÖVP’s governing coalition partner, the Green Party, the ÖVP proposed new penalties to stop media publishing investigation files, arguing that reporting on leaked files risked prejudicing legal proceedings.
“The ability of journalists to verify and publish public interest information obtained from leaks is a fundamental element of the freedom of the press”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “We are concerned that ÖVP’s proposal is a knee-jerk reaction which, if passed, would criminalize legitimate journalism.”
“Professional journalists abide by ethical standards and engage in a rigorous vetting process to establish the authenticity of information and assess what is in the public interest to publish. Austria already has relevant and sufficient legislation in place when it comes to the rights of persons under investigation. The proposed new restrictions are not only not needed, they would also seriously impede the press’s ability to fulfil its watchdog role.”
The suggestion was initially floated by ÖVP Minister for Constitutional Affairs Karoline Edtstadler, who said that “everything must be done in a non-public investigation” to ensure that no leaks were published in media before “those involved in the proceedings” learned themselves.
No legislation is reported to have been drawn up and the Green Party has officially announced its opposition to the idea as part of the reform plans.
Under current legislation, Austrian journalists are permitted to publish and cite information attained from leaks as long as it complies with provisions in the country’s media law regarding issues such as privacy protection.
After the plans were revealed, several leading journalists, the association of Austrian newspapers, journalist unions, academics and the Austrian Bar Association came out to vocally condemn the proposal.
Florian Klenk, editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine Falter and one of Austria’s top investigative journalists, sharply criticized the plans. “If the ÖVP is seriously considering prohibiting quoting from (investigative) files and reporting on preliminary investigations, that would be the most serious attack on investigative journalism”, he wrote on Twitter, adding that reporting on some of the country’s controversial scandals wouldn’t have been possible under such a law.
Daniela Kraus, secretary-general of Vienna’s Presseclub Concordia called the plan a “transparent attack on press freedom in reaction to recent events”. Gerald Grünberger, managing director of the Association of Austrian Newspapers, said a criminal offense was “undesirable for reasons of freedom of the press”.
Eike-Clemens Kullmann, chairman of the Austrian Journalists’ Union, also warned against any stricter law: “Wanting to punish journalists for quoting from files in investigative proceedings is an unacceptable attack on freedom of the press and thus our democracy”. Rupert Wolff, president of the Austrian Bar Association, also condemned any planned restriction, saying it would “muzzle” the media and “catapult us back into the 19th century”.
This statement by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.