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Austrian leader rejects far right's plan to shut out some media

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By Reuters
Austrian leader rejects far right's plan to shut out some media
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   -   Copyright  LISI NIESNER(Reuters)

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria’s chancellor said on Tuesday a proposal by his far-right coalition partners to shut out several newspapers was unacceptable, suggesting fresh tensions between the ruling parties.

Two of Austria’s three main national newspapers on Tuesday published details of an email sent to police spokespeople by the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by the far-right Freedom Party (FPO). The email 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 responding to the reports, though he avoided referring to them 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.

Leaders of 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.

Anti-Semitism scandals involving FPO officials and accusations of a political purge by the FPO at an intelligence agency controlled by the Interior Ministry have caused some tensions but the two parties have kept their focus on an agenda heavy on law and order and restricting illegal immigration.

The Interior Ministry memo also said the nationality and immigration status of foreigners suspected of committing crimes should be made public and called for greater communication of sexual offences. The government has made tougher minimum sentences for sexual offences a priority.

Kurz made no mention of those aspects in his statement.

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