Researching the Unknown

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Christoph Schattleitner, a young ambitious Austrian journalist, has made it. With a critical article about Austrias’ secret services, Schattleitner won the “Prix de l’EYP” for the best journalistic piece on media freedom in the EU. We talked to him about the award and the problems during the research for his article.

You won an award for one of your first journalistic works. How does that make you feel?

Great! Now I am able to take part in the award for the EU’s Sakharow Human Rights Price in Strasbourg soon. This is a big honour for me!

What do you think about European Youth Press and their annual Media Days?

I participated in the EYP Media Days for the second time, a conference for about 100 young journalists all over the EU. This is a great occasion because you get the opportunity to research topics like refugees or surveillance internationally. In addition to that you meet many young colleagues working in the same business.

Can you explain how it was possible to win this European media award with an exclusively Austrian topic?

This is probably a better question for the jury. I reckon, the subject does not get the media attention it actually deserves. There are hardly any publishers in Austria that do have the manpower or the willingness to cover topics of national intelligence.

Schattleitner proudly presenting his award
Schattleitner proudly presenting his award

So why did you choose to focus on the topic?

Thanks to Edward Snowden I am very interested in the subject in general. In conversations with friends and colleagues I found out: Hardly anyone knows that there are three secret services in neutral Austria. That is why I followed up on the issue. These agencies do not have a website, no e-mail adress, and the Austrian Armed Forces do not even have a logo. So I opened my investigation to this question. In other countries the matter is treated completely different. The CIA for example is presented on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube and even developed a computer game for kids.

What is the attitude of young people in Austria towards secret services?

This is a real problem. There is no “relationship” to unknown authorities. Society cannot promote or criticize something if they do not even now that it exists. Clearly, some operations need to be kept secretly. But that does not mean secret services must hide from public. On the contrary: They should seek the public since they benefit from that themselves by creating trust. This is important because intelligence agencies have privileges and are financed by tax money. They have to justify their work towards the citizen. A scientist for secret agencies told me: “Austrias secret services are scaredy-cats.”

What experiences did you gain during your research for the article?

I just wanted to write a simple portrait: What do secret services do and why do we need them? I failed miserably. Nobody wanted to talk to me. The Ministry of Defence replied to my request but did not answer any of my 30 questions. The Home Office was willing to talk to me but specific answers were not given even on my explicit demand. For instance I wanted to know with which foreign organisations the Office for the Protection of the Constitution cooperates. The speaker from the Home Office answered: “I cannot tell you that. But you should try to investigate.” That left me just speechless.

This interview reminded us once again how difficult the work as a journalist can be. Yet Christoph Schattleitner wants to stick to his topic of secret services. Right now he is working in Vienna as a freelance journalist while studying law.

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