Austria: The Kellermayr case: (K) A lesson for politics and authorities in inflammatory times

The Kellermayr case has caused dismay in both Austria and Germany.

Austria: The Kellermayr case: (K) A lesson for politics and authorities in inflammatory times

The Kellermayr case has caused dismay in both Austria and Germany. Lisa-Maria Kellermayr, general practitioner with her own family practice on Austria's largest lake, the Attersee in Upper Austria, took her own life. An autopsy confirmed the 36-year-old's suicide. It is unclear why the woman killed herself. However, there is a suspicion that she could no longer withstand the pressure from the anti-vaccination scene. She was also threatened with personal bankruptcy. (Read the whole story here.)

"Threats, violence and hate speech are to be condemned in the strongest terms, especially when they are directed against medical staff and doctors," said Deputy Government Spokesman Wolfgang Büchner on Wednesday in Berlin. The Munich public prosecutor's office is now investigating because a trail leads to Bavaria.

In Austria itself, the case triggered a debate about how to deal with hate and hate speech online, but also about the failure of the authorities. Now the question arises as to the possible consequences. However, the discussion is not being conducted by the responsible authorities, i.e. the police, the Federal Ministry of the Interior or the government. They keep a low profile when asked. Neither the spokesman for the Austrian federal government, nor the state secretary or the public prosecutor's office responded to a stern request.

From the Federal Ministry of the Interior it was only said: "On the case you mentioned, only the State Police Directorate (LPD) Upper Austria communicated." A press statement from the LPD was attached. The Federal Ministry of the Interior left the question of possible consequences and measures against hate crime unanswered.

In its written response, the LPD in Upper Austria describes the incident as "a particularly tragic case in connection with the corona pandemic and the increasing radicalization in speech and language - especially in social media." However, countermeasures were developed at a video conference in December 2021. "Fr. Dr. Kellermayr has also been advised by the police since November 2021," says the statement. The security situation was discussed with Ms. Kellermayr at a joint appointment with the Directorate for State Security and Intelligence (DSN) and the Upper Austrian police. "Police protective measures around the ordination (the doctor's office, ed.) have been drastically increased. All legally possible measures have been exhausted." The message: everything done right. Apparently nobody wants to admit that the measures neither ended the threats against Kellermayr nor prevented the suicide.

Instead, the spokesman now goes so far as to sue a Twitter user. Weeks ago, the responsible spokesman dismissed Kellermayr's concerns with the statement that the doctor had pushed herself into the public eye to "promote her own advancement through the media". A Twitter user now accuses him of "having blood on his hands". The speaker is now suing him.

"To even consider mistakes as possible, let alone admit them, is considered taboo in Austria's police," tweeted the green member of the National Council Georg Bürtsmayr (Greens). He announced talks with the security spokesmen of all parties.

Particularly embarrassing for the authorities: A network activist from Germany researched the death threats against Kellermayr and identified the perpetrator within a very short time. This is tantamount to exposing the authorities, who, according to Austrian media reports, have reached their technical limits when investigating the perpetrators. According to the information, the messages probably came from the Darknet, so that their originators could not be traced back. However, according to Austrian media reports, the hacker succeeded. The responsible public prosecutor's office initially rejected the information and claimed that the findings were not comprehensible in terms of content and technology. In addition, the police should not investigate in this way - i.e. contact people online and use "their unverified information" for further investigations.

The authorities later claimed that they were not able to judge the hacker's work anyway, since they had not yet received any supporting documents. According to information from "Standard", the activist contradicted this, whereupon the public prosecutor's office admitted to having received the material. The activist also offered to work with the authorities.

The Austrian Medical Association is now demanding stricter laws, higher penalties and a change in attitude from the government. "Threats and hate on the Internet (should) no longer be accepted lightly as a trivial offense". These would also have to be consistently pursued by the authorities, said the head of the ÖÄK department for vaccination matters, Rudolf Schmitzberger, in the Ö1 morning journal. The Medical Association is now taking action itself. A course on de-escalation measures with a self-defence unit starts in Vienna.

A forensic psychiatrist, whom Kellermayr mentioned in her suicide note, now goes so far as to question the point of social media in democracies. There is a lack of "social rules in the 'anti-social media'". The court psychiatrist criticized that social inhibitions were lost through the anonymity on the Internet, and there was no fear of accountability.

The Hate-on-the-Net legislative package was supposed to prevent people in Austria from being confronted with such hatred and hate speech online. It was decided in autumn 2020. Nikolaus Forgó, Professor of Technology Law at the University of Vienna, describes the law in a guest commentary as a pile of rubble. His assessment of the law and the Kellermayr case: online threats don't go away just because they're banned. Anyone can be affected. And: "Hate on the internet is about the internet. So if you want to fight it, you have to understand something about the internet." Forgó calls for basic digital education for everyone, including outside of school lessons, so that the "authorities can (no longer) hide their idleness behind alleged technical or legal constraints - Darknet here, alleged data protection requirements there".

On Monday, the organization Yes we care organized a memorial service for the dead doctor Kellermayr in front of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. Daniel Landau, teacher, education activist and spokesman for the organization, personally visited Kellermayr in mid-July. "At the time we were still considering what the situation would have been like if she had been a doctor and not a doctor," says Landau the star. He believes that women are rarely taken seriously in such cases. "The fact that the police patrolled the practice once a day cannot be the case given the threat." That has to be worked on internally. Landau calls for the reporting system to be redesigned. "In Austria there is still a large legal vacuum when it comes to online violence," he criticizes, and appeals to the population and politicians: "More mindfulness instead of hatred."

While politicians and authorities skillfully duck under the case and the criticism attached to it, German politicians are at least reacting with clear statements. "Every day there are calls for violence against me on social networks," said Federal Minister of Health Karl Lauterbach (SPD) to the newspapers of the Funke media group. He is therefore particularly well protected and regrets that the Austrian colleague had to finance her protection herself.

The reported incidents must be taken seriously, criminal behavior must be prosecuted, said Deputy Government Spokesman Büchner. The signal that is going out from Austria these days is: "We will no longer give space to those who intimidate us or try to do that every day." No comparable cases are known in Germany.

The deputy federal chairman of the police union, Jörg Radek, calls on the police to "act quickly in view of the worrying increase in digital crimes". However, there is a lack of appropriate resources, both in terms of personnel and equipment. The Greens parliamentary group leader Konstantin von Notz is now demanding this, while Union parliamentary group leader Andrea Lindholz spoke out in favor of more powers in the digital space. "Restricting the security authorities to tapping landline telephone calls simply does not do justice to the reality of life in 2022," criticized the CSU politician.

Do you have suicidal thoughts? The telephone counseling service offers help. She is anonymous, free and available 24 hours a day on (0800) 1110111 and (0800) 1110222. Consultation via e-mail is also possible. A list of nationwide help centers can be found on the website of the German Society for Suicide Prevention.

Sources: "Der Standard", ORF, with material from DPA.

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