Innsbruck Despatch | International

The Austrian far-Right’s war on free speech

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The term ‘fake news’ entered popular imagination after Donald Trump was elected the President of the U.S. in 2016 and began attacking many mainstream American media outlets. His rhetoric has since been adopted by right-wing groups across Europe. One recent example is that of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO).

Ever since the FPO became part of the government, slurs against media have been part of its daily routine. Further, the culprits here are not low-ranking party officials but the Vice-Chancellor himself, Heinz-Christian Strache (in picture), who recently claimed on his Facebook page that the state-run Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) was spreading lies. His post featured a picture of popular journalist Armin Wolf. Mr. Wolf, a respected figure in the country, filed a suit against Mr. Strache, claiming that he has never been accused of lying.

“Politics in Austria has always been a theatre... However, with Strache’s attitude, we have reached a new low. This man is the country’s Vice-Chancellor but it seems that he has nothing better to do than attacking journalists on Facebook. He acts like a troll on social media,” said Elias Shakil, 21, a student from Innsbruck.

Following the outrage expressed by Mr. Wolf, Mr. Strache said that his original post was more in the nature of satire. However, the FPO’s criticism of the ORF has since become more vocal. It accused the channel of bias when, from a recent local election campaign video featuring one of its candidates Markus Abwerzger, anti-Semitic content was edited out. The channel was later forced to air the full video segment and also apologise to the party. The FPO warned that the editor responsible would face the consequences.

Playing the victim

“Many Austrians know that the Freedom Party is lying and often pretends to be a victim. But especially in the era of ‘fake news’, I think it is really dangerous to give such groups and parties a reason. The ORF clearly made a mistake. If they continue their work in this way, more and more people will stop believing what the established media reports,” said Jakob Fleißig, a local restaurateur.

The Strache-Wolf episode is not over yet. A court recently ruled in favour of Mr. Wolf, telling that Mr. Strache’s Facebook post had indeed been aimed at smearing the journalist. Mr. Strache’s lawyers have already contacted Mr. Wolf and offered him a settlement. Mr. Strache has also suggested that he will publish a comment on his Facebook page, saying that his action was wrong. “The depiction was a mistake. I want to apologise to Armin Wolf,” he said.

Meanwhile, the ORF also filed a lawsuit against Mr. Strache earlier this week. “Vice Chancellor Strache accused ORF, by doctoring ORF advertising material, of spreading fake news, lies and propaganda in all its media,” ORF Director General Alexander Wrabetz said in a brief statement, adding that the text was “libellous and damaging to (ORF’s) reputation”. President Alexander Van der Bellen has also condemned the remarks made by Mr. Strache.

Further, in an open letter addressed to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, leading journalists and media figures from the neighbouring Germany have called for a halt to the FPO’s attacks on the media. In the letter, the party’s behaviour was described as “hostile towards the press” and “harmful to democracy”. The attacks have also been compared with those in Poland and Hungary recently, both having far-right parties in power.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 11:00:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/the-austrian-far-rights-war-on-free-speech/article22919768.ece

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