Austrian president rebukes far-right leader over media jibe
VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s president rebuked the far-right deputy head of government on Friday for accusing the national broadcaster and one of its journalists of lying.
Heinz-Christian Strache, who led the anti-Islam Freedom Party (FPO) to third place in last year’s parliamentary election and into government as a junior coalition partner, has for years accused national broadcaster ORF of left-wing bias.
On Tuesday he went further, posting a picture on Facebook of leading ORF news presenter Armin Wolf with the inscription, “There is a place where lies become news. That place is ORF.” Wolf has threatened to sue Strache, saying it is the first time a politician has accused him of lying. ORF demanded an apology.
“Disparaging remarks or baselessly accusing a person of lying have no place in our public debate. It is not respectful and it calls into question the freedom of the press,” President Alexander Van der Bellen told the Kurier and Tiroler Tageszeitung newspapers.
Austria’s president usually serves a largely ceremonial role but as head of state he has the power to dismiss governments.
Although previous presidents have only rarely criticized politicians publicly, Van der Bellen, an environmentalist who beat an FPO candidate in a close-fought runoff in 2016, has said he will watch the new government closely.
A day after his Facebook posting, Strache said it was merely a Mardi Gras prank that was marked as such because it carried the one-word caption “Satire!”
But he twinned that defense with a renewed attack on ORF, saying that when the government reformed the broadcaster he would make sure it would have to report “objectively” and scrap the license fee that funds it.
“Simply labeling something as satire does not by any means make it satire,” Van der Bellen said. “Freedom of opinion and of the press as well as independent media are a basic requirement of a living, liberal democracy. Critically questioning politicians is part of that.”
Wolf is known for his muscular interviewing style and has grilled politicians of all shades.
It is the second time Van der Bellen has publicly criticized a member of the FPO since the coalition government led by conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz took office in December.
Last month he called for the head of the FPO list of candidates in Lower Austria, the province that surrounds Vienna, to step down over his involvement in a right-wing student fraternity that once published a songbook with lyrics joking about the Holocaust. That call was heeded five days later.
See also: Austrian far-right leader pledges to take on public broadcaster
Fresh Nazi songbook scandal hits Austrian far-right Freedom party
A weekly magazine in Austria has said it found an anti-Semitic fraternity songbook similar to the one found in January. The fraternity's chairman is reportedly an aide of the country's far-right transport minister.
A second student fraternity with ties to Austria's Freedom Party (FPÖ) — a partner in the ruling coalition — has a songbook that includes lyrics calling for the murder of Jews, an Austrian magazine reported on Tuesday.
The report comes after a senior FPÖ candidate resigned in early February after the same magazine found his former student fraternity had used a similar anti-Semitic songbook.
What is in the book?
Vienna-based weekly magazine Falter reported it had found a songbook used by the fraternity "Bruna Sudetia."
- The book includes songs celebrating the holocaust — Nazi Germany's systemic murder of some 6 million Jews during the World War II — and lyrics calling for the fusion of Germany and Austria to form a new "German Empire."
- One line reads: "In their midst comes the Jew Ben Gurion / Step on the gas, old Germanics, we can make it to seven million." David Ben-Gurion was Israel's first prime minister.
- Another song reads: "Two Jews swam in the Nile River / a crocodile ate one of them, at the other it merely stared / at that it almost puked the first one up."
- A song dating from 1972, when Germany was divided into West Germany and East Germany, includes the line, "Germany is still separated into three parts" followed by, "long live exalted German-Austria, and with it the entire German Empire."
Why this matters: Bruna Sudetia's chairman, the magazine said, is Herwig Götschober, an FPÖ member and an aide to Transport Minister Norbert Hofer, who narrowly lost the 2016 Austrian presidential election. A transport ministry spokesman told Falter that Götschober was not aware of the songbook and "categorically" rejected it.
Second scandal: The new find comes after Udo Landbauer, a leading FPÖ candidate in southern Austria, resigned following Falter's discovery in late January of a similar songbook used by the fraternity "Germania." The 31-year-old Landbauer had been Germania's vice president. Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz, whose conservative People's Party (ÖVP) is in a governing coalition with the FPÖ, has vowed to dissolve Germania.
What happens next? The FPÖ, which was founded by former Nazi officials and has close ties to many ultra-nationalist student fraternities, has appointed a commission of historians to examine the party's past in response to the first scandal. FPÖ officials have however said that they cannot force fraternities to take part in the investigation due to their informal ties to the party.
See also: Inside the secretive fraternities of Germany and Austria
Austria's far-right Freedom Party sets up panel to examine its past
VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party, which entered government in December, announced on Tuesday is was setting up a panel of people to investigate its history, a bid to distance itself from anti-Semitism and racism.
The opposition dismissed the plan as a whitewash by the FPO, which was formed in 1956 by a former officer in the SS -- the armed wing of the Nazi party -- and has struggled for years to rid itself of its radical-right image.
The FPO governs as a junior partner with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives after coming in third in elections in October, with 26 percent of the vote.
While proclaiming a clear break with its roots, the anti-Islam FPO has stumbled over Nazi scandals.
A high-ranking local party official who helped lead a far-right fraternity which distributed a songbook that joked about killing Jews resigned under pressure this month.
Chancellor Kurz has vowed to fight anti-Semitism after Israel said it would shun officials from the FPO, which controls the posts of foreign, interior and defense ministers.
“We reject violence, totalitarianism and racism in any form,” FPO General Secretary Harald Vilimsky told a news conference.
“We will never forget the dark chapters of Austrian history, and we clearly deny any downplaying of National Socialism,” said Vilimsky, a member of the European Parliament group that includes the parties of France’s Front National and a Dutch nationalist party led by Geert Wilders.
Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938.
A commission of 30-50 researchers led by FPO politician and historian Wilhelm Brauneder will examine the party’s past, the FPO’s parliamentary group leader, Walter Rosenkranz, said.
The FPO has struggled to divert attention from its close ties with German nationalist student networks, widely seen as a gateway between the political far right and neo-Nazis.
Rosenkranz said he hoped the commission could get access to fraternities’ private records.
“We also want to persuade all critics to provide us with everything still slumbering in their archives,” he said.
Andreas Schieder, parliamentary leader of the center-left Social Democrats, called the panel “completely implausible” with Brauneder as its head. Schieder said the commission needed independent experts to do a proper job.
About 40 percent of FPO members of parliament, several FPO ministers and numerous FPO ministry staff - including Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache - are members of right-wing fraternities, Austria’s Jewish community has said.
Austria: Thousands sign up to scupper government's plans to stub out smoking ban
The Austrian government had scrapped a ban on smoking that was meant to come into force in May but will now have to discuss it. Austria is one of the few Western countries which allows smoking in bars and restaurants.
More than 100,000 Austrians have signed a petition against the government's scrapping of a complete ban on smoking in the country's bars and restaurants.
The high number of signatures means the issue will now have to be debated in parliament.
The ban, which was due to come into force in May this year, was imposed by the previous coalition government.
But the ban was scrapped by the new government at the behest of the leader of the far-right Freedom Party, Austria's Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, himself a smoker, who said it impinged on "freedom of choice."
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a non-smoker, had supported the ban when his center-right People's Party (ÖVP) was a member in the previous ruling coalition.
But he was forced to change stance, bowing to pressure from his junior coalition partner, which insisted that the ban be dropped as a precondition for being part of the government.
'A big vote'
The Austrian Medical Association (ÖÄK) launched a petition on Thursday to thwart the government's plan.
The petition proved so popular that registration of signatures on the Interior Ministry website had to be stopped for two hours on Friday due to a heavy load on the ministry's online servers.
"This is a big vote and it has to make politicians rethink the issue," the medical association's president, Thomas Szekeres, said. "We will keep collecting signatures and expressions of support so as to keep increasing the pressure."
Bucking the trend
Thirteen years after initiating attempts to ban smoking, Austria remains one of the last Western countries that still allows smoking in bars and restaurants.
In theory, large restaurants in Austria are required to provide separate smoking and non-smoking areas, but the rules are not rigidly implemented. Smaller restaurants need not have a separate area if the owner agrees to allow smoking on the premises.
Around 13,000 Austrians die each year from smoking-related causes.
ap/jm (AFP, dpa)