Austria′s public broadcaster sues far-right vice chancellor over ′fake news′ post | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 28.02.2018
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Austria's public broadcaster sues far-right vice chancellor over 'fake news' post

Far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache is facing multiple lawsuits over a Facebook post saying Austria's public broadcaster spreads "propaganda." His "reform" calls have raised concerns about the news outlet's future.

Austrian public broadcaster ORF has taken legal action against vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache after he shared a Facebook post claiming the broadcaster and one of its most prominent journalists publish "lies."

In a statement forwarded to DW on Wednesday, the broadcaster said it took the unusual step against Strache, who also heads the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), due to libelous and "untrue attacks on the ORF."

"The text discredited the journalistic work of 800 ORF journalists in television, radio and online," ORF Director General Alexander Wrabetz said in the statement.

ORF is also suing Facebook for not removing the original post shared by Strache, Wrabetz said.

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Strache defends post as 'satire'

Michael Mandlik, a correspondent for German public broadcaster ARD, tweeted a screenshot of Strache's post before it was taken down.

"There's a place where lies become news. It's the ORF," the text of the picture reads, mimicking an advertisement for the broadcaster.

The text continues: "The best of fake news, lies and propaganda, pseudo-culture and forced licensing fees. Regional and international. On TV, radio and the Facebook profile of Armin Wolf."

Armin Wolf, the ORF television presenter pictured and mentioned in the post, is also suing Strache.

The vice chancellor has since taken down the post and offered an apology to Wolf and said the comments were "satire."

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Far-right stance on broadcaster is 'problematic'

Strache has, however, continued to post on social media about what he and the FPÖ view as the broadcaster's left-wing bias, calling for an "ORF reform." 

"Yes we want an ORF reform for a future independent, objective and neutral public broadcaster," Strache wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday.

The FPÖ are also are campaigning to do away with the licensing fee that funds the public broadcaster. The anti-immigration party's position in a coalition government with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's conservatives means that the party's proposals have a better chance of coming to fruition.

Scott Griffen, the Deputy Director of the International Press Institute, told DW that the FPÖ's rhetoric towards the broadcaster is "problematic" and that the party is "undermining critical journalism and harassing critical journalists."

Whatever ORF reform proposals the Freedom Party brings forward "need to be closely examined and scrutinized to make sure there's not a back door to bring the broadcaster to heel," Griffen said.

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Building trust

While ORF has decided to confront Strache by filing a defamation suit, Griffen notes that there are other ways broadcasters can build up public trust: Increasing media literacy, explaining the importance of editorial independence and quickly issuing corrections where mistakes have been made.

"One way is to do more work educating the public about what a public broadcaster is and what it isn't," Griffen said. "A public broadcaster is not a government spokesman, it's not a tool of those in power — it's a tool of the public."

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