After numerous attacks on the Austrian public broadcast ORF and its staff in the last weeks by the right-wing governing party FPÖ, there is no sign of easing of tension. Before, the tension was raised because of direct, personal attacks at journalists as well as because of discussions about the future financing of the ORF. Now, FPÖ board of trustees member Norbert Steger threatens with the dismissals of journalists. “This kind of intimidation of journalists is profoundly antidemocratic and endangers the freedom of information”, warns president of the Austrian section of Reporters without Borders, Rubina Möhring.
In an interview with the newspaper Salzburger Nachrichten the FPÖ member of the board of trustees at ORF, Norbert Steger, exacerbated the tense discussion about the ORF once again. Steger demanded that the new channel chiefs take “steps towards more objective reporting.” If not, he threatened to cut out one third of foreign correspondents “if they do not behave correctly.” He cited the Hungarian election as an example for incorrect behaviour. The FPÖ is friends with Fidesz, Viktor Orban’s party, and found the reports too critical of Orban. Furthermore, Steger threatened with dismissals in case of violations against a new social media guideline. According to the speaker of editors, Dieter Bornemann, employees have not even been made aware of the new guideline. Wanting to punish a violation in advance, serves only the promotion of fear among journalists.
ORF director Alexander Wrabetz reacted promptly. The dispatch of correspondents is not within the responsibility of the foundation board or the government, he said. He announced to extend the contract with Budapest correspondent Ernst Gelegs after the excellent coverage of the Hungarian elections until 2021. The 16 correspondent offices are indispensable and valued pillars of reporting. On the contrary, it is planned to expand by two more offices by 2020, Wrabetz said.
The ORF editorial board found sharp words for the threats from Steger: “Steger shows in this interview a strange understanding of press freedom: As a member of the ORF board of trustee, he is obviously mainly concerned with the enforcement of party interests. Party representatives want to assess what reporting should look like. Critic editors are to be silenced. “None of the threats of Steger have something to do with factual criticism, but are part of a systematic attempt to undermine the credibility of the ORF. Such a procedure is a pity for journalism and politics as a whole. “To threaten correspondents with dismissal for party-politically motivated reasons, is a direct attack on public service broadcasting and a new low point of media policy”, summed up the editorial board.
The president of Reporters Without Borders Austria, Rubina Möhring, declared: “It is crucial for a democracy, which attitude government members have towards free press. The statements that we have recently heard from the FPÖ serve to intimidate individual journalists and to reduce the reputation of independent journalism, especially the ORF, among the general public. Both is inappropriate in a democracy and we condemn it in the strongest terms.” Möhring not only criticized the comments by FPÖ politicians, but misses a statement by the government partner. The conservative ÖVP under Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has so far not commented on any of the incidents.
On the other hand, Möhring welcomed the contract extension of Ernst Gelegs, ORF correspondent in Hungary, by director Alexander Wrabetz, who was attacked for his coverage cricital of Orban.
Many ORF journalists, on the other hand, spoke up. “An ORF board of trustee member, who rushes against his own company and threatens a blameless colleague will of course concern us as editorial spokesperson for the ORF correspondents,” commented Brussels office manager and editorial spokesman of ORF correspondents Peter Fritz. After a press release by FPÖ General Secretary Harald Vilimsky, in which he demanded an apology for the statement, Fritz rowed back. He did not intend to accuse Steger of any offence and apologized. To protect colleagues against attacks, he still considers more important than ever.
Even the most famous face of the ORF, ZIB host Armin Wolf, who had been personally attacked in the past by FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache, spoke up. A politician is not an appropriate authority to judge the objectivity of journalism, Wolf said. In the past, Wolf had already been criticized by Norbert Steger: an interview with chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Wolf and colleague Claudia Reiterer had been called out as “insubordinate” by Steger.