Konrad Becker on 1 Sep 2000 19:33:37 -0000

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<nettime> Witch-hunt punishes those who defy Haider

Witch-hunt punishes those who defy Haider 

Denis Staunton reports from Vienna on a cutback in
funding for liberal activists 
The Austrian far right in power: special report 

Denis Staunton
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000 

Sunday July 9, 2000

In a few sparsely furnished rooms in Vienna's former imperial stables, a
handful of artists and political activists are taking the opposition to
Austria's right-wing government into cyberspace. But not for long. Public
Netbase, which provides Internet facilities for more than 1,200 cultural
and political projects, has had its public funding stopped and been told
to get out of the building by April next year.

Konrad Becker, one of the founders of Public Netbase, says his
organisation is only one of many cultural institutions to face closure
because they are judged by the government, which includes Jörg Haider's
far-right Freedom Party, to be on the wrong side of the political tracks.

'As soon as the new government came into place, all project money was
immediately withdrawn. They don't even talk to us now,' Becker said.

Austrian artists, journalists and intellectuals describe a climate of fear
and intimidation that they believe is part of a government attempt to
silence opposition to the coalition government that has become the pariah
of European politics.

Journalists on the public service television channel ORF have been
threatened with dismissal for being too critical of the government and
some coalition politicians have called for weekly demonstrations in the
centre of Vienna to be banned.

Later this week the president of the European Court of Human Rights in
Strasbourg will nominate three 'wise men' to monitor Austria's treatment
of minorities, immigrants and asylum-seekers and assess the evolution of
the 'political nature' of the Freedom Party.

If the report is favourable, Austria's 14 EU partners will lift the
sanctions imposed in protest against the presence in government of
Haider's party.

Among the cases the wise men may care to examine is that of Anton Pelinka,
Austria's most distinguished political scientist, who was convicted in a
Vienna court in April of defaming Haider by accusing him of trivialising
National Socialism. Pelinka, who is appealing against the verdict, claims
that Haider is using the libel laws to silence his critics.

'Less privileged people than me will consider very carefully what they say
in future. Because they don't want to spend five years in the courts until
Strasbourg proves them right,' Pelinka said.

Austria's Foreign Minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, last week dismissed
the furore over Pelinka as a political interpretation of a private, legal
matter. 'We have independent courts and maybe this was not a very
fantastic judgement. But who are we to judge that?' she said.

But other Austrian intellectuals claim that there is a pattern in the
government's behaviour, and Walter Famler, who edits the literary magazine
Wespennest (Wasps' Nest) says that the Pelinka case ought to ring alarm
bells about the coalition's intentions.

'They really want to destroy the public standing of people like Pelinka
with every means they can find. The hardcore Nazis in Germany threaten
people with violence. Here they want to corrupt people,' Famler said.

Ferrero-Waldner argues that, as the new government prunes back its public
spending, everyone's budget is being cut and that most of the complaints
by disgruntled artists and intellectuals are nothing more than the
predictable gripes of disappointed people.

But many of the casualties of the cuts, from community radio stations to
independent theatre groups, have one thing in common - their opposition to
the government. And while Ferrero-Waldner claims that her government's
attempts to effect changes in political programming on television are
aimed at creating more objectivity and efficiency, all the journalists who
are being targeted are critical of the coalition.

Although the Foreign Minister does not favour a ban on the demonstrations
against her government that attract thousands each Thursday evening, she
suggested that groups taking part in the protests could see their state
subsidies disappear.

'The demonstrations can go on forever, but on the other hand I think it's
also a question sometimes of subsidies. Because these people have their
stands here and so on. Maybe they get the money from somewhere. I don't
know,' Ferrero-Waldner said.

In the past, many independent cultural groups topped up their budgets and
broadened their intellectual horizons by touring abroad, but Austria's
current status as an international pariah has meant that many invitations
have been cancelled and most groups are staying at home this summer.

Combined with the budget cuts, the international boycott of Austria's
independent voices represents a double blow. 'Nobody's called us from
Western Europe at all this year. But maybe we'll go to Skopje in October -
that will be our international tour,' said Baertl Gstetner, who runs
Tanzhotel, a pioneering modern dance group in Vienna.

Becker has given up hope of receiving any more public funding for Public
Netbase, and as he watches the progress of Austria's new government he
believes that he underestimated the threat to free speech.

'At the beginning, we were all quite happy to see a mobilisation of the
public and it was very impressive to see so many people on the streets,'
Becker said.

'But I'm very much afraid if this goes on for a long time. Austria doesn't
have a very big tradition of dissenting democratic structures, and I'm
very worried about the consequences,' he said.

Public Netbase is at www.t0.or.at and Wespennest is at www.wespennest.at.  
Denis Staunton writes for the Irish Times .

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