Who's Afraid of the 'F-Word

By Eva Grubinger, 10 July 2000
Image: Still from Eva Grubinger, Resistance Say It Loud and Proud, 2000

Jörg Haider’s Freedom party has long been using the courts to silence both artistic and political expression. Now that it's in government, it can smell blood. By Eva Grubinger

"Please be fair. Give us a chance. Give us time. Judge us by what we do." When Austria’s rightwing government came to power in February it asked the public to overlook some of its more notorious pronouncements, such as calling artists ‘social parasites’, praising the ‘employment policy of the Third Reich’ and dubbing black doctors working in Austria ‘bushniggers’ — pronouncements which initially led to its immense national and international boycott.

Unfortunately, the Freedom Party has not been applying similar standards to various groups and individuals who do not fit into its idea of ‘freedom’, preferring to deploy democratic rules and conventions against democracy itself. Long before the F-party eventually came into governmental power it was systematically suing journalists, artists and cultural institutions, egged on by the high circulation tabloid Kronen Zeitung. According to Austrian law (and that of many other European democracies), insulting public figures such as politicians (who are then treated as private individuals) is punishable by as much as £100,000 and even up to two years in prison.

Writer Werner Kofler was perfectly aware of the law when he wrote his book Üble NachredeFurcht und Unruhe (Nasty Slander — Fear and Restlessness, Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek 1997). The book incensed a group of politicians and right-wing journalists and artists who, finding themselves fictionalised in the past, had instituted legal proceedings against the authors. But by using the simple trick of putting all his words into the conditional — he only would have insulted these people if he’d received the Robert-Musil Stipend, which would have given him the financial possibility of writing the memorandum Master of Nasty Slander — Kofler rehabilitated the freedom of art whilst simultaneously questioning the effects of literature. As expected, he got sued by a rightwing journalist working for the Kronen Zeitung, but was acquitted in court.

Very soon after the ‘takeover’ of the new government, the Austrian state broadcasting corporation ORF forwarded unofficial orders to their (cultural) editors to only report on their supposed subjects, not to contribute to the political debate of (cultural) resistance and opposition and not to join demonstrations in their spare time. As a reaction to these newly imposed pressures on the media, the radio DJ Fritz Ostermayer hugely increased the popularity of his show ‘Im Sumpf’ (‘In the Swamp’) by reading self-penned and solemn ‘high art’ lyric poetry containing the sharpest criticism concerning the government. Without ever mentioning names, it let his audience know who was being lampooned. To read the most risky material he brought in his kids, since no court can sentence minors.

But after three months under the influence of a government which appointed Jörg Haider’s own lawyer as minister of justice, and after Haider’s famous warning to artists and filmmakers that "a dog should never bite the feeding hand", such brilliant and ironic escapades are dwindling in number. Even hitherto courageous cultural institutions such as the Internet provider t0-Public Netbase now meekly hesitate to publish certain critical content, even though it only recently beat the F-party in a law suit. Since the rightwingers are trying hard to block the funding of cultural venues which are "being used for political agitation", a variety of important institutions of contemporary culture and discourse, such as the DepotVienna and the Kunsthalle Tirol, are now facing the threat of either getting constantly sued on whatever absurd pretext (misuse of public funding, cruelty to animals, child pornography...) and/or being dried out financially.

The F-party is now expanding its successful policy of litigation to an international arena. It’s even considering "taking legal steps" against the EU. By stirring up Austrian patriotism, the new government is trying hard to distract attention from its agenda of quashing social and political rights on all levels. According to vice chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer, Great Britain with its BSE scandal serves as a role model, "having blockaded everything until they got what they wanted". Which of course would tempt one to say, if one could, that Austria would be better off governed by mad cows than Riess-Passer and her kind.

German speaking sites: (documentary archive of Austrian resistance, all further links) (site of comedy duo Stermann-Grissemann) (Public Netbase) (Austrian Government)

English speaking sites: (Anti-Defamation League).

Eva Grubinger <EvaGrubinger AT>