Austrian far-right chief, TV anchor settle lawsuit over fake news jibe

VIENNA (Reuters) - The far-right deputy leader of Austria’s government has agreed to apologize and pay damages to a top news anchor after accusing him and national broadcaster ORF of lying, the presenter said on Tuesday, announcing a settlement.

Austria's Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache addresses the media after a cabinet meeting in Vienna, Austria, January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Last month Freedom Party leader and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache posted a picture on Facebook of the TV news anchor, Armin Wolf, with the inscription: “There is a place where lies become news. That place is ORF.”

In a speech the next day, Strache, who has long accused ORF of left-wing bias, said the posting was a prank since it was labeled “Satire!” He also said he wanted to scrap the license fee that funds ORF and force it to report “objectively” as part of government plans to reform the broadcaster.

Wolf, the presenter, filed a defamation suit against Strache before a criminal court, after which ORF took the exceptional step of filing its own civil suit against the vice chancellor. Strache’s party is the junior coalition partner to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives.

“My aim was not to drag a politician before the courts but to make clear that ... there are limits to criticism of the work done by journalists and the media, namely the point at which it becomes personally defamatory,” Wolf said in a blog posting announcing that he had reached a settlement with Strache.

“Mr Strache has now accepted these limits and he will also announce that to a large public audience,” Wolf said, showing a text Strache had agreed to pin to the top of his Facebook page for 10 days and have published on page 3 of the country’s top-selling tabloid.

Wolf said he had rejected an initial settlement offer presented by Strache’s lawyer but accepted this one because it was preferable to a legal conflict that could have lasted years.

A spokesman for Strache confirmed that a settlement had been reached but declined to elaborate. ORF welcomed the agreement but said its own settlement talks with Strache over its civil suit were continuing.

“This assertion was incorrect and I apologize to Armin Wolf and the employees of ORF for this unfounded statement,” the text Strache had agreed to post says, according to Wolf’s blog. It also says Strache withdraws his assertion.

Strache also agreed to pay Wolf’s legal costs plus 10,000 euros ($12,400), Wolf said. He added that he would donate the lump sum to the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance, an archive and research organization that examines the Holocaust and other Nazi-era crimes.

($1 = 0.8063 euros)

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich