Yesterday The Guardian reported that the Austrian public broadcaster, ORF, is suing the Austrian vice-chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, for libel. Given that ORF is wholly owned by the Austrian government, how is such a thing even possible, or more broadly, how was this allowed to happen? Even supposing that ORF is suing Strache personally rather than in his official capacity as vice-chancellor, I don’t understand why the ruling coalition has allowed this embarrassing (to them) lawsuit to go ahead. (Granted, the vice-chancellor is from a different party than the chancellor, but I can’t imagine that Kurz would be so eager to throw his brand-new coalition partner under the bus like this.) Couldn’t the government have ordered ORF to nix the idea before papers were filed with the court? Or was this a case of a renegade public institution managing to evade government oversight long enough to launch the suit without their advance knowledge? Political fallout aside, is it not now within the government’s power to order ORF to drop the suit?
I’m not a lawyer, and not even Austrian, but: this is normal for a modern Democracy which follows the idea of Rechtsstaat https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rechtsstaat - basically, the govt. itself is bound to the laws, just as any other Party/ Institution.
There is usually a protection for members of parliament from historical precedent - it would be too easy to get rid of members with a politics People in power don’t like by suing them on trumped-up charges, putting them in prison while the court process drags on, thus keeping the member from voting and making speeches in parliament.
Ownership is one legal concept, that has no automatic direct relation to “being required to follow orders automatically”. Freedom of press is part of modern Democracies, and despite regular accusations that the ruling parties/ powerful parties take too much subtle influence in the running of state-owned media, the usual method is to set the state media up as indepently as possible. Their Job is to do fact-based reports, even if they uncover dirt on politicans, parties in power, or public institutions, because that’s necessary as check in Democracies (hence Media as fourth estate). The state pays because they have seen that purely Money-oriented press quickly devolves into tabloids instead of fact-based, which incites hatred while also failing to check the government, which is bad.
The government interefering in the process of ORF suing a politican would be a much greater scandal of undue influence than a relativly normal process of a politican attacking a media Institution, and said Institution (regardless of ownership) taking it to court.
Fully agree with Constanze’s explanation: the point here is in the substance of the complaint - an accusation of deliberate dishonesty and a threat to impose an official line on the broadcaster’s content. It’s a return of fire, if you like.
There are sometimes spats between the UK government and the BBC, which are usually resolved by assorted fudging, nods and winks. But IIRC there’s never been a similar accusation here, which would really raise the stakes. Usually, the prospect of being open to endless lampooning in comedy shows would be enough to moderate a politician’s attacks, but something like this is rather too serious to be expected to just blow over.
In a democracy under the rule of law, one part or official of the government may indeed sue another part or official. Here’s a doozy for you: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_v._Nixon
Here is a discussion of when the United States may sue the United States:
One such example of a lawsuit is mentioned on page 918, Army v. ICC, which the Army sought repayment of some funds relating to railroads, for which the ICC was not having any of it. It stems from certain functions of the ICC being outside the President’s unitary control of the Executive Branch.
To add (after fully reading the article): The politican who attacked the ORF is from a right-wing-extremist Party, who love (in keeping with their historical predecessors) to attack free media (Lügenpresse is used by the Right-wing German parties, and goes back directly to the Nazis) while lying without Abandon on their own.
Since the state-funded media have the resources to Point out the Facts = expose the right-wing lies; and care about Democracy, hence trying to stop the right-wingers from destroying Society with their hate-filled lies, they are the usual target of attacks by the right-wingers.
Claiming “Left-wing bias” is a usual smear of the right-wingers; the truth is that despite everything, the right-wingers are still strong, while left extremists are neglible, so naturally media concentrate more on pointing out their lies and damage. Partly the right-wingers gain more power because justice is often blind on the right eye, too. So taking it to court and making a big fuss is important to nip this in the bud before a Salami tactic kills off ORF, as hinted at by Strache: since no objective left-wing bias at ORF exists, eliminating this bias is just a pretense to get rid of everybody who’s critial of right-wingers = in favour of Democracy and believes in Facts.
For the same reason - that part of their whole reason for being state-funded is showing the citizens the truth = Facts - being attacked as liars gets the state-media upset fast, and start court Action.
Also, libel laws in Austria don’t work the way they do in the US. Calling somebody a liar is libel, unless the Person (in this case politican) can prove that the accused Party (in this case ORF) did deliberatly lie.
If the ORF is owned by the government and the Vice Chancellor is a high-ranking employee of the government, that’s hardly the same thing as the government suing itself.
Suppose I work for a corporation called Acme, which is owned by another corporation called Looney. Looney hires a vice president named Marvin. Why on Earth would you think that there’s some reason that the Acme corporation is prohibited from suing Marvin?
There is an even more unusual case of the govt “suing” itself in Washington State. The The McCleary Decision has the State Supreme Court holding the state legislature in contempt of court for continuing to underfund education in the state. It is probably the most pressing issue in the state politically for several years now.
That’s not a particularly apt analogy, because the Vice Chancellor is not merely an employee of the government; he (collectively with the rest of the cabinet) is the government. State-owned institutions are generally presumed to act at the government’s direction, which is why it is strange that one of them would choose to oppose the government in the courts. Not “constitutional crisis”-level strange, as others have pointed out, but certainly “eyebrow-raising”-strange.
I wouldn’t necessarily presume any such thing. For one thing the State isn’t entirely identical with the government of the day. For another, it all depends on the remit and legal status of each such institution: that will be set by government at some point, but it’s quite common for these deliberately to establish in law an arm’s length relationship, precisely to stop continual meddling by the government and its individual ministers - particularly when it comes to public broadcasters.
Likewise there can be agencies whose professional duties might well lead them to take legal action against some other branch of government or individuals within them - like environmental protection, or health and safety: or criminal investigation of malfeasance in office.
I disagree. Being the leader of an organization is not the same as BEING the organization. I know there are exceptions, such as a company which is a sole proprietorship. John Q Smith DBA Smith Plumbing is a single entity and there’s no way Smith Plumbing could sue John Q Smith. But the government is a far cry from being a sole proprietorship. It’s more similar to a corporation, whose leader would be the CEO or President. But we’re not even talking about the Federal Chancellor, we’re talking about the Vice Chancellor. The Federal Chancellor is the head of the Austrian government but the Vice Chancellor is his/her deputy.
The CEO of a corporation makes decisions and speaks for the corporation, up until the point in time where the board of directors replaces the CEO. The Federal Chancellor speaks on behalf of the government, up until the point in time when he/she is replaced by the President of Austria who is elected by the people.
That isn’t necessarily true. I know nothing of ORF, but take the Federal Reserve Board. It is part of the government, but it does not take orders from the President. Why should we assume that the ORF does not have some level of autonomy from the government’s political leadership?
But in a modern Democracy, as part of Rechtsstaat, the government is bound by the laws, too. It’s not above the law.
Wrong for any modern Democracy/ Rechtsstaat.
The Legislative - not the government (which is executive) passes laws, that (together with constitution) lay out the duties, funding, responsiblity etc. of state-owned institutions. There are many state-owned institutions besides the state media whose Job it is to watch the government - as PatrickLondon Points out, the agencies watching over Health & Safety or enviroment Standards are state-funded, but as Independent as possible in order to do their Job.
Also, the government is not the state. (It’s no longer Louis XIV). The government is part of the machinery that keeps the state as a whole functioning, but it’s not supreme over it. And the state is not just the sum of the machinery, or institutions: in the end, the state is the citizens, because they elect the representatives to make the laws and run things.
The only state institutions the government has direct control over are the ministries, because their heads are appointed by the government (Chancellor, President, PM depending on Country). So in that sense there is some direction of the government in which broad direction their foreign policy goes which will reflect on the course the foreign Minister takes.
Even then, the mid- and low-level staffers will be civil servants, with proper education and Training, who will follow not just the directives from the Minister du jour, but also the laws in General and the constitution. If the directive of the Minister violates current laws, constititution or just General practicses, the civil servants are obligated to resist. Which might take the way to court.
No, not strange at all in a Rechtsstaat. The ORF is doing their duty as media to fight for Democracy against extremists and fight for truth + Facts by not letting liars get away with smearing them. If they did nothing, it would damage their Reputation for truth, and it would damage Democracy which Needs Independent press to check.
Good Point. The state is the citizens plus the Framework. And the Framework of a modern Democracy are the laws, constitituion and the meta-rules.
Part of the meta-rules are that Facts and truth are important: not alternative Facts, not ideologies, but Facts that can be established and measured and checked up on. On the Basis of this Facts, laws are made, and Projects by government are measured.
Threatening the Framework by attacking one part - a free press - threatens the whole state, so it’s important to take Actions against single individual extremists who want to topple Democracy to plunder the chaos.
There is definitely no such presumption in a democracy characterised by the rule of law. The vice-chancellor in Austria is part of the executive branch of government, but many state institutions will have a mandate conferred by the legislative branch, and may well have their own governing arrangements established by the legislative branch. The executive branch cannot override this. And the judicial branch is, of course, always independent of both the legislative branch and the executive branch.
Heck, the same thing can happen within a single corporation.
My sister had a pre-existing medical condition that was worsened when her vehicle was struck by another driver. The insurance company had a big fight between their car insurance division (which insured both of the cars involved) and the medical division (that provided her medical insurance). They covered her medical because her husband was an employee, the leading salesperson in the state for this insurance company. But these divisions of the same company fought for a long time, and even threatened to sue each other over this. The dispute was eventually bounced high enough in the company that some executive killed off the lawsuit, and made n executive decision (to split the cost 50-50).