FPÖ’s Vilimsky tells ORF’s Armin Wolf: ‘This is the last straw!’

Colleagues and opposition politicians defended ORF star journalist and anchor Armin Wolf after a contentious interview with Freedom Party general secretary Harald Vilimsky led to sustained attacks and calls for his resignation.

Vilimsky appeared on Wolf’s evening news program ZIB2 Tuesday, where he was asked about a poem by the now-former Freedom Party deputy mayor of Braunau am Inn that compared immigrants to rats. The Freedom Party’s lead candidate in May’s European elections dismissed this affair as overblown by what he termed “left-wing” groups.

From here, the interview quickly deteriorated. Wolf showed Vilimsky a side-by-side comparison of a campaign poster published by the Freedom Party’s youth branch in Steiermark and an anti-Semitic cartoon from the Nazi-era tabloid Der Stürmer. The former shows an Austrian couple in traditional dress surrounded by ominous, foreign-looking figures with exaggerated features under the heading, “Tradition beats migration!”

https://neuwal.com/transkript/img/2019040112-vergleich.jpg (Source: neuwal.com/orf.at)

Vilimsky, visibly rattled, sweat glistening on his upper lip, countered that Wolf’s line of questioning was “scandalous” and “absurd.”

“To draw this parallel, Mr. Wolf, is the last straw,” the candidate said. “This is something that cannot go without consequences.” The next day, Vilimsky told the U-Bahn tabloid Österreich that if he were the ORF’s director general, he would have Wolf “sacked”.

In the days that followed, fellow FPÖ politicians piled on. Ursula Stenzel, former head of Vienna’s first district, compared Wolf to a Nazi judge. Norbert Steger, an former FPÖ leader who now chairs the ORF’s board of trustees, suggested that if he were Wolf, he’d “take a sabbatical, using taxpayer’s money to travel the world and find [him]self again.”

By Monday, the leading journalists’ union in Austria, the GPA-djp, had had enough of what it called the Freedom Party’s “disgraceful and unacceptable” attacks on Wolf, calling on Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to take responsibility for his coalition partner. The International Press Institute also voiced their solidarity with a man who “exemplifies the type of critical journalism essential to the functioning and preservation of democratic societies: one that is unafraid to hold power to account.”

With the EU elections coming up, the FPÖ attacks on Wolf serve as a useful distraction at a time when the party’s leaders are being scrutinized for their connection to the alt-right Identitären Movement and far-right populist rhetoric. In an interview published Sunday in the Kronen Zeitung, party leader Heinz-Christian Strache committed himself to fighting “population replacement,” echoing the alt-right theory that non-white immigrants are replacing white Europeans. “We do not want to be a minority in our own country,” Strache said.

The Freedom Party has long held a grudge against the ORF and has repeatedly expressed the desire to change its funding from the current license fees to the far more precarious  general fund. Opponents argue with justification that this would threaten the public broadcaster’s editorial independence, making it more susceptible to political interference. Last week, the government in fact increased financial support for private television stations.

For his part, Wolf took a scheduled vacation following Tuesday’s show, spending a few days in Tel Aviv. On Sunday, he posted a lengthy article on his personal blog, defending his editorial decision to make Nazi comparisons and rejecting Steger’s advice to take time off from hosting ZIB2.

“With hindsight, would I have asked something else?” he pondered with reference to the anti-migrant poster. No, he concluded. For all the noise, “I still have not heard a concrete answer to my question.”

Liam Hoare
A freelance writer on politics and literature based in Vienna. He is the Europe editor for Moment and a frequent contributor to Slate, The Forward and Tablet.

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