The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported this week:
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg Thursday acquitted an Austrian journalist of "causing the suicide" of a German professor who claimed that the Jews declared war on Germany in 1933. The ruling was handed down in a complicated case involving freedom of speech, libel and anti-Semitism.
The court found in favor of veteran journalist Karl Pfeifer, ruling that Austrian courts failed to protect Pfeifer's good name. The court ordered the Austrian government to pay Pfeifer 5,000 euros in damages and 10,000 euros in court costs.
Mr Pfeifer is a redoubtable anti-racist campaigner and a longstanding correspondent of mine. (You can read his articles in English in the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight.) He has kindly kept me in touch with this case. The Court judgement can be read here. The case, in brief, is this.
In 1995, Mr Pfeifer published an article accurately recounting and aptly commenting on the views of a Nazi apologist, one Dr Werner Pfeifenberger. Pfeifenberger sued Mr Pfeifer for defamation and lost. In 2000 the Vienna Public Prosecutor indicted Pfeifenberger under the law forbidding Nazi activities, the National Socialism Prohibition Act. Pfeifenberger committed suicide shortly before his trial was due. A month later, a far-right weekly, Zur Zeit, accused Mr Pfeifer of having driven the "Catholic" Pfeifenberger to his death. Mr Pfeifer sued. A Viennese court ruled in his favour, but Zur Zeit appealed and won its case. Mr Pfeifer then appealed to the European Court against the Austrian courts and government. The complaint was accepted in December 2005 and the judgement was issued on Thursday this week. In the case of Pfeifer v. Austria, Mr Pfeifer won.
I have written quite often about the issue of libel, as English law in the case of Internet publication seems to me a mess and an affront to the principles of free speech. (Oddly enough, I have some personal familiarity with Austrian libel law, and have come to the provisional conclusion that the same is true there.) But I have no doubt that laws on defamation are necessary, and that a citizen of a free society must have a right of redress for damage caused to his reputation. Mr Pfeifer's case clearly comes into that category. He defended himself against an initial worthless action by a bigot. A hate-sheet then made an outrageous accusation against him, and the Austrian court system failed to protect his reputation. I congratulate Mr Pfeifer on his determination to right that injustice and am delighted by his victory.