The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg yesterday 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.
The verdict states that the Austrian courts violated article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights - the right to a private life. The court was not convinced that the reasons put forward by the lower Austrian courts concerning freedom of expression outweighed the right of the applicant to have his reputation safeguarded.
In 1995, a German professor, Dr. Werner Pfeifenberger, published an article about the "Jewish conspiracy," beginning with the 1789 French Revolution. He claimed that the Jews declared war on Germany in 1933. Pfeifer, who edited the Austrian Jewish community newspaper, responded with an article in which he accused the German professor of underrating the crimes of the Nazi regime.
Pfeifenberger sued Pfeifer for libel. Two lower appeals courts and a high appeals court rejected Pfeifenberger's lawsuit in 1997 and 1998, ruling that Pfeifer expressed an important opinion, based on facts. Five years later, in 2000, the Austrian attorney general decided to charge Pfeifenberger whose article, the indictment alleged, violated the law prohibiting Nazi activity. Shortly thereafter, Pfeifenberger committed suicided.
In June 2000, right-wing weekly Zur Zeit - which receives hundreds of thousands of euros in aid from the Austrian government - published an article condemning the "Jewish journalist Karl Pfeifer" for conducting a "manhunt."
Editor Andreas Moelzer also sent a letter to subscribers accusing a gang of "anti-fascists" of conducting a campaign against the newspaper.
In 2001 and 2002, Pfeifer sued Zur Zeit for libel and its editor for slander and defamation of character. A Viennese court ruled in Pfeifer's favor. However, the weekly and its editor appealed the verdict and a higher court overturned that ruling in 2002. A judge at Austria's highest appeals court, Doris Trieb, ruled that Pfeifer had "moral" responsibility for Pfeifenberger's suicide. In 2003, Pfeifer appealed to the European court against the Austrian courts and government.
Pfeifer told Haaretz yesterday after his victory that "it was hard enough to stand three years in Austrian courts because I did not believe that 'the Jews declared war in 1933 on Germany.' But then to see Dr. Trieb point her finger at me and accuse me of being responsible 'only morally' for a man's suicide was even harder.