Croatian journalists face threats, lawsuits and political pressure as the country is criticised for its stance on media freedom.

In Croatia, the year 2018 ended with two serious blows to media freedom in the country.

On December 28, the Croatian public broadcaster HRT announced it would sue two of its journalists, as well as the Croatian Journalists' Association HND  as a legal entity, for alleged “offences against its honour and reputation”.

The financial retribution HRT seeks totals €70,000. The alleged offence consisted of a statement from September 2018 in which the Journalists’ Association – which has some HRT employees as members - distanced itself from scandals around the illegal sale of FIFA World Cup tickets by some HRT journalists.

“We could not believe it at first! This is an unprecedented financial attack against our association, and against the freedom of the press. I believe it is also an attempt to send a message to other journalists not to be critical of the public broadcaster,” said Hrvoje Zovko, President of the Croatian Journalists’ Association and one of the journalists sued, in a phone interview.

“I have never heard of a case in which a national television sued its own employees,” said Zovko, who is currently battling HRT in court after they fired him earlier in 2018 in a procedure he considers illegitimate.

On the same day, only a couple of hours after HRT announced the lawsuit, a right-wing anchor, Velimir Bujanec, won a lawsuit against the Croatian satirical website News Bar,  known for its humorous false news and satirical texts. The judge estimated that a satirical article making fun of the fact that in 2014 a court in Zagreb found Bujanec guilty of paying prostitutes with cocaine represented a “violation of his honour and reputation”.

Political Broadcaster

In 2018, Croatia found itself in 69th place in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) media freedom ranking. The RSF report about the situation in the country noted a slight improvement in comparison to 2017 (when the country was in the 74th place, a fall of five places from 2016) but also highlighted many problems.

“Journalists investigating corruption, organised crime, or war crimes are often subjected to harassment campaigns; defamation is criminalised and insulting ‘the Republic, its emblem, its national hymn or flag’ is punishable by up to three years in prison; ‘humiliating’ media content has been criminalised since 2013,” says the report.

It is also stated: “The government meddling in the public TV broadcaster HRT continues to be a real problem and limits media independence. HRT is clearly under political pressure. Interest groups try to influence its editorial policies and interfere in its internal management.”

Zovko explained: “Attacks on the media freedom are not a new trend in Croatia. They have been happening since the ‘90s when the media critical of the regime would systematically get sued. But the situation has deteriorated in the past few years.”

In 2016, when a conservative right-wing party came to power, the settling of scores with journalists started. The newly-appointed Minister of Culture Zlatko Hasanbegović’s first move in this capacity was to cancel state subsidies for the non-profit media - the organisations not financed by advertisers or the public broadcasting service, usually tackling the topics rarely discussed in the mainstream media.

The ideological purge at HRT started with more than 70 journalists or editors demoted or fired, and many shows pulled. The right-wing coalition stayed in power only six months, but while in power, they also targeted HRT3, Channel 3 of the Croatian Broadcasting Service, known for its niche, non-mainstream cultural content. Several TV and radio shows were discontinued overnight.

The public broadcaster also pulled the satirical show Montirani process (News Bar’s TV production), claiming it incited religious intolerance, an argument that the show’s producers said was merely an excuse to get rid of their programme.

In July 2016, a citizens’ initiative called “Freedom to the Thirds” (“Sloboda Trećima”) organised a series of protest actions, mostly in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, demanding that cancelled shows were put back on air and fired journalists back to work - to no avail.

Government stays silent

As media freedom in the country was shrinking, diverse satirical Facebook accounts and websites such as News Bar became beacons of free speech, critical of those in power in the ways the traditional media could not be.

This is why court’s decision in the Bujanec against New Bar court case is seen as particularly worrisome. “It defies common sense!,” said Zovko. He explains that representatives of the Croatian Journalists’ Association recently met with the Justice minister to express their concern over numerous lawsuits against journalists, of which many are based on pain and suffering claims. They are still waiting concrete actions.

Croatian authorities have so far remained silent regarding the recent lawsuits - the condemnation of the HRT lawsuits came from abroad. A Slovenian member of the European Parliament, Tanja Fajon, described the broadcaster’s act against the HND as yet another “unacceptable attack on freedom of the press”; the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Harlem Désir expressed his concern about the lawsuit and a Belgian MEP, Guy Verhofstadt, of the liberal-centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe slammed the public broadcaster on Twitter.

“The worst thing is that nobody from the government reacted to these cases and that there is no clear condemnation of attacks on journalists from the people in leading positions in the country. I believe that journalists will have to fight for themselves on their own,” said Zovko.

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