Wednesday, 13 April 2022

HND Says Terror With SLAPP Lawsuits Against Reporters Continues, Protest Possible

ZAGREB, 13 April 2022 - Croatian Journalists Association (HND) president Hrvoje Zovko warned on Wednesday that terror with SLAPP lawsuits against reporters and media in Croatia continued as one of the forms of intimidation and financial ruin, and that the HND would organise a protest if nothing changed.

"We recently presented the latest data on the number of lawsuits against journalists and media in the total amount of HRK 77.4 million, which is an infamous European record. The situation is not changing and apart from politicians, both the ruling ones and those in the opposition, judges, too, have been participating in the abuse of reporters and media through lawsuits," Zovko told a news conference.

He said the HND expected a serious response by the relevant authorities to the "judicial terror", and was prepared to again stage a major protest if nothing changed.

"The few ones who in this country are doing their job are being ruined financially", Zovko said.

He said that Osijek County Court president Zvonko Vrban, who once said that he would not sue former football manager Zdravko Mamić over his statements about him, was one of the people who had filed the most lawsuits against media outlets.

Vrban has filed five lawsuits against the Telegram.hr news portal, seeking HRK 150,000 in damages in each case. He has sued the portal for five investigative reports by journalist Drago Hedl, as well as the portal's editor-in-chief, Jelena Valentić, for another HRK 150,000, and he has also sued Hedl. The trial will be held in Zagreb and the HND will follow it closely, Zovko said.

The second negative example is that of former Social Democrat MP Romana Nikolić who sued the media for having reported that she had been convicted of making a death threat, which under the legal regulation on rehabilitation, should not be mentioned.

Zovko believes the regulation should be repealed because the public should have the right to know about the past actions of anyone wishing to hold a public office.

Nikolić sued the 24 sata daily, seeking HRK 75,000 in damages and she won 15,000. She also won a case against the Hanza media publishing company in the amount of HRK 40,000 and against reporter Gordan Gazdek, in the amount of HRK 10,000. Nikolić also sued the Glas Slavonije daily which reached a settlement with her, and a case in which she sued Telegram.hr is underway.

For more, check out our dedicated politics and lifestyle sections.

Monday, 4 October 2021

HND Says HRK 6.2m Claim for Damages Against News Portal Scandalous

ZAGREB, 4 Oct 2021 - The Croatian Journalists Association (HND) on Monday described as scandalous businessman Josip Stojanović Jolly's lawsuit against the news portals Telegram.hr, Šibenik In, Šibenik News, and Šibenski Portal, in which he seeks HRK 6.2 million in damages from them for causing damage to his reputation.

"This is an unprecedented financial attack on the media in Croatia and it seems to be an introduction into a new series of lawsuits against media outlets, aimed at intimidating and destroying them," HND president Hrvoje Zovko told a news conference.

He noted that the claim for damages ensued after an article that was based on a non-final court verdict against the businessman, published by Telegram.hr and carried by the Šibenik-based news portals. Stojanović sued Telegram.hr, seeking HRK 2.3 million in damages, and the three news portals from Šibenik, seeking another 3.9 million in damages.

HND calls on Stojanović to drop his "crazy and scandalous claim"

Zovko said that the HND had notified the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) about the case, calling on Stojanović to drop "this crazy and scandalous claim."

He said that the case was a kind of introduction into a debate about strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) against reporters and media, to be held at an EFJ conference to take place in Zagreb at the end of the week.

Minister should react

Zovko recalled that the Ministry of Culture and Media recently set up a task force to provide expert advice in shaping a policy against SLAPP suits and that the last case was a sort of test of the competent institutions' determination to combat SLAPP suits.

He called on Minister Nina Obuljen Koržinek to comment on the latest case, stressing that claims for damages against media outlets and reporters had become a competition to see who would sue reporters more and who would seek higher damages, with the initial amounts being ten, twenty, thirty and a hundred thousand kuna and the latest case amounting to more than six million.

Telegram.hr editor Jelena Valentić said that the article in question, in which the non-final ruling against Stojanović was carried and which was made in line with professional rules, was followed by the businessman's lawsuit in which he sued the portal for causing damage to his reputation and for loss of profit, estimated at some two million kuna.

Valentić said that this was just one in a number of claims for damages against Telegram.hr, noting that it put huge pressure on journalists.

"This is intimidation, aimed at preventing us from doing our job," she said, an assessment supported by Šibenski Portal editor Ksenija Bilan, who recalled numerous cases when local power players tried to exert influence on local media outlets.

(€1 = HRK 7.488172)

For more on politics, follow TCN's dedicated page.

Thursday, 23 September 2021

Plenković: I Will Not Accept Theory of Media Freedom Being Stifled in Croatia

ZAGREB, 23 Sept 2021 - Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said on Thursday that he will not accept the theory of media freedom being stifled in Croatia, referring to a comment by Social Democratic Party (SDP) MP Mirela Ahmetović's assessment that banning someone from writing is unprecedented pressure on the media.

"It's not normal and it isn't possible to accuse the government because of a ruling by one judge on a temporary measure in one case. The government, the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union), none of us has anything to do with the judge's decision on that temporary measure... I reject such insinuations, even about influence on the State Attorney's Office, let alone such an influence on the courts, that there is some intention to stifle media freedom," Plenković said after meeting with the generals, commanders, and officers from the Flash military-police operation.

After the nonprofit portal H-alter in the past few weeks ran a series of articles by reporter Jelena Jindra problematizing the work of a Zagreb center for the protection of children and its head Gordana Buljan Flander, Zagreb Municipal Court judge Andrija Krivak issued an injunction ordering H-alter to stop publishing articles about Buljan Flander.

Plenković said that Minister of Culture and Media Nina Obuljen Koržinek had given a brilliant statement about the court's decision and that he supports her in that.

The government advocates full media freedom, there are legal means to counter the temporary injunction, he said.

"I won't even go into the essence nor the decision, let alone accepts theories that media freedom is being stifled in Croatia. That is out of the question. That is not true," he added.

Asked whether the court's decision was stifling media freedom, Plenković said the Zagreb Municipal Court needs to be asked that.

"What has that got to do with us? It is a temporary injunction issued by a court. It is not a political decision by anyone here," he said and added that Minister Obuljen Koržinek said everything that had to be said about that.

Asked whether this could mean that anyone could seek the courts to ban someone from writing about them, he said that he doesn't think that is the case nor practice.

"I believe that media freedom in Croatia is such that everyone breathes freely," he said.

For more about politics in Croatia, follow TCN's dedicated page.

Monday, 26 July 2021

EC Concerned About Lawsuits Against Croatian Journalists

ZAGREB, 26 July 2021 - The European Commission last week issued a report on the rule of law in Croatia expressing concern over a large number of the so-called SLAPP lawsuits against reporters and the media and voicing suspicion in the political independence of the media regulator: the Electronic Media Agency.

"Croatia is updating its media legislation to transpose the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, with the revision of the Electronic Media Act to be adopted still in 2021. Concerns about the political independence of the Agency for Electronic Media persist," the Commission said in the report.

Apart from concern regarding the independence of that the Electronic Media Agency which, among other things, is expected to deal with hate speech, the report says that lawsuits against journalists and media outlets also gives rise to concern,

"A legal framework for the protection of journalists is in place, but they continue to face threats. In particular, the high number of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) targeting journalists continues to be a serious concern. Access to information is ensured by law, but delays in the processing of requests from journalists persist."

Zovko: Allegations from report expected

The president of the Croatian Journalists' Association (HND), Hrvoje Zovko, commented on the allegations from the European Commission's report regarding media pluralism and freedom in Croatia, describing them as expected.

"Unfortunately, several categories regarding media freedoms in Croatia have been criticized, including numerous verbal attacks by politicians against journalists and the media. We already have a culture of suing journalists and the media. SLAPPs are a new model of attacks against journalists, aimed at intimidating them and the media and imposing censorship, even destroying them," Zovko said.

He recalled that according to an HND survey, there were 924 active lawsuits against journalists in Croatia in April, adding that the HND had been warning about this problem for years and stressing that this was the reason why Croatia was recognized as a problematic country.

He welcomed the initiative by the Ministry of Culture and Media to set up an expert working group to curb SLAPPs, adding, however, that its results were yet to be seen.

"The HND has been lobbying for quite some time for the decriminalization of slander and defamation. This could be the beginning of curbing violence against journalists and the media through lawsuits," Zovko said.

Ministry of Culture and Media: Expert working group set up

In its comment to Hina on the part of the report concerning attacks on journalists and SLAPP lawsuits, the Ministry of Culture and Media said that similar concerns are raised in many countries and that the Ministry of the Interior responds to every complaint.

The Ministry has set up an expert working group after the European Commission adopted an action plan for European democracy, with the protection of journalists against SLAPP lawsuits as one of its main goals.

The working group includes representatives of the media sector, judiciary, lawyers, and the academic community. It has already begun work and one of its first steps is launching training for judges, lawyers, and journalists in cooperation with the Justice Academy.

After the first meeting of the working group, Minister Obuljen Koržinek stressed the importance of ensuring uniform case law and training of journalists and judges.

The Ministry said that media legislation and other laws based on which such lawsuits are brought will be improved and that co-regulation and self-regulation mechanisms would be established within the professions.

The national recovery and resilience plan will finance a system of public disclosure of information on media financing and the development of a network of fact-checkers to further contribute to transparency and trust in the media, the Ministry said.

Asked to comment on the claim by the European Commission that there are still doubts about the political independence of the Electronic Media Agency and the Electronic Media Council, the Ministry cited European models for the appointment of such bodies.

The Electronic Media Council is appointed by the Croatian parliament based on a proposal by the government following a public call. The appointment model is similar to the prevailing model in Europe. The appointment of Council members by parliament, instead of by the government, was introduced in 2009, with public consultations involving all relevant stakeholders, the Ministry said.

The Electronic Media Agency declined to comment, saying that the European Commission's claim was not corroborated. It said that the process of appointment of members of the Electronic Media Council was the same as in all EU member states, given that they are appointed by parliament, government, a president, or a sovereign.

For more, follow our dedicated politics section.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

You Promised Not to Sue Me, PM: Will You Also Back Anti-SLAPP Bill?

May 9, 2021 - As the SLAPP lawsuit intimidation tactics against journalists continue in Croatia, I invite Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic to back the proposed anti-SLAPP bill from Centar MP Marijana Puljak. 

It has been an intense few weeks. 

In addition to the launch of our new national tourism portal, Total Croatia, and the ongoing Digital Nomads-in-Residence Program in Dubrovnik, the aftermath of my decision to make public the two lawsuits from the Croatian National Tourist Board against me continues to feature large in my daily life.

I have been genuinely stunned at the public reaction and support (95% in an Index poll in which about 20,000 people voted), as well as the significant media interest from Croatia's independent media. I am also very grateful for the opportunity to discuss my case on national television (you can see my appearance on Good Morning Croatia - Dobro Jutro Hrvatska below).

 

I decided to go public with news of the lawsuit after reading an article on RTL about the culture of intimidating journalists through the issuing of SLAPP lawsuits by my lawyer, Vanja Juric (you can read a translation of that article here).  I had no idea that the practice was so widespread. Why would I, if very few people talk about such things in public. 

Apart my surprise at the massive public support, the other thing that stayed with me from breaking the news was how shocked people were that the national tourist board would sue me for 100,000 kuna.

Apart from being shocked in the sense of being intimidated (at least initially until Legendica Vanja filled me with reassurance), I was not that shocked at the issuing of the lawsuit. I took it as a HUGE compliment, of course, that one fat blogger in a cafe can bother them so much with the truth, but these tactics of intimidation are not actually that new to me - or, I am guessing, any other independent journalist in this country.

And while we all bear these daily harassments silently, I am wondering if perhaps the time is right to try and initiate a public discussion on this very topic.

I feel emboldened to do so in support of Centar MP, Marijana Puljak, who kindly raised my case in Parliament, calling for the quashing of the lawsuit and the removal of Kristjan Stanicic as Director of CNTB. You can see Marijana's speech above (and a translation under the video in this article). 

But this is certainly not the first time I have been subjected to this kind of intimidation as an independent journalist. And, just as I called for - and received - the Prime Minister's attention to my case last time, so too in this case. My impressions of the premiership of Andrej Plenkovic fluctuate a LOT, but I will remain eternally grateful to him calling me over for a chat on the main square in Jelsa at a time where I had been made to feel like a pariah by sections of the local community. 

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I know of one other foreigner after me who wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Plenkovic, of course, and I congratulate both Jan de Jong the PM for working together to make the Croatian digital nomad permit a reality in a very short space of time. 

But back in August 2018, foreigners writing open letters to Prime Ministers was unheard of. I decided to do so because I thought the intimidation I was made to feel in my adopted hometown needed to be countered by someone of influence outside the town. And with the Prime Minister coming the following week for 'Dan Opcine Jelsa' (Jelsa's Municipal Day), I decided to try something out of the box which you can read about this TCN article - How to Fix Croatia: Open Letter to Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic.

That summer of 2018 taught me more about the realities of Croatia than any other. 

Jelsa has been incredibly good to me, providing me with a home, lovely family, and a fantastic lifestyle for more than 13 years. It was a town (and an island) I loved writing about. And my Total Hvar blog was - for the most part - incredibly positive about Hvar, putting many destinations on the international map for the first time.

And then it all changed. 

It remains the story I am most proud of in my ten years of writing for the Total Project, in terms of facts and research. I don't think I have ever published a story which had as many documents or verified facts. I first published in March, 2018.

Goodbye Jelsa Bench, Hello Carpe Diem? Mayor Niksa Peronja Gives Prime Concession to Hvar Party Partner.

The story caused quite a stir, but the plot thickened, as certain people (always anonymous - nobody wanted to be publicly quoted) sent me more links and documents, which I also published in July:

Hvar Party Tourism Spreading to Jelsa? How to Grab Island Zecevo When Nobody is Watching.

This caused an immediate reaction from the Mayor of Jelsa, more I suspect due to the anonymous letters posted around Vrboska. He announced a public meeting in Vrboska to explain to people there the truth behind the future of Zecevo. 

The night before the meeting, there was a town council meeting in Jelsa, after which I was informed by three sources that the Mayor had decided to sue me for defamation. A figure of 200,000 kuna was apparently mentioned. 

A huge sum, and certainly not one I could afford to pay at the time. But I decided to attend - and film - the public meeting the following day. I was extremely curious not only what the Mayor would say, but also what the reaction of the local audience would be to such an emotive issue. 

And that is how - as YouTube has recorded for posterity - Mayor Niksa Peronja announced to the world that he was suing me (see video below). 

What happened after that was a real education. People I had known for years unfriended me on Facebook. Others looked the other way while I walked down the street. Suddenly there were lots of seats next to me at the cafe. As unpleasant as that was, the really fascinating place to be was my inbox. So many people thanking me, but asking for my understanding that they could not be seen to do so publicly. Others sending me other examples of alleged corruption, with documents, asking me to publish them. When I suggested that we publish under joint name, they disappeared. It was fine for me to fight the fight on their behalf, but there was no way they would greet me in the street or stand with me.  

And so I wrote to the Prime Minister. If he would show me some support, that could potentially make my life less unpleasant. 

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He sat down at the next cafe with the local HDZ crew for a chat and photo op, as the Prime Minister does at this event every year. And every year, I always rise from the next cafe and take a photo for a story. Only this year was different. 

The Prime Minister motioned for me to come over to his table. I did, and he rose to greet me. 

"Hi. Call me Andrej. You are the blogger, right? The one who wrote an open letter with four ways to fix this country?"

Indeed I was. We had a pleasant chat for a couple of minutes with ended with a very reassuring promise from the Croatian Prime Minister, which was the title of my next article, some 15 minutes later, and which he has (so far) kept:

Prime Minister Tells Total Croatia News: I Won't Sue You, Don't Worry.

And he never has. And for that brief intervention in my life, I will always be grateful to the man who told me to call him Andrej, even if I have strong differences of opinion on some other issues. 

And the funny thing is that Mayor Peronja never sued me either, despite his public promise. Make of that what you will. 

And so, Andrej, for that is how you told me to address you, you have shown decency on the topic of defending the independent media with my case in Jelsa three years ago.

Will you also commit to supporting Marijana Puljak's initiative to introduce anti-SLAPP legislation into the Croatian Parliament? 

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