Journalists face lawsuits and attacks; media outlets face possibility of closure due to pandemic
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic marked this reporting period. Along with many other measures to help curb the spread of the virus, the government introduced some economic assistance measures. However, there have not been any specific measures intended to help CSOs during the pandemic. Namely, it was announced that the planned funding calls will be implemented (e.g. the European Social Fund). However, these calls are directed at CSOs that mostly provide services and medical help for vulnerable groups as part of the COVID-19 response, which leaves other types of CSOs with a lack of funds.
Some have seen this move as an attempt by government to reshape civil society, as it will have a noticeable impact on advocacy-based organisations - usually the main critics of government. In a letter to the Government Office for Cooperation with NGOs, the Ministry of Labour and the Pension System, the Ministry of Regional Development and EU Funds and the National Foundation for Civil Society Development, the Initiative for a Strong Civil Society called on government representatives to revise the decision to restrict the use of state funds earmarked for funding CSOs and adopt measures to safeguard the work of civil society.
NGO takes legal action against inhumane treatment of migrants
The Centre for Peace Studies is taking legal action against police officers accused of alleged degrading treatment towards 33 migrants and asylum seekers at the Croatian border with Bosnia. In a series of separate incidents, media reports state that police officers beat, tortured and painted red crosses on the heads of the migrants and asylum seekers, and in one instance officers claimed that this treatment was a ‘cure to the coronavirus’.
Today, #CPS filed a criminal complaint to the State Attorney's Office in Zagreb against the unknown perpetrators police officers based on a reasonable doubt of degrading treatment and torture of 33 people. https://t.co/zMB68s2ucd @LibertiesEU @lorenzo_tondo @guardian #migration pic.twitter.com/a3pWF8e5ui— CMS (@CMSZagreb) June 5, 2020
Amnesty International issued a statement calling for the European Union to take urgent action.
“The European Union can no longer remain silent and willfully ignore the violence and abuses by Croatian police on its external borders. Their silence is allowing, and even encouraging, the perpetrators of this abuse to continue without consequences. The European Commission must investigate the latest reports of horrifying police violence against migrants and asylum-seekers," - Massimo Moratti, Deputy Director of the Europe Office, following the latest incident on the Croatian border.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, government introduced measures which limited movement and prevented large numbers of people gathering in public spaces, such as streets, squares, waterfronts and parks. Consequently, this affected citizens’ right to physically assemble and protest. GONG, a non-governmental organisation, stated that these restrictions should only be in place to protect people’s health and should not be misused.
The restrictions on movement have led to citizens using alternative ways of protesting.
- One example is the protest against the Mayor, Milan Bandic and his way of governing the city, including his handling of the COVID-19 crisis and the situation after the earthquake, initiated by the civil society group "Zagreb Is Calling You", on 22nd March 2020. The protest included citizens standing at their windows and balconies, banging their pots and pans and whistling to show their discontent with the mayor.
- Several other protests against the Mayor were also organised by the group during the period, where social distancing was practised, with protestors wearing masks.
- Another example is an e-protest organised by the Union of Autonomous Trade Unions of Croatia (SSSH) for International Workers' Day on 1st May 2020. The online protests were hosted on Zoom and social media networks. The protesters wanted to highlight that after the pandemic, which has shown the value for society of all workers, there should not be a return to the old ways of functioning, but rather to adopt a new paradigm of social and economic development.
- At the beginning of May 2020, a group of protesters in Rijeka rallied outside the city administration building to call for the abolition of COVID-19 related measures and the totalitarian regime. Two demonstrators were detained and three protesters were taken to the police station for refusing to show their IDs for inspection. The police said that they were not alerted that the protest was taking place, even though the organisers had posted its call on social media.
Lawsuits and attacks against journalists
Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, the Croatian Journalists' Association (HND) conducted a survey which found that there were 905 lawsuits against journalists and media outlets in Croatia. In a statement the HND said:
"Although 905 lawsuits against journalists and media outlets is fewer than last year, the number shows that the judicial prosecution of media outlets and journalists in Croatia is still present. It should be noted that the actual number is higher since we received data from only 18 media outlets," - HND president Hrvoje Zovko.
The HND added that judicial prosecutions serve as a means of intimidating journalists and media outlets so that they would give up on serious investigative stories, which is a serious problem that threatens media freedom.
The following cases involving physical or verbal attacks against journalists were documented:
- The Vice President of the European Commission, Dubravka Šuica, who oversees demography and democracy, criticised a journalist who is a host on a TV show that discussed her wealth. Although a spokesman for the European Commission stated that Šuica has “unwavering support for media independence, freedom of expression and information”, the case has garnered attention in the wake of the recent warnings issued by the Croatian Journalism Society that journalists in the country are targets of attacks and threats.
- A female journalist and a camerawoman were attacked for filming an Easter mass in a parish church in Split. They were reporting on the event to document the gathering of people despite the COVID-19 measures. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) the right-wing protesters were demonstrating in support of a priest who invited worshippers to attend Mass, and held signs reading “Journalists are Worms”. The police later opened criminal charges against three attackers on the grounds of coercion against a person performing activities of public interest. According to official reports, the journalist sustained light injuries due to the attack.
- The Croatian Journalists’ Association issued a statement condemning the censorship exercised by the Croatian Radiotelevision management after it failed to host Maja Sever, journalist and president of the Trade Union of Croatian Journalists. The interview was scheduled for a live TV show on World Press Freedom Day. Instead the show hosted an independent member of parliament.
“CJA has been warning for years that there is censorship on public television, banned topics and inconvenient interlocutors, as noted by numerous reports by international organisations dealing with freedom of speech and media.”
Media face economic threat due to COVID-19
The Croatian Journalists' Association (HND) and the Trade Union of Croatian Journalists (SNH) have proposed urgent measures for saving journalism as the government’s COVID-19 measures do not extend to journalists and the media or address challenges faced by the industry. Many journalists have faced a reduction of wages and many face being laid off as some media outlets face the possibility of being shut down.
“Our sector was first to be hit by the ongoing crisis, and employers immediately began austerity, layoffs, cancellation of contracts with freelancers, pay cuts to people who endanger their health every day. We have repeatedly warned and asked for the protection of the news sector, not just publishers, but journalists because employers have been resorting to part-time work with journalists and other media professionals for decades because it is the easiest way for them to fire people,” - President of the Trade Union of Croatian Journalists, Maja Sever.
The statement called on government to provide a response which secures the sustainability of the sector and freedom of expression.