Improvements in media freedom treated with caution by Croatian journalists

Expression

As previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, issues around the independence of the media have been an issue for civil society in 2019. Recent assessments by international media tell a contrasting story to perspectives from the ground. According to Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Croatia improved by five places from 69th place in 2018 to 64th place in 2019. Yet, local groups claim that this doesn't necessarily represent the variety of obstacles faced by Croatian media. The Croatian Journalists Association (HND) president Hrvoje Zovko noted that journalists are still exposed to a variety of pressures, attacks, threats, censorship and prosecutions. HND also highlighted that journalists working at the local level are the most exposed and vulnerable to pressure from the state. In fact, the organisation has documented that since 2014 there have been eighteen attacks and ten serious threats reported against journalists.

The group drew attention to the threats against Novi List reporters as indicative of the issues they face. On 22nd May 2019, journalists working for the outlet were sent death threats from an unknown source. The threats were received via e-mail and written on the building of the daily's offices in Rijeka, where an unidentified perpetrator wrote "Killers at the typewriter" and "Poisoners of Croatian society". In response to these attacks, HND said

"The HND cannot accept state institutions keeping silent about the increase in hate speech and threats to reporters, which we have been warning about for months. We do not see any clear condemnation of threats and attacks. In this case, silence is not golden, it serves as fuel for people who hate everything reporters do and who see in them enemies and not people who work in the public interest." 

The association called on Croatian authorities to conduct an expedient, thorough and impartial investigation into the incident. 

In a separate development, the Croatian Ministry of Culture has devised a series of revisions for media legislation in an attempt to amend a number of laws which regulate new media. The amendments also hope to counteract the increasing problem of hate speech in Croatia. According to local groups the first step should be a revision of the Law on Electronic Media that is currently being drafted. Despite the positive development, journalists claim that the process has not been transparent and there has not been adequate civil society consultation on the plans. More on this can be seen in the video below. 

In a positive development, on 12th July 2019, the Constitutional Court of Croatia published criteria to be followed by courts during lawsuits against journalists and the media, in an attempt to protect freedom of expression. These decisions should rectify the previous court practice, which imposed extremely high penalties on the media for texts that contain value judgments on an individual (especially a political figure) or convey someone's statements. The criteria come at a time when, earlier in 2019, local estimates revealed that there are currently 1,160 ongoing lawsuits against journalists and news outlets in the country. Many of these cases were filed by politicians, public figures and corporations using the vague offence of ‘shaming’, which is still part of the Croatian Criminal Code.

Peaceful Assembly

A number of protests have recently taken place in Croatia without any interference or disruption. Below are some recent examples: 

  • On 9th April 2019, more than 2,000 citizens gathered at the Cinema Europa in Zagreb for a protest expressing dissatisfaction with the announcement of the city authorities' decision to close the premises for renovation on 1st June 2019 and not extend the lease for the Zagreb Film Festival Artistic Organisation. Cinema Europa management said in a statement that the City was using the guise of the renovations to quietly remove the 94-year old cinema and bring in a new tenant.
  • On 25th May 2019, around 7,000 people participated in the fourth anti-abortion "Walk for Life" protest in the Croatian capital Zagreb, organised by conservative associations and supported by the Catholic Church in Croatia. Except for Zagreb, abortion rallies were held in Split and Zadar, where protestors voiced their demands for "protecting the most vulnerable minority in Croatia – the unborn children." At the rally in Zagreb, several counter-protests took place, during which civic activists advocating for women's rights seated themselves along the route of the march. Police intervened and arrested 13 activists for violation of public order. 
  • On 7th June 2019, the Croatian capital, Zagreb held its 18th Pride March. LGBTQI+ people, families and supporters gathered in front of the Mimara Museum and staged a march across the city centre, ending in Ribnjak Park. The organisers said that the Pride March is a symbol for the common struggle for equality and the human rights of all oppressed people. No incidents were reported during this protest.