Croatian journalists continue to face threats and vilification


As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, conditions for independent journalism in Croatia worsened at the end of 2016 and this trend shows no sign of being reversed at the start of 2017. In particular, public vilification of media outlets and abuse directed at female journalists has become a common occurrence in Croatia. In January, journalist and editor at the public broadcaster HRT, Jagoda Bastalić, spoke openly of the smears she has endured as a result of her work. In a recent spate of attacks, several news portals published a letter falsely accusing Bastalić of collaborating with Serbian forces during the war in Croatia. Many have expressed disgust at the letter's use of ethnic affiliation and stigmatisation to slur a journalist. The Croatian Journalists' Association (HND) drew attention to the bogus nature of the allegations which were primarily designed to discredit Bastalić. The organisation stated:

'A series of lies are stated in that letter with obviously one goal – to discredit her work and private life. Not even one claim in the letter is true.'

Bastalić later filed charges against the author of the letter, under hate speech provisions, alleging that the authors of the letter sought to incite racial hatred and violence. Croatian authorities have initiated a criminal investigation. The case continues.

The conduct of a Croatian parliamentarian on social media has recently been sharply criticised. The incident occurred after Croatian MPs had released declarations of their assets, when investigative journalists put the spotlight on the dealings of a Croatian Democratic Union member of Parliament, Steve Culej. In an article by journalist Raif Okic, Culej came under fire for his numerous assets and questionable subsidies received from the Ministry of Agriculture. In a response on social media, MP Culej called the journalist a 'nerd with a pen'. Many have viewed the outburst as indicative of a situation in which journalists are on the receiving end of verbal abuse for daring to conduct legitimate investigations with publicly available information. The Croatian Journalists' Association (HND) commented on the situation: 

'Mr. Culej, as a representative of the Croatian Parliament, should know the difference between ... civilised public debate ... and insulting and labelling of any kind. Unfortunately, this is another public outburst [from] Steve Culej which shows that he is not able to communicate on a level that is expected of the MP.'

As we've previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, unwarranted harassment of journalists by MPs and public officials is a continuing and worrying trend in Croatia. 

Public access to information remains a key concern, and one which directly impacts the effectiveness of investigative journalism in Croatia. On 19th January, the board of Varazdin general hospital banned journalists from attending a session of the medical facility's governing council. Despite explicitly asking to attend in advance, journalists were barred from participating. In another example of barriers to access of information, journalists who regularly cover the work of the government were either not invited to public government meetings or were given late notice of those meetings. The Croatian Journalists' association (HND) have viewed this tactic as symptomatic of a broader trend that seeks to stifle journalism that is critical of the government. 

In a separate incident, on 29th January, Croatian authorities mysteriously cancelled the first public call for members of the Governing Council of HINA, the government-owned public broadcaster. Many have viewed the move with suspicion. Authorities allege that there were too few experts and did not disclose the candidates who applied in the recently expired second call. Freedom of speech advocates, on the other hand, criticised the lack of transparency over recruitment and claimed it revealed the cronyism between the authorities and some media outlets in Croatia.

On 29th December, three activists from the Youth Initiative for Human Rights were summoned for questioning by Croatian authorities after they pasted a poster over a commemorative plaque for eleven soldiers who died in the Croatian conflict. The activists claim that wording on the plaque (‘Ready for the Home(land)’) is aligned to the fascist group, Ustasa, who ran a concentration camp during the Second World War in nearby Jasenovac, where an estimated 83,000 people were murdered. The plaque's unveiling earlier in the month caused outrage in Croatia and Serbia alike. While the phrase is an official part of the Croatian Defence Force's logo, its inclusion has sparked a broader discussion about the acceptability of its contemporary use. There are no reports of charges brought against the activists. 

In a positive development, on 9th January a court sentenced Tito Gubić to ten months in jail for threatening journalist Emi Bumpers. The sentence was imposed following Gubić's threatenig remarks that Bumpers would end up like another journalist who had died in an explosion in 2008. While the sentence was welcomed by journalists, in reality such prosecutions are rare, and most cases of abuse against journalists go unpunished. 

Peaceful Assembly

A number of protests have taken place in Croatia recently. While many remained peaceful, on 17th December, five participants at a right wing protest in Zagreb were arrested for violating public peace and order. The event ended with a salute affiliated with Croatian fascist group, Ustasa, viewed as highly offensive in Croatia.

On 17th February, permission for a protest organised by Croatian leftist group Workers’ Front was initially denied by authorities as another protest was already taking place in the same location. The demonstration was later relocated by Croatian authorities to prevent clashes. Finally, during an anti-fascist protest in Jasenovac on 31st January, a journalist and cameraman were attacked while trying to cover the protest.

The following is a non-exhaustive list of other protests that took place peacefully in Croatia in late 2016 and early 2017. 

  • Activists of Right to the City and Green Action protested against the mayor of Zagreb;
  • High-school students protested against corruption, nepotism and employees' unwillingness to work; 
  • Students in Croatian Studies protested, demanding that their studies receive the status of a faculty rather than a department; 
  • Students protested while the Senate was discussing the status of the Faculty of Philosophy; 
  • Authentic - Croatian Party of Rights protested against stripping a memorial plaque because of the inscription “Ready for Homeland”;
  • Brodjani citizens protested against Croatian institutions’ inaction to prevent air pollution; 
  • 300 doctors, nurses, specialists and interns protested under the slogan “Let's keep doctors in Croatia”, demanding abolition of unequal contractual obligations; 
  • Immunology institute employees protested demanding government investment in the institute so it can serve the public interest properly; 
  • Members of the Association of Anti-Fascist Fighters and Anti-Fascists of Zagreb County and City of Zagreb protested in Jasenovac against the frequent revision of World War II history and the distortion of the anti-fascist struggle of the Croatian people; 
  • Activists protested in solidarity with Aleppo refugees; 
  • Activists protested against US President Trump and in solidarity with female marchers in Washington; 
  • Following attacks on asylum seekers by unknown persons, 40 people protested in front of the Zagreb Center for Asylum Seekers in Porin and Dugava, demanding that police ensure their personal safety.