Nationalist Groups Contribute to Constricted Media Freedoms

Expression

As previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, threats and smears against journalists have seriously hampered the efficacy of independent journalism in Croatia. In this update, we detail that in the period between 8th March and 2nd May 2018, Croatian nationalist groups have contributed to a constricted environment for investigative and impartial journalism. 

In April 2018, the news outlet, Novosti Weekly complained of the continuous harassment, death threats, and restrictions on freedom of expression stemming from right-wing nationalist groups and their ultra-conservative supporters. Novosti Weekly is a Croatian magazine which publishes in the Serbian language and is funded by the Serbian National Council. As well as employing journalists who are both Serbs and Croats, the outlet is well known for its politically neutral reporting on issues such as corruption, LGBTI rights and ethnic relations in Croatia. 

Consequently, Novosti Weekly has been subject to a variety of threats from far-right protesters, who have organised protests against the magazine for representing the Serb minority. In September 2017, far-right activists even held a public burning of copies of Novosti Weekly, outside their offices in Zagreb. Journalists working for the outlet have also reported receiving death threats, stoking fears that their office space would be attacked by Croatian nationalist groups. In this context of aggression, the outlet was recently nominated for the #IndexAwards2018, after it declared it will not surrender to such threats and vowed to continue its work. The #IndexAwards2018, is an award which aims to highlight groups and activists who have worked to combat censorship around the world. In a statement, a spokesperson for Novosti Weekly commented on their nomination: 

“As journalists we realise that our professional duty is to write truth, but because of the conditions in which we work, a significant part of our business has become the defence of the right to freedom of expression, without which truth is not possible.”

In keeping with the theme of awards, two journalists returned their Croatian awards to the Croatian Journalists’ Association (HND), in May. HND came under criticism from journalists and rights activists alike for awarding its annual award to the Nova TV journalist, Ivana Petrovic. Petrovic was widely condemned for her biased reporting of Bosnian Croat General, Slobodan Praljak's war crimes trial in The Hague after her reports failed to interview any of the victims and later criticised the trial. Praljak gained international coverage in November 2017, after he committed suicide by poisoning himself in the courtroom when handed a twenty-year sentence for war crimes. Boris Pavelic, one of the journalists returning his award to HND, called upon other winners to condemn HND's tacit approval of Petrovic's journalism by returning their awards. 

In late March 2018, the conference of the project MEDIA CIRCLE has shed light on the high level of media clientelism in all European Southeastern countries. As a dataset aiming to assess political influence on the media, the report noted that none of the countries in South Eastern Europe scored highly. The index also measures the institutional and legislative framework and general conditions in which journalists work. Despite scoring reasonably well in comparison to other countries in the region, Croatia still came under scrutiny for suspected involvement of criminal organisations in media ownership. Similarly, the non-transparent sale of outlet Novi List aroused suspicion of collusion between private Croatian media and the government for political gain.

Association

In April 2018, several national CSOs, including the Centre for Peace Studies and AYS (Are You Syrious), complained of interference by the Croatian Ministry of Interior (MOI) in their work providing legal and humanitarian support for refugees and asylum seekers in Croatia. In particular, the CSOs claim the state authorities have taken steps to hinder their investigations into crimes committed against refugees. Croatian authorities also threatened the CSOs with misdemeanour offences for assisting illegal border crossings by the refugees and asylum seekers, despite only helping them upon their arrival in Croatia. The repressive stance by Croatian authorities has been strongly condemned by civil society. As such, the aggrieved CSOs have issued a press release demanding the initiation of an investigative commission to ensure better civilian control over the police to avoid interference in the work of civil society. The CSOs also called on the Croatian authorities to respect their obligations to refugees.

Peaceful Assembly

Throughout the period 8th March to 2nd May 2018, protests on various issues have been held. There are no reports of any protests turning violent in this period. Below are some examples of recent mobilisations that have taken place. 

  • Thousands have gathered in Zagreb to join a protest against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, organised by the Croatian Civic Initiative. Despite being an international legal instrument for the protection of women’s rights, protesters have claimed such Convention threatens the tradition, culture and identity of Croatian society. Such view has been shared also by several CSOs, which have started an initiative called ‘The Truth about the Istanbul Convention’. The latter establishes a committee for voters to call for a referendum against the adoption of the legal instrument.
  • A Croatian citizen protested against the government's investment on military instead of funding local services in need of financial support. Sasa Pavlic undertook a symbolic 200 km journey to Zagreb carrying a 20-kg-cross on his shoulders to draw attention to children's suffering. Pavlic was welcomed by dozens of well-wishers at his destination and upon completion, he criticised the decision of the government to buy a squadron of F-16 fighter jets from Israel. According to the protester, this money would be better spent treating Croatian children suffering with serious illness.
  • Representatives of Croatia’s Serb community and anti-fascist movement have boycotted the official state commemoration of the victims of WWII for a third year in a row. The protesters claim the government has tolerated the revision of contentious historical facts that concern the Ustasa movement during WWII. In particular, the protesters claim there have been attempts by the government to cast doubts on the crimes committed against Serbs, Jews and Roma, persecuted because of their ethnicity and religion.
  • Several hundred people from Slavonski Brod protested against the problems of air and water pollution. The protesters claim that the problem of water pollution has become unbearable, as citizens were warned not to drink tap water. Local civic groups who took part in the protests demanded an immediate intervention to solve the problem.
  • During the international workers’ day, 1 May, Croatian people protested for reform and change in the country. Protesters called upon the government to take up new measures to tackle the problem of low wages and scarce working conditions that affects many. They also demanded improvement in public education and health system, judiciary and public administration. Protesters also claimed the government should do more to restore citizens’ confidence in institutions and its attitude towards the EU.