Croatia: Journalist convicted of damaging judge’s reputation

Croatia: Journalist convicted of damaging judge’s reputation

On 2 February, the Croatian Journalists’ Association (CJA) has voiced dismay after the Rijeka Municipal Court sentenced Novi list journalist Dražen Ciglenečki to a fine of 30 days’ income for statements made on former Zagreb County Court President and now High Criminal Court Judge Ivan Turudić in one of his columns. The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) joined its Croatian affiliate in condemning the continuous pressure on journalists and media freedom in the country through the use of criminal and civil laws.

The case dates back to 2014 when the journalist Dražen Ciglenečki published in the daily Novi list a column entitled “Turudić Does More Damage Than Šešelj”, in reference to Vojislav Šešelj, the ultranationalist leader in Serbia who was charged with war crimes. Ciglenečki argued that instead of passing parliamentary declarations against Šešelj, Members of Parliament would be better off taking positions against Judge Turudić.

At that time, judge Turudić filed a civil case for breach of honour against the journalist and his publisher. The Rijeka Municipal Court sentenced in March 2016 and May 2018 Ciglenečki and his editor to pay 20.000 euros in damages.

Last week, Dražen Ciglenečki was found guilty in a criminal case of damaging the reputation and honour of Ivan Turudić. The court ruled that the column “exceeds the limit of permissible value judgments and criticisms”. Judge Vera Marincel emphasized the journalists’ responsibilities when presenting the information. “Freedom of expression is not absolute, there are certain limits, and in this case, according to the court, they have been exceeded,” she said.

In his defense, Ciglenečki stated his intention was not to damage Turudić’s reputation but to express his opinion about a high-profile public figure. According to CJA’s board, the journalist’s column did not, in any way, compared the character and work of Ivan Turudić with Vojislav Šešelj.

If the verdict became final, the Croatian journalist would no longer be able to appeal and would be obliged to pay the costs of the criminal proceedings for a lump sum of 1.000 kunas. In addition, he would have to cover the costs and expenses of Turudić and his lawyer.

In a press release, CJA warned that any other mention of Vojislav Šešelj could also be punished: “We call on the Ministry of Justice, the Judicial Academy and the Ministry of Culture and MEDIA to initiate not only the necessary changes in the law to alter this unsustainable practice, but also to educate judges on freedom of speech and media-specific issues,” said Hrvoje Zovko, CJA President, reminding of the nearly thousand abusive lawsuits filed by politicians, businessmen, and judges against journalists and media outlets currently pending in Croatia.

According to the data from the Croatian Ministry of Justice and data from the annual CJA surveys, lawsuits are in most cases filed to intimidate journalists and the media in order to give up serious investigative stories. This is evident from the amounts of claims, by which prosecutors exert financial and psychological pressure on the media or journalists personally.

“What is particularly worrying is the fact that the plaintiffs are often high-ranking state officials and even judges. It is particularly problematic that plaintiffs can sue for the same text in criminal and civil proceedings – that is, they can seek both – damages and criminal liability. That is why CJA advocates for the decriminalization of all crimes against honour and reputation. We believe that civil law provides enough space for all those who consider themselves to be injured to obtain adequate satisfaction,” added CJA.

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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EFJ Statement on Croatia: fact-checking portal threatened with…

EFJ Statement on Croatia after fact-checking portal got threatened with death and lawsuits

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) joined its affiliates in Croatia and the SafeJournalists Network in condemning the threats received by the fact-checking portal and its employees, targeted by intimidations attempts since 10 December 2021.

The threats and lynching were prompted by entrepreneur Nenad Bakic, a businessman known for his inclination to sue the media. Bakic used his Facebook profile, which has over 40.000 followers, to threaten to launch a criminal lawsuit against the portal for allegedly censoring his post and comments of Faktograf’s social media pages. He then wrote that he would be interested in  “whether it would be legal to form a fund to finance such lawsuits” adding that in his opinion, “shouldn’t be very complicated.”

The Faktograf’s editorial team starting receiving insulting messages and death threats against their staff in the days following the above mentioned post’s publication. The messages were sent via Facebook or emails. In one email, it is written that someone is following journalists from Faktograf, that no one is untouchable and that a scenario similar to the one from two years ago – referring to the killing of two persons – could happened at the Faktograf publisher’s address. The threats were reported to the police.

The Faktograf also reported that on 14 December the website was under attack from DDos, a cyber-attack in the form of denial-of-service (denying access to the platform). “Starting on the evening of December 13th and continuing to 11am on December 14th, there were more that 27 million log-in attempts to [Faktograf]’s page in less than 13 hours. In this organized DDoS attack most of the log-in attempts were from Russia and Indonesia,” they said.

“Since February 2020 Faktograf has reported around 40 violent or death threats to the police. While Faktograf’s journalists are constantly exposed to online harassment (often gender specific threats or insults) we have published over 550 articles that challenge and debunk misinformation related to the pandemic in the same period,” said Ana Brakus, Faktograf’s director.

“The threats we receive will not prevent us in our work, nor will they scare us,” she added.

The European Federation of Journalists joined the President of the Croatian Journalists Association (HND) Hrvoje Zovko in calling on the Croatian authorities to condemn these threats in the strongest possible terms and to launch a prompt investigation into the case.

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.


Media in Croatia, unprecedented censorship

Media in Croatia, unprecedented censorship

The Zagreb court applied temporary and preventive censorship against the H-Alter portal and journalist Jelena Jindra, effectively banning the publication and writing of further articles on the Municipal Children and Youth Protection Polyclinic and its director. Toni Gabric, chief editor of H-Alter, explains this unprecedented decision.

On Tuesday 21 September, the Zagreb court banned the H-Alter portal from publishing further articles on the Municipal Children and Youth Protection Polyclinic and its director Gordana Buljan Flander. The decision sparked a wave of controversy and led to the resignation of Buljan Flander herself. For the chief editor of H-Alter, Toni Gabric, as well as for the Association of Croatian Journalists, this is unprecedented censorship.

What happened last week and what is the Zagreb court decision about?

The court decision bans journalist Jelena Jindra from publishing further articles on the Zagreb Children and Youth Protection Polyclinic and its director Gordana Buljan Flander on our H-Alter website, because they would be defamatory of them.

This decision was made in a preventive form, i.e. without waiting for the conclusion of the trial, which has yet to begin. How is it possible?

As far as I know, this is the first time that the law on compulsory compliance has been applied to the media sector. Our constitution clearly states that press censorship is prohibited, but here a shortcut has been found to get to censorship. Of course, how much this is sustainable from a legal point of view remains to be seen: according to our lawyer, Vanja Juric, the request made by the Polyclinic does not stand, legally speaking, and the judge has just copied and pasted.

This decision comes after a series of articles written by Jelena Jindra and published by H-Alter on the Polyclinic, which plays a role in the custody of children in non-consensual divorce cases. The management of director Gordana Buljan Flander was heavily criticised there. Now you are prohibited from writing on the subject again. How do you plan to proceed?

The Polyclinic has one month to start a libel suit. I guess they will ask for moral damages. We cannot cover this subject until then. If the Polyclinic does not initiate the lawsuit, then they will be the ones to have committed an infringement, because this decision is linked to that future cause. We, on the other hand, have until the end of this week to appeal the court decision.

Last weekend, Zagreb mayor Tomislav Tomasevic intervened and dissolved the board of directors of the Polyclinic. Soon after, the director resigned. Do you think the lawsuit will be withdrawn?

Yes, the polyclinic is a municipal institution and the mayor, before changing the board, declared that it is unacceptable to forbid writing about a public institution. So I think the polyclinic, once the new council has been chosen, will back down. What remains to be seen, however, is what the now former director Gordana Buljan Flander, who has filed a personal suit, will do. I think that cause will stand.

Croatia already has a problem of strategic lawsuits (SLAPP) against the media. Is this a new way to silence the press, or will this type of action not be followed up?

It is certainly a very good thing that the whole audience reacted. Everyone in parliament condemned the decision, on the left as well as on the right, even those deputies that H-Alter does not hesitate to attack in its articles. I think a red line has been crossed and for this reason the Minister of Culture [also responsible for the media, ed.] intervened immediately, as did the Prime Minister… Of course, I feel like saying to the government that condemning is not enough, but we must intervene so that these things don’t happen. It may be that the request and the decision are badly written from a legal point of view, but there is still a legal process that has allowed all this. We need to intervene at the legislative level.

What does this series of articles on the Zagreb Polyclinic consist of?

The best person to answer this question would be colleague Jelena Jindra, author of the articles. It all started a year or two ago. This is an investigation into the child abduction procedure, which is carried out implicitly and without much debate. It is a process that does a lot of damage to children, to parents who are separating, and especially to mothers who are victims of domestic violence. There are cases in which children are entrusted to the father guilty of violence against his wife and children. Indeed, there are cases of sexual violence perpetrated by the father also on the children, and in which the children were still entrusted to the father. It is not the practice, but there are such cases. Jelena Jindra has been able to prove that the Polyclinic generally entrusts the child to the most powerful parent and it is clear that, in this patriarchal society, it is often the man.

The articles aroused great interest in the Croatian public.

Yes. There are ten articles, published starting from 15 July, in a period in which visits to the H-Alter portal usually decrease, but this year they have instead increased. The story gained even more visibility when Severina Vuckovic, the famous pop singer known throughout the region, openly supported the articles by Jelena Jindra. Severina fought for a long time to obtain the custody of the son that she won a few weeks ago. When the singer granted an interview to our colleague, the story became a media bomb. It is paradoxical: a small media outlet, which due to the government policy on the media has been in danger of closure for years, has managed to set the agenda on a topic that had been previously ignored. It is a victory, proof that the non-profit media have an important role.

The non-profit media have been in trouble in recent years due to the decline in funds allocated by the government. Is H-Alter in this situation too?

Yes. We have been around for about 15 years. Initially we were financed by the National Foundation for the Development of Civil Society (NZRCD), then the Social Democratic-led government (2011–2016) decided, with the aim of increasing those funds, to transfer the competence to the Ministry of Culture. The subsequent conservative-led executive suspended funds for the nonprofit media and things have not changed substantially since then. So, when the minister says she cares about the independence of the media, she is actually lying.


Croatia: Temporary reporting injunction on the Association of Independent…

Croatia: Temporary reporting injunction on the Association of Independent Media Culture must be lifted

The Municipal Civil Court of Zagreb, Croatia, imposed a temporary reporting injunction on the publisher of the news website H-alter following a series of articles about the Child and Youth Protection Centre’s work irregularities. The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) joined its affiliates, the Croatia Journalists’ Association (CJA) and the Trade Union of Croatian Journalists (TUCJ), in denouncing a direct form of censorship.

On 21 September 2021, the Croatian judiciary ordered to stop the articles’ publication and to bar H-alter from further investigation into the actions of the Health Polyclinic for the Protection of Children and Youth of the City of Zagreb, the only social welfare authority in Croatia which provides assistance to abused and neglected children, as well as its director Gordana Buljan Flander. The Court made its ruling without hearing from the journalist Jelena Jindra, her editor, or the publisher. Two days later, Flander announced her resignation live on television.

This interim measure of prohibition was issued on the basis of the Enforcement Act, which is usually used against privacy-violating content in the media sector. This is the first temporary measure that forbids all potential future contributions about a person and an institution.

The measure was taken following the publication of a five-part reporting series entitled “System for the Protection or Abuse of Children?” published on H-Alter in July 2021 by Jelena Jindra. Jindra critically reported on the clinic and in particular its director Gordana Buljan Flander and her associates. She interviewed numerous mothers who discussed their experiences with what they claimed was the abuse of “parental alienation” concept by partners after divorce or separation, and the role the clinic played in the system. The journalist repeatedly made requests for comment that remained unanswered.

A joint press release from the CJA and the TUCJ expressed great concerns about what they consider to be a dangerous and unprecedented attempt of silencing the media. They called on media outlets to publish Jindra’s articles in solidarity: “After years of witnessing SLAPP lawsuits against journalists, this time the judiciary went a step further and directly decided to silence the media. It should be noted that the director of the Polyclinic Mr. Buljan Flander and her associates, according to the testimony of colleagues, have repeatedly missed the opportunity to present to the public their view of the controversial doctrine of alienation which some experts testify often abuses against women victims of violence.”

Ricardo Gutiérrez, EFJ General Secretary, reacted: “This direct form of censorship of critical journalism is deeply disturbing and must be lifted immediately. The lack of transparency behind this decision – whether temporary or not – is unacceptable and sets a dangerous precedent.”


MFRR partners concerned about wave of abusive legal actions…

MFRR partners concerned about wave of abusive legal actions against Croatian outlet

The undersigned partners in the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) are highly concerned about the wave of abusive legal actions against Croatian online news outlet Its publisher Index Promocija d.o.o. is currently facing 56 defamation lawsuits and nine further defamation suits target its journalists. Three of the cases additionally include claims based on the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and anti-discrimination and copyright law. The oldest active case dates back to 2013, and the most recent was filed this year.

We consider that several lawsuits filed against have many of the hallmarks of abusive litigation which are used by powerful individuals and companies as a means of silencing critical expression. They share several characteristics. For one, the plaintiffs are mostly public figures such as politicians and business owners, including former Member of Parliament Branimir Glavaš, former government ministers Tomislav Tolušić and Mijo Crnoja and the current President of the Chamber of Commerce Luka Burilović, among others. Glavaš, for instance, filed defamation lawsuits after referred to him in an article as a “war criminal”. He served as a general in the war between Croatia and Serbia and was convicted for the 1991 killings of Serbian civilians in Osijek, spending five years in prison; he was released after the Constitutional Court sent the case back for retrial, which is now pending. In another example, Crnoja, the former Minister of Veterans, sued for defamation in relation to a story concerning controversial loans of several million euros.

Another shared characteristic is that the plaintiffs usually request the removal of the articles and damages ranging between 10,000 and 100,000 HRK (approximately 1,330 to 13,300 euros). The cases, taken together, constitute a significant burden on resources of and many appear to be instituted with a view to silencing its critical reporting and, beyond the outlet, creating a “chilling effect” on press freedom in general. Several lawsuits against are part of a worrying trend across Europe, in which powerful actors use abusive lawsuits to bully and intimidate journalists to avoid scrutiny and escape accountability.

Under the well-established case law of the European Court of Human Rights, public figures must be tolerant of higher levels of public scrutiny and criticism than private persons. With this in mind, we call on those plaintiffs who have launched abusive claims aimed only at silencing the outlet rather than achieving justice, to drop their lawsuits immediately.

In the meantime, we stand in solidarity with the outlet and will continue to monitor developments closely.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)