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.


Montenegro, a justice free country

Montenegro, a justice free country

Interview with Milka Tadic Mijovic, one of Montenegro’s leading journalists and president of the Center for Investigative Journalism, who has always been at the forefront of the fight for a better country and for the defence of freedom of expression.


Milka Tadic Mijovic is a brave woman. For more than thirty years she has been at the forefront of the fight for a better Montenegro, for a country that is not only European and pro-Western in words and in which the rule of law and functional democracy are everyday life and not a chimera. Tadic Mijovic was one of the founders of the weekly Monitor and of the Association for the Yugoslav Democratic Initiative (UJDI) – during the bloody sunset of the former Yugoslavia – and among the anti-war activists. For ten years she fought against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic at the end of the 20th century, while for the last 15 years she has opposed the “captured state” of Milo Dukanovic.

In this interview, the president of the Center for Investigative Journalism (CIN) in Montenegro talks about the attacks on journalists, their position, and the problems Montenegro and the new government face in dismantling the dense network of relations tied to the thirty-year regime of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), particularly in the judiciary.

Why are journalists in Montenegro so often the target of verbal and even physical attacks? Among other things, you too were recently verbally assaulted…

Montenegro is among the last countries in Europe in the Reporters Without Borders freedom index. One of the reasons is the large number of attacks on journalists that have remained unsolved, from  Duško Jovanović to Olivera Lakić. My case was not that serious and dangerous. The fact remains that journalists and the media receive a lot of threats and pressures. The biggest problem is not the constant attacks, but none of these serious incidents going to trial. Widespread impunity is the reason there are so many attacks on journalists. No one is afraid to attack journalists because no one has been taken to court, not to mention sentenced. Even when the perpetrators of criminal acts against journalists are accidentally found, the instigators are not. The target of the attacks are always people and the media that investigate the links between organised crime and prominent politicians. The directors of the Montenegrin daily Dan and the Croatian weekly Nacional (Dusko Jovanovic and Ivo Pukanic) were killed. Olivera Lakic also wrote about them and they shot her. Montenegro is one of the most tragic examples of political collusion and cooperation and organised crime. This connection is so strong that it is often not possible to draw a clear boundary between these two realities.

So the problem is the judiciary not doing its job?

One of the key problems is the judiciary. Our country, as Milovan Dilas once said, is “a land without justice”. The judiciary in Montenegro was and still is under the control of politics and sometimes under the control of criminal structures. EU accession negotiations have become the longest in history precisely because the judiciary is a real cancer in our system. Even the principle of the rule of law cannot be established in Montenegro.

Is the appointment of a new National Council of the Investigating Judiciary a precondition for starting the creation of rule of law?

The previous regime lost power in the elections on August 30 last year, but not its strength. They have maintained the main levers of economic power and control of the institutions. The very fact that a year after the elections the new government and the majority did not have the strength to make substantial changes is sufficiently eloquent. This speaks volumes about how difficult it is to dismantle this system that has controlled everything in the country for 30 years. An independent chief prosecutor and prosecutor would be the first important step in creating the rule of law. We never had prosecutors who were not controlled by the political elites. It would be a really big step forward not only to improve the internal situation in Montenegro, but also a strong push towards EU membership. I think that those who have lost power will do everything not to lose control of the judiciary.

So can it be said that Dukanovic’s DPS, and the other parties that were part of government coalitions in previous decades, spoke using European language while ruling in an authoritarian way?

Yes, one might say. The way they ruled was absolutely authoritarian. We do not have a democracy that works. It is also true that all the foreign policy priorities of Montenegro coincide with the priorities of the EU and the USA. And it was this orientation that kept the DPS in power. The West has long supported the DPS government, which has used this support as one of the main levers to strengthen power. The rhetoric of the previous government was European, but the practice was authoritarian. It could be said that Montenegro had a system that coincided with those created in the former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan. A small group of people holding both political and economic power.

So someone has Aliyev, someone Nazarbaev and Montenegro Dukanovic…

If you look carefully, the biggest investors in Montenegro come from these countries. We have just completed an investment and investor survey in Montenegro. That research showed that they were mostly various Aliyevs, and Russian oligarchs. Anyway, a large majority of people from the East. The explanation is very simple: the way of doing business and managing a business is similar if not identical to the logic applied by the old regime in Montenegro. So, if you want to make a deal, you do not need to have knowledge, skills, a good project, ability to cope with obligations, to be competitive. No, the only important thing is to have a good connection with the highest authorities, i.e. the phone number of the right person to talk to. The door to a privileged position on the market, in business with the state, etc. is immediately opened.

Let’s go back to the position of journalists and the media in Montenegro. It sounds paradoxical, but despite the great pressure, the attacks, and even the killings, we still have professional and independent media in Montenegro and it is a fact that many in the Western Balkans cannot say the same. How do you explain this little paradox?

The fundamental thing is that in Montenegro the media regarded as pacifists in the 1990s managed to survive. Unlike for example B92 in Serbia, the Montenegrin media managed to survive and preserve an independent editorial policy. Thanks to this we have a couple of professional media outlets in Montenegro. However, it is colleagues engaged in investigative journalism who come under the greatest pressure. It also happens that journalists with strong political views are under attack. In other words, anyone who does their job professionally can be targeted.

Can journalists in Montenegro make a living from their work, that is, from the salaries they earn?

Very difficult. There is no free market and fair competition in Montenegro as in states that have a long or well-established democratic history. The advertising market is tightly controlled, and the members of the previous government still have the major advertisers in their hands and influence or try to blackmail the media. This is why independent media are constantly struggling to survive financially, especially in the previous period when only a few selected media could get advertisers and thus cash the money. The pandemic has further aggravated the position of journalists. Wages go down and the cost of living goes up. As a result, many journalists leave the profession and take up other jobs that can give them a better existence. The best journalists leave, but what encourages me is that young people with great motivation come up to investigate and work in this field. Journalism, generally speaking, is in crisis and the profession of journalist is no longer as prestigious or remunerative as it once was.

Finally, how do you see the increasingly heated rhetoric relating to the enthronement of Metropolitan Joanikije in Cetinje? Does it have something to do with a series of events not favourable to the old regime: the new Council of the Prosecutor’s Office, the new management of the Radio-Television of Montenegro, the changes in the board of directors of Prva banka? Is President Dukanovic’s power crumbling?

There is some truth. But there is also great polarisation in society. And that is not good at all. The divisions are deepening. I have friends who have stopped talking to me because they think I have betrayed the nation. This is the atmosphere that brings water to the mill of those who have ruled Montenegro for 30 years. The consolidation of Montenegro and the implementation of the European agenda are not in the interest of the DPS. The only thing they can offer is vulgar nationalism. Serbian President Vucic, on the other hand, is blowing on the crisis trying to compensate for the loss of Kosovo with Montenegro and Republika Srpska. There are several big games going on that are not, at all, in the interest of the citizens of any country in the region, the problem is that we do not know how this is all going to turn out. I just hope the bad part of our recent history does not repeat itself.

Peter R de Vries (composition + photo: DWDD) Library

“When journalists can no longer report without fear, it…

“When journalists can no longer report without fear, it affects us all”

An interview with investigative reporter Benedikt Strunz about the attack on Peter de Vries

When leaving the TV studio in Amsterdam, crime reporter Peter de Vries was shot in the head. ECPMF spoke with Benedikt Strunz, expert for organised crime at German public broadcaster NDR. Strunz says: “We need more reporters like him, not less.”

Dutch journalist Peter R. de Vries is fighting for his life in hospital after being shot down in Lange Leidsedwars street in Amsterdam on 6 July at around 7.30 pm. De Vries had just left the RTL Boulevard studio on foot, where he had been a guest. After leaving the building, he was shot five times at close range, including in the head, in a side street of the studio. The police have arrested three suspects.

Peter R. de Vries (64) is a well-known Dutch investigative journalist who covered high-profile criminal investigations. He worked for De Telegraaf, Panorama magazine, Algemeen Dagblad and had his own crime programme on television. He won an international Emmy Award in 2008 for his work investigating the 2006 disappearance of teenager Natalee Holloway in Aruba.

According to a media report, De Vries has been threatened in the past and had received police protection. He said on Twitter in 2019 that he would be on a death list. He has been acting as a counselor to a state witness testifying in the case against Ridouan T., suspected of murder and drug trafficking. Before the attack on De Vries the brother and the former lawyer of the state witness had been murdered.

The General Secretary of the Dutch Journalists’ Union Thomas Bruning declared: “This is what you always hoped would not happen. Of course, it remains to be seen what De Vries’ activities are related to, but the attack took place outside RTL Boulevard. It goes straight to the heart of journalism. Let’s hope and pray for his health.”


ECPMF spoke to investigative journalist Benedikt Strunz, an expert on organised crime working for German public broadcaster NDR.


Photo: Benedikt Strunz

ECPMF: Mr Strunz, the attempted murder of Peter de Vries shocked the European public sphere. How do you assess this gruesome act?

Benedikt Strunz: I am honestly deeply shocked. I have been following Peter’s work for many years, he is an absolute authority on organised crime. And even though I have no illusions about the current development in the field of organised crime in the Netherlands, I would not have thought such an act possible. I very much hope that he will recover. We need more reporters like him, not less.


ECPMF: De Vries is a prominent person in the Netherlands. What kind of message is linked with attacking him?

Strunz: The message that goes out from this assassination attempt is: we can get any of you. And neither your social status nor the police can protect you. And this message is not only addressed to us investigative journalists. This attack is directed against a whole society.


ECPMF: It is still to be proved if the attempted murder is related to his work as an investigative journalist. The probability is high, to say the least. How dangerous is the work for investigative reporters in the Netherlands and/or in Germany?

Strunz: I know from very close colleagues that the situation in the Netherlands has worsened considerably. Some colleagues working in the field of reporting on organised crime are nowadays under police protection. This is actually impossible for an investigative journalist, because it makes it almost impossible to guarantee source protection and confidentiality. I think the situation is better in Germany, but I also know colleagues here who are regularly attacked and threatened because they report on criminal clan families. Of course, you take risks in this working-field and there are threats every now and then. But what happens in Amsterdam, Rotterdam or North Brabant is definitely something different.


ECPMF: If it was organised crime having commissioned this assault, de Vries stands in one row with Jan Kuciak,Daphne Caruana Galizia and most likely Giorgos Karaivaz. What effect do these murders have on the European community of investigative journalists?

Strunz: In Europe, we have come to know and live a very beautiful principle in recent years. It comes from the organization Forbidden Stories and it says: if you kill one of us, many of us will come and continue his or her or their work. Organised crime needs silence and darkness to grow. I can’t speak for all of my colleagues, of course, but those I’ve spoken to about the assassination attempt are very united in saying that we will continue our work undaunted. But of course, an attack like this is something that makes you think. The only weapons we have to defend ourselves are the pen and the microphone. We now need very strong civil society and political support to outlaw such crimes.


ECPMF: The Netherlands are a role model regarding the protection of journalists. Nevertheless they remain a vulnerable group. What do you think has to be done to improve the protection of journalists?

Strunz: The Marengo case has become a test for the Dutch rule of law. And I think the police and the judiciary would do very well to fully clarify this case, with all its entanglements. So that in the end no one can have the feeling that murder or intimidation paid off. And of course it is our task as journalists, whether we work investigatively or in the newsroom, to report on this case. As I said, organised crime hates nothing as much as the light of publicity.

But I also think that we urgently need a European response. I remember very well the horrible murder of Daphne. At that time I thought to myself: I hope I will not experience something so terrible a second time in my professional life. Today, a few years later, murders of journalists are a recurring phenomenon in Europe as well. We therefore need programmes for journalists under threat in Europe as well, and the European community must ensure that attacks on us in partner countries are ruthlessly investigated. In some of the cases mentioned here, I do not have the impression that this is happening. I can therefore only issue a warning. When journalists can no longer report without fear, it affects us all. Because democracy needs the free word in order to live.

About Benedikt Strunz:

Benedikt Strunz works as an investigative journalist for the public broadcaster NDR in Hamburg. His research focuses on organised crime and white-collar crime. Benedikt has been involved in several international investigations, including Luxemburg Leaks, Panama Papers, Paradise Papers, FinCen Files and Cartel Project. He is author of the podcast “Organisiertes Verbrechen- Recherchen im Verborgenen” ( His work has been awarded with the German Radio Award twice.