“Reporting the truth is not a crime”

Written by Nina Büchs

Croatian Journalists are facing an increasing number of lawsuits, as well as verbal and physical threats. But not just the government and several institutions are applying pressure to journalists. Also one of their own employer, such as HRT, the public Croatian broadcaster, is suing its own journalists, to stop critical reporting.

Zagreb – Reporter have to think twice about working as a journalist in Croatia nowadays, which has joined the EU in 2013. According to Hrvoje Zovko, president of the Croatian Journalists Association HND, there were over 18 physical and 50 verbal attacks on journalists in Croatia recorded during the last four to five years. Besides that, there are currently 1,163 ongoing lawsuits filed against journalists because of doing their job: revealing the truth about a corrupt political system, which is trying to silence press and fight democracy. In 33 cases, journalists have even been sued by the government-linked public broadcaster HRT, one of their own employers.

Hrvoje Zovko is one of those journalists, sued by HRT, where he was working as an investigative journalist and correspondent for 21 years. While reporting about topics such as war crimes, politics, or military, Zovko often experienced blackmail, corruption and censorship in the media industry. “The last report I was working on was about the right-wing party HDZ. But my editor in chief ordered me to stop reporting about it. That was the moment when I realized, that I couldn’t stand the censorship at my workplace and pressure on journalists anymore.“

In September 2018, he quit his job at HRT. Now, he is working as president of the Croatian Journalist Association HND, an organization which is has been sued by HRT as well.  Even though he has made lots of enemies at HRT, Zovko doesn’t regret fighting for free journalism. “The control of media needs to stop. Reporting the truth is not a crime,” he stresses. However, he knows that support among his colleagues is often rare in his country. “Many Croatian journalists are not ready to fight for their rights and will rather keep silent, because they fear to lose their job or to be sued for a high amount of money because of libel, if they report about issues the government is not ready to hear”, Zovko says.

In March 2019, the Croatian Journalist Association HND organized a protest march under the slogan “you captured the media, we won’t give you journalism” to urge the government and powerful leaders to stop suing journalists. Therefore, Zovko and his colleagues handed eight demands over to the government which will make journalism independent again. The demands involved changing the Management of HRT, which is elected by the ruling parties and therefore decides over the content of the programme and who will be editor in chief. The HND also demanded to stop the lawsuits against journalists, and to make stricter sentences for those attacking or threatening journalists. Until now, the fines for threatening journalists are either very low, or a few months on probation.

Two months after the protests, things haven’t really improved in Croatia and journalists still have to face threats and pressure of powerful leaders. However, Zovko and his organization have gained many supporters from abroad, such as the European Federation of Journalists. “It is very important for us to have supporters such as the European Journalist Federation, since the government is now facing pressure from outside of the country, which could help to improve the situation.”

But in order to make Croatian journalism really independent, he stresses, that the European Union as well needs to do more to protect journalists and free press. “We must be aware, that journalism is under threat all over Europe, and that Europe isn’t a safe place for journalists anymore”, Zovko says. “In the recent past, four journalists have been killed in different European countries, such as Bulgaria, Malta and Slovakia. All of them were investigation corruption and died because the people in power wanted to silence them.”

Photo: Croatian Journalist Association HND