Latest data show that HRT filed 33 lawsuits against journalists [including their own reporters] and media outlets in recent months, seeking total damages of around 300,000 euros.
Journalists and media outlets told BIRN said that such routine civil and criminal actions “intimidate critical journalism”.
Davorka Blazevic, from Sibenik, helped launch the nonprofit website TRIS five years ago.
She said its professional, non-nationalistic approach to journalism rapidly made it a relevant source.
But its financial situation is now under threat because of lawsuits and because the Ministry of Culture stopped financing non-profit media two years ago.
“I have a long history of court procedures because of the publicly written word,” Blazevic told BIRN.
After two lawsuits, one of which is ongoing, and due to the high cost of compensation, TRIS scrapped one of its most popular sections.
“For almost four years, we had a much-read section called ‘Portrait of the Week’, which dealt with ‘figures and works’ of public personalities that week,” she recalled.
“It was critical reading, always supported by information or data that had already been published,” she noted.
She feels let down by the media law, in force since 2013, which is supposed to guarantee journalists freedom of opinion.
“A journalist has the right to express an opinion on all events, phenomena, persons, objects, and activities,” it says.
“Unfortunately, it seems we understood freedom of the media too literally – so that section cost us a lot, especially me, as chief editor and author of the column,” she added.
The growing abuse of ‘mental anguish’:
Concerned about the number of lawsuits against journalists and media, the Croatian Journalists’ Association, HND, sent queries to 90 local media. It received answers from 18 and presented its findings at a roundtable, called “Journalists in the courtroom,” on February 6.
Hrvoje Zovko, president of the HND and a former journalist and editor at HRT, told BIRN that those media that responded to the questionnaire said 1,163 currently active complaints had been raised against them. “The question is what actually the real number is,” Zovko said.
This problem of lawsuits is not limited to the Croatian media.
The Journalists’ Association of Serbia says that in 2016 and 2017, the courts received 1,143 complaints against journalists, editors and media owners.
Most claimed compensation for non-material damages, such as mental anguish, injury to reputation and loss of the right to privacy.
Causing “mental anguish” is one of the most common reasons cited in these lawsuits. According to many journalists and experts, it is also often misused.
The Hanza media group, to which the popular daily paper Jutarnji list belongs, reported 459 active court proceedings to the HND.
The average claim for financial compensation was for about 104,000 kunas, equal to 14,040 euros, it said.
One final verdict on a lawsuit against Jutarnji list from November 2018 caused particular astonishment.
It told the paper to pay Split County Court judge and State Judicial Council [DSV] member Neven Cambj 50,000 kuna [6,750 euros], subject to a final ruling of the Split Municipal Court.
In an interview, an MP, Nikola Grmoja, had accused the DSV of corruption.
He did not name any of its 11 members, but Cambj still filed a private lawsuit against the paper, claiming the comments were aimed against him and that the interview had harmed him.
He claimed he had been forced to take “tranquilizers for several days”.
When Al Jazeera Balkans’ Revizija show on January 28 asked why DSV had not filed a collective lawsuit against the MP who had alleged it was corrupt, Zeljko Saric, DSV president, said they could have done so.
Instead, the DSV had only filed a request for a correction to be published in the paper.
“We are not all equally sensitive, nor do we all equally appreciate the healing power of money. Whoever decides to do so, I respect it; whoever doesn’t want to doesn’t need to do so,” Saric told Al Jazeera.
A counter installed on the website of the Croatian Journalists’ Association CJA/HND meanwhile shows 36 charges filed currently by the HRT against journalists and media.
Below the number of charges is the total sum of financial compensation sought – 2,227,500 kunas [300,730 euros].
The CJA/HND is among them as an organization, as is the president of its HRT branch, Sanja Mikleusevic Pavic, and Zovko himself.
They are sued for damaging the “honour and reputation” of the broadcaster due to their public statements. HRT has sought damages of 500,000 kunas, equal to about 70,000 euros.
Zovko, a 21-year veteran of the public broadcaster, had spoken out about the state of media freedom in Croatia, and had several times accused HRT of censorship.
In October last year, he told Index.hr that the broadcaster suffered from a combination of “censorship and technological chaos”.
HRT had sacked him as a journalist and editor in September, citing a “series of insults, misconduct and extremely inappropriate and unprofessional statements”.
Zovko said it was the first time in history the HRT had sued its own employees, and a professional organization.
HRT has defended its action. It told BIRN that it had no option but to seek legal redress “because they untruthfully claimed that there is censorship within HRT, though they know that none exists”.
Around 30 non-governmental organizations have said they will not give any more interviews to HRT until the March 2 protest.
On Wednesday, at a press conference on that issue, HRT denied it was suing any of its its own journalists.
It said it had only filed lawsuits against publishers and producers. It published a list of these lawsuits against publishers but this did not include the lawsuits against HND/CJA, Zovko and Mikleusevic Pavic.
Toni Caratan, General Secretary of the HRT, on Wednesday also said HRT had initiated a process of conciliation in various proceedings.
A lawyer representing many journalists in court, Vanja Juric, told the Faktograf fact-checking website that HRT had in fact proposed a conciliation process in the case against the HND and Mikleusević-Pavic. But it had not done so in the case against Zovko.
Law on shaming ‘abused the start’:
Photo: Good Free Photos
Zovko said the introduction of a legal offense of shaming in January 2013 had been widely abused. “My impression is that it was abused from the beginning,” he said.
“Institutions financed by public money, like HRT, started a crusade against the HND, its employees and other journalists and the media,” he recalled.
“Then we had the University [of Zagreb, which the website srednja.hr says filed 10 lawsuits against media] and then we had the judges,” he added.
He says the situation is especially difficult when a judge sues a journalist.
By law, being found guilty of shaming someone “in the press, radio, TV, IT system or network, at a public gathering or in other ways that made the content accessible to many people”, incurs a fine equivalent to 360 days’ wages.
The lawyer and a former criminal law judge Branko Seric says the law is often abused.
He says causing “mental anguish” needs to be defined more exactly. “It doesn’t make sense for the courts to arbitrarily conclude that somebody has been caused mental anguish.
“The injured party, especially if it’s a public person, should, in any case, have a [high] tolerance threshold for criticism; they should address a psychiatrist,” Seric adds.
Seric also says compensatory awards should be no more than “symbolic”, and their wider purpose should serve as a “warning to the journalist not to cross the border [of legitimate criticism]”.
Zovko recalls that the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, has told Croatia that its financial compensation claims in court are too high. He says the courts should apply the ECHR ruling.
In November last year, the ECHR judged that Croatia violated Article 10 of the European Charter of Human Rights, on the right to freedom of expression and information, when a judge sued the weekly Narodni List over an article published a decade earlier in 2008.
The article criticized a judge for attending a celebration, which is called a conflict of interest. The Croatian courts in 2010 ordered the publisher to pay almost 7,000 euros in damages.
The ECHR “found it difficult to accept that the injury to the judge’s reputation had been so serious as to justify awarding 50,000 kunas [6,750 euros],” it said.
“To put it in perspective, this sum constituted two-thirds of what Croatian courts normally award for mental anguish caused by the wrongful death of a sibling,” the ECHR judgment added.
Damir Kontrec, President of the Association of Croatian Judges, says ECHR rulings should be an important source and standard for domestic courts, and that courts usually apply these standards.
Seric said the law does not need to be changed on proceeding against journalists – but admits that those judges should show more sensitivity, and need better education.
Self-censorship as well as censorship:
Photo: Pixabay /niekvetlaan
Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic has meanwhile rejected claims about censorship.
On February 6, when the CJA released its data on the lawsuits, he said the international watchdog Freedom House had listed Croatia among free countries with a free media and a free media ownership structure.
But Faktograf website disputes Plenkovic’s reference to Freedom House.
It has noted that Croatia’s ranking dropped by one point, from 86 points in 2017 to 85 points in 2018 – and that a global report necessarily includes both Western democracies and countries devastated by war.
“The European continent is largely part of an area marked ‘free’, with the exception of course of Hungary,” it wrote on February 7.
It has also accused Croatia of habitually siding with Hungary in European institutions, despite Hungary falling from the level of “free” to “partly free” because of government attacks on democratic institutions, “including the media and judiciary, as well on NGOs and asylum seekers”.
Plenkovic admitted that people in the public eye should be “ready for that kind of pressure” from the media.
“As the subject of many texts … I could reach for such lawsuits any day,” he said. “But I wouldn’t do such a thing.”
Seric believes large court compensation awards undermine journalism in many far from obvious ways.
“If a journalist knows that a court may consider something hurtful to someone’s honor and [cause] shaming because of a journalist’s writing, he will take care to, let’s say, write little or nothing [on the topic]. They will be forced to do self-censorship,” Saric says.
Blazevic also believes such lawsuits encourage more self-censorship, while “censorship is any way at work”.
She says her editorial board has not given up on critical writing but tries to be more cautious now and to criticize a phenomenon “but not the people.
“If something I’m writing about offends some person, it really should be his or her problem, not journalistic.
“Each person is primarily obliged to pay attention to his honor and reputation, and not to expect journalists to preserve their reputation by self-censorship,” Blazevic adds.
Kontrec, on the other side, says the claims that courts undermine the freedom of the media are “incorrect and malicious interpretations”, and such conclusions are often based on individual, often non-final, judgments.
He says it is useful to analyze the data of the Municipal Civil Court in Zagreb, “as the largest court in the state”.
These data show that around one-third of the cases concern trials against the media, Kontrec told BIRN.
Kontrec notes that in 2018, of a total of 239 cases that sought damages against the media, it fully accepted only 22 claims. In 47 cases, a claim was partially accepted.
Justice Minister Drazen Bosnjakovic said in January said that from 2015 to 2017, some 20 out of 130 judgments against journalists resulted in acquittals. He has used this as evidence that pressure is not growing on journalists in Croatia.
But Zovko says it is not just a matter of whether the final verdicts against journalists convict them or not. The problem, he says, starts with the lawsuits and the compensation claims.
“These claims are actually an attempt to intimidate people, to turn them away from their mission, which is seriously critical journalism, in the public interest,” he says.
“Various legal amendments and even criminal proceedings have somehow imposed judges as arbitrators of public interest… and we seek to change that practice,” Zovko adds. He concludes: “We will not stop just with this protest”.