Hundreds of Croatian journalists took to the streets of Zagreb last weekend to protest against the decline of media freedom in the country.
Whilst the government of the Balkan EU Member State insists that there are no threats to media freedom, journalists cite a large number of lawsuits that are being filed against them, including ones from the national broadcaster ‘HRT’.
The Croatian Journalists’ Association has called on HRT to withdraw all of its pending lawsuits filed against journalists and other media outlets, noting that most of the suits of this type are filed by HRT’s judicial officials. At the time of writing, HRT has filed a total of 33 lawsuits against journalists, including their own reporters, seeking damages in excess of EUR 300,000.
The number of lawsuits filed against journalists in total, is over 1100, with those at the protest accusing the government of taking over the media, but whilst stating that it will not make them give up their work. Protestors and members of the journalists’ association are also accusing the government of ignoring the problem in lieu of finding another solution.
Protestors say that such action infringes their right to freedom of expression and is designed to “intimidate critical journalism”.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Croatian journalists who investigate corruption, war crimes, or organised crime are often subjected to harassment campaigns. Defamation, “humiliating” media content, and ‘insulting the republic’ is criminalised but with loose definitions, leaving a lot of room for interpretation by those filing complaints. In addition to this, HRT is assumed to be clearly under political pressure resulting in a significant limit to media independence.
Journalists in the country are also at a heightened risk of physical attacks as well as threats and cyber-violence but an improvement has been observed with the way in which the police handle such matters.
The issue of media freedom and the threat posed to journalists is a big problem across the Balkans. In neighbouring Montenegro, which ranks 103 on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, reporters are routinely threatened and harassed by the country’s rulers. In some cases, journalists have been pressured to relieve sources, and lawsuits are commonplace.
The story is the same in Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzogovina, and of course Albania. The media in Albania has been heavily criticised as being under undue influence and pressure from the government as well as being controlled by a handful of politically motivated businessmen. Self-censorship is rife amongst journalists and many refuse to criticise, challenge, or report on corruption due to fears they will be targeted through vicious personal attacks, campaigns of disinformation, or even physical violence.