Out of a total of 945 lawsuits, 910 refer to lawsuits for compensation of damages due to injury of honor and reputation, which are conducted against publishers, their editors and journalists, based on published texts and articles. When it comes to criminal proceedings, 9 media reported a total of 35 such proceedings. In addition to natural persons unknown to the general public, prosecutors are most often persons from public and political life, including politicians in office, then legal persons, and judges. Following the results of last year's surveys, Hanza media (publisher of Jutarnji list, Globus, Slobodna Dalmacija...) again has the most lawsuits among publishers - 421 civil proceedings and 11 criminal ones. Second place according to the number of lawsuits belongs to Styria, which only for Večernji list and 24sata has 190 civil proceedings and 6 criminal ones. The longest court case has been active for 33 years and is conducted against Večernji list.
This year, 30 media outlets responded to CJA's inquiry on the number of lawsuits, and the results show that 26 of them have pending court cases.
In total, more than 5.4 million euros are claimed in lawsuits from 22 different media outlets covered by CJA's survey. This number is only apparently smaller compared to last year's research, but this year Hanza media did not submit their data on compensation claims. Since almost half of the 945 lawsuits relate only to that publisher, and according to last year's CJA survey Hanza media had an average of 12,608 euros per lawsuit, it can be assumed that the total amount of all compensation claims within this number of lawsuits is actually twice as high.
The goal of a large number of lawsuits being to intimidate the media and encourage censorship and self-censorship among journalists, is shown by the very amounts of initial lawsuits in civil proceedings, which are often much higher than those legally appointed. However, not all of these lawsuits are SLAPP (Strategic lawsuit against public participation) and it is not known how many of these lawsuits could be considered as those. The Ministry of Justice and Public Administration determined by reviewing cases against journalists from 2021 and 2022, and based on the criteria of the European Commission Recommendation 2022/758, that 68 civil and 11 criminal cases could be related to SLAPP lawsuits. The exact number of these lawsuits will be known only when a definition of SLAPP will be set and put into force in Croatia, that is, when clear criteria for classifying such lawsuits will be defined.
"The number of at least 945 lawsuits against journalists and the media in Croatia shows a high level of pressure on our profession, which is targeted by politicians, various economic power players and public institutions. The fact that in the last two years Croatian claimants have taken the sad title of the biggest European addicts when it comes to lawsuits against journalists, speaks volumes," said Hrvoje Zovko, president of the Croatian Journalists' Association.
According to the data of the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration, last year, 245 new lawsuits for damages were initiated against journalists - 395 of them were resolved, while 710 lawsuits had not yet been resolved by December 31, 2022. The total number of active criminal cases in which the defendants are journalists in all courts in Croatia at the end of 2022 was 101. An overview of the proceedings' outcome for 2021 and 2022 shows that in criminal cases against journalists one lawsuit was dismissed, a total of 14 decisions dismissing private lawsuits were reaches and 44 decisions on the suspension of the proceedings were confirmed, and one case was time-barred. Two negative verdicts and 17 acquittals were handed down. One case was assigned to another court, while in two cases the decision was made on lack of jurisdiction and the procedures were transferred to the competent court. There are only seven cases of a guilty verdict being handed down against journalists, from which, as in previous years, it can be concluded that a very small number of journalists were convicted of the crime they were charged with.
Lawsuits are often filed against the Croatian Journalists' Association as a professional association, or its representatives. In June 2021, Mislav Stipić, the former director of HRT Business Sector, criminally reported the then vice-presidents of CJA, Branko Mijić and Goran Gazdek, for the statement they co-signed, with which CJA reacted to the situation at HRT, involving the former director of HRT, Kazimir Bačić, and the cover-up of sexual harassment within the public media service.
According to last year's CJA survey, to which 26 media responded, in February 2022, 951 court cases were active in Croatia with compensation claims totaling in 10.3 million euros. The number of lawsuits does not change significantly from year to year. Among these lawsuits are SLAPPs, which aim to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with legal action. This is a serious and dangerous mechanism that threatens media freedom.
The Ministry of Culture and Media recently established a working group dealing with the problem of SLAPP, thereby confirming the problem which CJA has been warning about for years. Despite this, there is still no official definition of SLAPP in Croatia, nor do the courts separate and classify such lawsuits. The task force has not yet developed any mechanism to prevent such lawsuits. When publishers were asked how the problem of SLAPP could be solved, most of them answered that the mechanism of early rejection of such lawsuits could be used, while a significant number of them answered that this could be achieved by limiting the amount of compensation claims, and introducing changes in the Criminal the law by removing criminal liability for injury of honor and reputation, and by dissuasive penalties and compensation to the defendants.
The Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) organizes an annual competition for those who stand out the most in filing such lawsuits. In October 2022, the president of the County Court in Osijek, Zvonko Vrban, was declared the biggest judicial bully in Europe, by the votes of the jury. Vrban filed a series of lawsuits against Telegram portal, the portal's editor-in-chief Jelena Valentić and journalist Dragutin Hedl. Vrban is suing Hedl for defamation, while he also filed several compensation claims in the amount of more than 100,000 euros against the publisher and the editor.
Source: Monika Kutri / CJA