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What drives Croatian courts to censor the media?

November 25, 2021
topic:Freedom of Expression
tags:#press freedom, #European Union, #censorship
by:Katarina Panić
Increasingly, courts in Croatia censor media outlets even before journalists' reports are published. The recent case of prominent Croatian journalist Jelena Jindra demonstrated the severity of this trend and how effective the Croatian authorities have been in intimidating the press into silence.

Jelena Jindra applied for the Agency for Electronic Media's (AEM) open call for quality journalism at the beginning of the year. She wanted to investigate how the courts have taken children away from their mothers and assigned them to violent fathers based on the parental alienation theory - the unjustified rejection of a parent by a child, encouraged by the other parent, most often occurs during high-conflict divorces and custody battles. 

Although the World Health Organisation and the American Psychological Association reject the parental alienation syndrome, recognising that it can be used as a strategy against victims, it looks like the theory has been widely adopted in Croatia.

Jindra wanted to show that the system favours the parent who is either rich, highly positioned in society or has political connections. She also wanted to demonstrate that the privileged parent is almost always a father, and usually a violent one.

"It is a dangerous concept for all the helpless, and international researches have shown that it is the most difficult for children and mothers who are victims of domestic violence," Jindra told FairPlanet. "If the famous singer Severina was not one of the system's victims, neither the anonymous victims nor my topic would ever have received the visibility that, thanks to her, they gained."

The AEM accepted Jindra's proposal. She wrote ten articles under the main title of System for the Protection or Abuse of Children? after speaking with more than 40 mothers affected by this phenomenon.

The non-profit media outlet H-Alter, run by the CSO Association for Independent Media Culture, had published the stories between 12 July and 22 September. It heavily criticises the Municipal Children and Youth Protection Polyclinic for using parental alienation in the custody of children in non-consensual divorce cases.

silencing the media

It seems that the Polyclinic's director, Gordana Buljan Flander, didn't quite like the series, and demanded that the Court ban the H-Alter portal from publishing further articles on her.

On 21 September, a day before the last piece went live, a Zagreb court granted Buljan Flander her request. This move by the court, however, culminated in the so-called Streisand effect, in which an attempt to hide or remove information results in its even greater dissemination.

The news of the court's decision was published on 22 September in many media outlets. The public's interest in Jelena Jindra's research series about the Polyclinic run by Buljan Flander rose sharply, and she resigned the following day. The legal remedies on both sides are ongoing.

"For example, only on Index is an article entitled These are the texts due to which the Court has banned writing about Buljan Flander so far opened almost 70,000 times, while more than 45,000 people have so far opened the news of the Court's decision," Zagreb-based portal reported the day after the Court's decision was published. "The comment of our Gordan Duhaček on the scandalous decision of Judge Andrija Krivak was read by almost 30,000 people." 

The Croatian Journalists' Association and the Trade Union of Croatian Journalists stated in their press release the Croatian judiciary has resorted to unprecedented censorship "in advance" without even hearing the editor or journalist and the publisher's representative. They call it a dangerous attempt of censorship and inadmissible silencing the media.

calls for media solidarity go mostly unanswered

"Such a precedent could be disastrous for media freedom in Croatia," the two organizations appealed, adding that "CJA and TUCJ, therefore, call on all Croatian media, all journalists and editors, to resist this form of pressure and, in solidarity with their colleague Jindra and the non-profit portal H-alter, broadcast the research series 'System for the Protection or Abuse of Children?' and thus show we cannot be silenced!"

Portal was the only platform to publish the series before the court decision. Afterwards, and N1 were the only entities within the media community to express solidarity. 

"Most media in Croatia have long been silenced," Jindra added. "That silence is now broken every now and then only by the so-called experts who insist on staying the only ones who have insight and control over their work and the destinies of children and people, of course 'in the best interests of the child' while keeping the public excluded from all this."

On 6 October, the European Parliament adopted the resolution on the impact of intimate partner violence and custody rights on women and children, calling on "the Member States not to recognise parental alienation syndrome in their judicial practice and law and to discourage or even to prohibit its use in court proceedings, particularly during investigations to determine the existence of violence."

ongoing harassment

Although Croatia ranks 56th in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index - its best ever score since 2013 - Reporters Without Borders warn that journalists who investigate corruption, organised crime or war crimes in the countryare often subjected to harassment campaigns, while the defamation and even “humiliating” media content are criminalised. 

"Nonetheless, several courts ruled in favour of journalists during defamation trials in 2020," RSF states. 

The European Federation of Journalists, EFJ warns that a large number of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) is a serious concern in Croatia, with at least 924 active lawsuits currently in progress that collectively claim nearly 10.5 million euros. 

"After years of witnessing hundreds of proceedings against journalists, the Croatian judiciary recently went a step further and decided to silence the media directly," reads an EFJ resolution adopted at the annual meeting that took place in Zagreb on 8-9 October 2021. "The Municipal Civil Court of Zagreb, Croatia, imposed a temporary reporting injunction on the publisher of the news website H-alter following a series of articles about the Child and Youth Protection Centre’s work irregularities."

Image by Markus Winkler.

Article written by:
Katarina Panić
Katarina Panić
The Municipal Civil Court of Zagreb, Croatia, imposed a temporary reporting injunction on the publisher of the news website H-alter following a series of articles about the Child and Youth Protection Centre’s work irregularities.
© TUCJ and CJA
The Municipal Civil Court of Zagreb, Croatia, imposed a temporary reporting injunction on the publisher of the news website H-alter following a series of articles about the Child and Youth Protection Centre’s work irregularities.