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Press FreedomCroatia

Is Croatia's new whistleblower law a danger for journalism?

March 18, 2024

Despite protests, Croatian lawmakers have passed a controversial law against whistleblowers, making the work of journalists more difficult. Other changes from Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic also give cause for concern.

A group of demonstrators walks down a street in Zagreb; one is holding up a red placard hinting at similarities between Croatian PM Andrej Plenkovic (left) and Serbian President Aleksander Vucic (right), Zagreb, Croatia, February 17, 2024
In recent weeks, there have been a number of anti-government protests in Croatia, such as this one in Zagreb in mid-FebruaryImage: Darko Bandic/AP/picture alliance

When it finally came down to it, everything went very quickly. After a brief yet heated debate, the Croatian parliament passed a highly controversial amendment to the criminal code during the last session of the legislative period last week. The bill was passed with the votes of the ruling coalition.

According to the new law, forwarding information from police investigations to journalists is now a criminal offense in Croatia. If caught, whistleblowers face several years in jail.

The government has faced intense criticism from journalists and the opposition in the six months since Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic announced the draft law that made the "unauthorized disclosure of the details of investigations or evidence gathering procedures" a criminal offense.

Several thousand journalists signed a petition against the draft law. Protesters organized anti-government demonstrations. Allegations and harsh words flew back and forth in parliamentary debates and press conferences.

Andrej Plenkovic gesticulates as he speaks into microphones; in the background is a Croatian flag, Berlin, Germany, June 1, 2022
Critics have accused Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic of weakening mechanisms to prevent corruption before the upcoming electionImage: Markus Schreiber/AP/picture alliance

Many opposition politicians and media critical of the government agreed the purpose of the law was to cover up political corruption. Plenkovic was compared with Adolf Hitler, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

Does the new law stifle democracy?

According to Hrvoje Zovko of the Croatian Journalists' Association, the government was trying to "suppress the opportunity for free expression and stifle democracy — both characteristics of a totalitarian regime."

Dalija Oreskovic of the Pametno party went so far as to say that "the country is occupied by the mafia in power."

Opposition politicians Ursa Raukar-Gamulin and Peda Grbin called the draft law a "law of dangerous intentions." Zovko said it was "designed to hide the various forms of the embezzlement of public funds and crime that dominate Croatian society."

The media has referred to the draft law as "Lex AP," in reference to the prime minister's initials. Undeterred by the furor, Plenkovic pushed the law through parliament.

'Attack on independent journalism'

A steady stream of corruption scandals has rocked Croatia in recent years. Since 2016, Plenkovic has replaced about 30 ministers, many of whom were involved in various scandals.

Most of these scandals were uncovered by the media after whistleblowers provided journalists with incriminating information, such as the contents of text messages or private emails.

Maja Sever, head of the Croatian Journalists' Association and the European Federation of Journalists, is convinced this is the whole point of the new law. "Politically, it became too much of a threat for Plenkovic. That's why he's trying to put a stop to it," she told DW.

"This tightening of the law is tantamount to criminalizing journalists as perpetrators or accomplices," she said, adding that the law will restrict media freedom in Croatia.

A woman with short dark hair, glasses and a purple jumper (Maja Sever) stands on a street
Journalist Maja Sever said the new law on whistleblowers is tantamount to a criminalization of journalists as perpetrators or accomplicesImage: SNH

"When it comes to a criminal offense, the police have many more means at their disposal to use against journalists," warned Sever. "They can search their cell phones, laptops or offices to find the source of the information. This is an attack on independent journalism."

The government has rejected such accusations, saying the law's objective is simply to "safeguard the presumption of innocence" and to "protect the personal rights of people being investigated," explained Ivan Malenica, Croatia's justice minister.

The Council of Europe recently voiced concern about developments relating to the media in Croatia, mentioning the country several times in its recently published assessment of press freedom in Europe. With regard to "Lex AP," the report noted: "Critics said that if enacted, the bill could end independent journalism in Croatia and shape a new state-controlled media era, at odds with European standards."

Following in Orban's footsteps?

But it's not just the new law on whistleblowers that is causing concern in Croatia. Several other measures backed by Plenkovic illustrate what many observers see as his surprising change of tack.

Once considered one of the star pupils in the EU for his exemplary cooperation with European institutions, Plenkovic, head of the national-conservative Croatian Democratic Union, is now moving along a path blazed by authoritarian politicians in Europe before him, particularly Orban's government in Hungary.

For instance, despite allegations that former judge Ivan Turudic has close links to people suspected of corruption, Plenkovic has made him chief public prosecutor, a role that puts Turudic in charge of major corruption cases.

Various EU heads of government stand in front of a blue backdrop; the Spanish and EU flags can be seen in the background, Granada, Spain, October 6, 2023
Is Plenkovic (third from left) taking the same path as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban?Image: Juan Medina/REUTERS

Although he is only due to take office in late May, Turudic was sworn in this month to ensure he would be in place while Plenkovic is still in office. All of Croatia's constitutional judges boycotted Turudic's swearing-in ceremony — a highly unusual step in Croatia.

Plenkovic has also publicly quarreled with the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO), which is responsible for investigating corruption and fraud cases involving EU funds. Both the prime minister and the recently appointed chief public prosecutor have questioned whether the EPPO has the competence to handle the wide range of cases it has brought against Croatian politicians and civil servants.

President Milanovic to run against Plenkovic

There has also been a rising number of cases where media have been threatened with the loss of state funding if their reporting is too critical, said Sever. All of this, she added, is evidence of an attempt to "Orbanize" Croatia — in other words, to rule Croatia in the style of Hungary's Orban. "It's about the destabilization of democratic institutions and society as a whole."

Whether the opposition is right and there really are "dangerous intentions" behind all these measures may only become clear after the upcoming parliamentary elections and the EU elections in June.

On Friday afternoon, President Zoran Milanovic announced that the country would go to the polls on April 17. In a surprise move, Milanovic — himself a former PM — also announced that he would run for prime minister as the candidate of the opposition Social Democratic Party. It's a particularly interesting development, as Milanovic and Plenkovic have in the past publicly clashed on several issues.

This article was originally written in German and adapted by Aingeal Flanagan.

Head shot of a man (Zoran Arbutina) with gray hair and a beard
Zoran Arbutina Editor, writer, reporter