Berlin, October 8, 2021 — Croatian authorities should lift the gag order on the news website H-alter, and ensure that court actions do not silence the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On September 21, the Zagreb Municipal Civil Court, the capital, issued an injunction to H-alter, barring the outlet from reporting on a local childcare clinic and its director, according to H-alter editor Toni Gabrić, who communicated with CPJ via email, and a statement by the Croatian Journalists’ Association, an independent trade group.
The injunction was issued in response to a complaint filed by Gordana Buljan Flander on behalf of the Polyclinic for Child and Youth Protection of the City of Zagreb, a public childcare institution where she was director at the time, alleging that H-alter’s critical reporting on the institution and Flander had damaged their reputations, according to those sources.
Gabrić said that the injunction is in effect for 30 days, during which the institution or Flander can claim damages or initiate a criminal proceeding for insult or defamation. He said the injunction was issued under the Enforcement Act, which normally regulates the payments of debts and taxes, and is not typically used in media cases. Gabrić said he feared that the case could take four or five years if it continued to the courts, during which the gag order would remain in place.
Gabrić added that the court issued the injunction without any input from H-alter, and the outlet appealed the decision on October 1, but no court date had been set for that appeal.
“Public institutions have a right to challenge news reports in civil court, but the Croatian judicial system must ensure that such actions do not turn into censorship,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Croatian authorities must drop their injunction against the news website H-alter, and let it report freely.”
The injunction, which CPJ reviewed, bars the website from publishing any information related to the “dignity, professional work and professional achievements” of Flander and the clinic.
From July 15 to September 22, H-alter published a series of articles on the clinic’s policies that allegedly favored fathers in custody disputes, even when the fathers had been found to be abusive or unfit.
Flander announced her resignation from the clinic on September 23, saying that she did not feel she enjoyed the support of Zagreb’s mayor, according to reports. She vowed to continue legal action against H-alter and she criticized its reporting as “very ugly articles” that were “full of untruths,” according to those reports.
Also on September 23, the mayor announced that he was dissolving the clinic’s board of directors because it was not appropriate for a public institution to request a gag order, Gabrić told CPJ.
CPJ emailed Flander, the Polyclinic for Child and Youth Protection of the City of Zagreb, the Zagreb mayor’s office, and the office of Zagreb Municipal Civil Court, for comment, but did not receive any replies.