In Croatia, COVID-19 Overshadowed Whistleblower Protection – but a new strategy helps to keep interest in anonymous digital dropboxes for secure reporting

There were no brazen authoritarian moves, no mass harassment of journalists or activists, but the incumbent Conservatives of the Croatia Democratic Union (HDZ) party used the COVID-19 pandemic to consolidate power in July 2020 elections, after strict measures helped hold down the number of cases and deaths at the time.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and his followers then promptly celebrated with hugs and without masks, violating the two critical principles that helped save Croatia and their government, along the with lowest turnout in the country’s democratic history, 46.85 percent.

Adding to the woes of Croatians was a series of earthquakes in Zagreb, including one on March 22, 2020 that was the strongest in 140 years. It destroyed 1,900 buildings and one death, causing problems enforcing social distancing during the pandemic and as the country held the rotating European Union residency.  

This was followed by another serious earthquake on 29 December 2020, southwest of the capital in Petrinja, killing at least seven people and displacing scores of others.

Apart from the obvious tragedies of deaths and suffering, another loss was the hope of media groups that the country could turn more toward independent journalism and the use of secure digital dropboxes for reporters and their sources.

The European Union-backed Expanding Anonymous Tipping (EAT) project which aims to promote a whistleblower culture and reduce corruption in a country where it is still prevalent was just being promoted when COVID-19 hit.

As the pandemic spread, more than 100 signatories, including civil society partners in the EAT Project, signed a public statement calling for protection for whistleblowers during the ongoing pandemic, in order that public interest reporting would be protected by institutions. This was important for things such as integrity in supply chains, the statement said. 

Without such integrity systems, the citizenry might not know if, for example, secret and corrupt deals might divert essential PPE for medical staff fighting the virus, or lead to delays in vaccine distribution.

The EAT Program is supported by GlobaLeaks’ open-source, free software intended to enable secure and anonymous whistleblowing initiatives. GlobaLeaks has been developed by the Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights, an Italian-based NGO supporting freedom of speech online and a partner in the EAT Project.

“Company owners and state officials at all levels are not willing to participate in any anti-corruption project,” Sasa Lekovic, President of the Investigative Journalism Center and Croatian coordinator for the Bulgarian Media Development Center in charge of the EAT project in Croatia, said.

In January 2020, as the pandemic was starting, Croatia plummeted to its worst level in five years in Transparency International’s annual index of perceived corruption, with COVID-19 looming on an unseen horizon then.

“Since joining the EU, Croatia has regressed in the fight against corruption,” Oriana Ivkovic Novokmet, Executive Director of GONG, a civil society group that promotes good governance, rule of law and human rights told Balkan Insight.

“There is no external pressure to encourage change; the (European) Commission, for example, has abolished the anti-corruption reports it once had,” she also said.

Lekovic said Plenković and the HDZ were able to ride the crest of the early success as the virus surged again, the victory coming because, “The Premier and his team were shamelessly manipulating with people’s fear from COVID-19.”

Whistleblowing and protecting journalists from governments bent on controlling the media – and using COVID-19 as a cover – were not on the agenda for most people. 

In power since 2016, Plenkovic was able to navigate through criticism of corruption and refusing to isolate himself after attending a tennis event organized by Novak Djokovic, who later tested positive for the virus along with four other players. 

The pandemic forced the elections to be pushed back from May, but his government was able to survive after graft suspicions led several ministers to leave his Cabinet. This year such accusations did not capture the attention of a public which was worried about infection from the virus.

“As a part of his strategy, the premier organized a non-public meeting with selected editors and journalists in the governmental premises,” when COVID-19 fears first gripped people, said Lekovic.

“The result was many reports in favor of the way the leading party handled the crisis,” he said, including corruption. 

“Some other media tried to open some questions but eyes and ears of the nation were opened mostly to pro governmental voices,” he added.

Without the kind of drumbeat that put thousands on the streets of Bulgaria to demand the resignation of Premier Boyko Borisov,  when his government faced reportage of repeated corruption scandals, there was no appetite in Croatia for EAT or the fate of journalists and whistleblowing sources.

However, there is some progress in the innovative use of the EAT Project’s digitally-secure anti-corruption drop boxes.

Lekovic said IJC was also working with Croatia’s Ombudsman and Justice Ministry about protecting whistleblowers.

“I’ll show them how EAT platforms works and agree about next steps they and EAT can do jointly on the other hand continuing to get, as much as possible, partners,” to make it available, he said.

Widely cited in Croatia for his expertise in the field she said, “I wasn’t quoted in Croatian media at all because during the ‘Corona Crisis’ whistleblowing wasn’t an issue at all in Croatian media.”

Instead of targeting journalists who could probe the government’s handling of the pandemic, the administration “made some ‘soft’ push to media  … organizing secret meeting with selected editors,” she said

“The result was stories which tried to make heroes of the nation of governmental officials who informed public about situation with the Coronavirus making some of them almost show biz stars,” he added.

He said part of the strategy was avoiding a collision with journalists who could publicize confrontations, while some media were supported with COVID-19 relief, but there were pay cuts anyway with a big drop in circulation in media outlets.

More than a year ago, Croatia and 11 other European countries approved whistleblower protection acts – the first for Croatia – ahead of a European Union directive to strengthen safeguards, which critics said had some loopholes.

The Croatian law though was “full of ambiguities and poor logic and is certain to bring more doubt and insecurity into this already confused area,” the legal site CMS Law-Now said.

It was unclear whether the law obliges all employers or only those who employ at least 50 persons, to introduce certain protections, and whether that included only employees or also workers under service or student contracts, the site said.

“Having  in mind that EU directive leaves some space to countries not to have unified laws, we decided to put efforts on changing the Croatian law in a way that anonymous whistleblowers should be treated as others, Lekovic said.

He added the national whistleblowing law adopted last year didn’t recognize  anonymous whistleblowers as ones who should be protected. 

“We in (the) EAT team decided to change approach in that case, turning our efforts to media,” he said.

“We are still trying to get on board private and state-owned companies and institutions and also giving a chance to media outlets not just to report about EAT but to become beneficiaries [of anonymous digital dropboxes],” he added.

He said, “It means that readers and viewers can send a “whistle” using the EAT channel – it doesn’t matter where they are employed. We’ll see what will happen.”