ZAGREB, January 30, 2021 – By the decision of the County Court in Varaždin, the Croatian Football Association (HNS) has lost the legal dispute initiated against it almost five years ago by Index journalists and the Index.hr portal. In 2015, by the decision of Davor Šuker, HNS published a special press release on its website which forbids Index journalists from accessing the Croatian national team, all matches, trainings and press conferences of the Federation and orders all its members – clubs, players and coaches – not to communicate with Index journalists, all because of their critical writing about the HNS. The HNS in its proclamation called them “calls for hostility” and “damage to Croatian interests”.
The first-instance verdict of the Municipal Court in Zagreb from 2018 established that Šuker and HNS were not allowed to prevent Index journalists from reporting, banning them from entering national team matches, accessing stadiums where Croatia plays and reporting from European and world championships. HNS appealed the verdict, but the Varaždin County Court completely rejected their appeal and upheld the verdict of the Zagreb Municipal Court. The Football Association is obliged to compensate Index and five of its journalists for the legal damage, as well as the related interest and the cost of litigation, in the total amount of around HRK 230,000 (approximately EUR 30,600).
“HNS’s grounds of appeal are completely unfounded. HNS incorrectly and arbitrarily sets regulations. As a public service body, they are obliged to provide complete and timely information on issues within their scope in a way that is available to journalists on equal terms, and this obligation is contrary to HNS’s appellate view, this court concludes that the impugned judgment does not contain any shortcomings which allegedly could not examine its regularity and legality, on the contrary – it contains reasons for all decisive facts. The reasons presented are completely clear and specific,” reads the verdict of the County Court in Varaždin, which for the first time in the history of court rulings legally decided that HNS is a public authority and that it set itself as a private organization and declared its press conferences and matches “private events”, and business data “business secret”.
Due to their dismissal from press conferences and national team matches and the HNS’s claim that they were acting against national interests, Index journalists were humiliated among their colleagues and became the target of insults from fan circles and people close to the top of the football organisation. They spat at them, shouted that they were rubbish and forced them to leave the stadium, and one of such incidents happened during a ceremony organised by the Croatian Olympic Committee.
Five years after he kicked Index journalists out of the HNS headquarters, Šuker has lost a legal battle that was extremely important to the Association because with this verdict the HNS unquestionably loses the right to work and act as a private organisation, which hides information from journalists and the public calling it a business secret.
The verdict in the dispute initiated by Index journalists unequivocally states that the HNS, as a public authority, must be open to the public without favour and provide the media with complete information on issues within its scope and ensure the constitutionally guaranteed right to access information. HNS is partly financed by citizens, so even though President Davor Šuker points out that “it is a negligible amount of a little more than a million kuna (133.300 EUR) a year that goes to younger categories” or complains in crisis situations that “HNS receives very little money from the state”, the court emphasizes that the work of the Šuker’s Association and its activities must be public and maximally accessible to the public and the media. It is, therefore, a precedent that is as important for the journalistic profession as for Croatian sport because it shows that Davor Šuker’s Association, as the umbrella football association in Croatia and a public authority, illegally declared its press conferences a private event and prevented journalists from performing their professions and asking questions, thereby violating their constitutional right to freedom of opinion, expression and access to public information, and they were placed in an unequal position and publicly prevented from performing their professional journalistic duties.
“HNS is a body of public authority, which is determined by the list of public authorities kept by the Commissioner for Information of the Republic of Croatia, and in addition the Federation is considered part of the so-called sports system in Croatia and the law stipulates that its activities represent public needs in sports. It is extremely important that the defendant is partly financed from the budget of the Republic of Croatia, ie by taxpayers’ funds,” the verdict reads.
During the proceedings, HNS claimed that it regularly published information about its activities on its official website, but the court concluded that this information was written exclusively in a positive tone and that it could not be used for critical reporting.
“This verdict is very important for media freedoms, for all newsrooms in Croatia, but also for exercising a much broader right to access information, which applies not only to the media but also to the general public. The court is now, as far as I know, the first If the courts and other competent bodies continue to apply the positions from this decision, and they should, every member of the public will have the right to request and receive information about their business. This has been a problem so far because the HNS, at various instances and in different proceedings, has disputed that it is a public authority and thus avoided providing information of public interest,” said Vanja Juric, a lawyer who represented Index. He added: “Besides, this verdict is very important for all future relations of all other public authorities towards the media and the public. The transparency of their actions must become the rule, not the exception, and this decision is a very big step in that direction. It cannot be acceptable either as a society, we must tolerate that any body with public authority refuses to give journalists important information about its work or forbids them from attending their public events. These are fundamental rights without which there is no democratic society.”