It all starts with the blue letter.
The postman knocks, requiring a signature. There is rarely good news inside the official blue envelopes.
“It is from the Municipal Court in Zagreb,” said my wife.
I wonder what they want, I thought to myself. I haven’t done anything wrong, to the best of my knowledge. Nevertheless, my heart started beating a little heavier. I had no dead relatives in Croatia to inherit property from, so in all probability, there was bad news inside.
A lawsuit from the Croatian National Tourist Board seeking 50,000 kuna in compensation for defamation. Now my heart really started to beat. Plus costs. And interest. For an article that I did not write, on a portal that I do not own, which quoted me.
My mouth went dry.
Two weeks later, it was Groundhog Day. ANOTHER blue letter, another lawsuit, and another 50,000 kuna demanded, this time for a meme I posted on my private Facebook page, where I changed the official tourism slogan from Croatia, Full of Life to Croatia, Full of Uhljebs.
(The lawsuits made the national news)
What the hell to do? I was panicking. I didn’t have that kind of money spare, and what did this mean for my future writing? I was comfortable that I had done nothing wrong, but how to prove that in the Croatian legal jungle and where to turn for help? Perhaps I should stop writing anything critical and just concentrate on saying how beautiful Croatia was.
In my panic, I failed to analyse the message being sent, turning this into a major situation instead:
The plaintiff points out that in the case of a public apology made by the defendant, done so in a manner that fully corresponds to the manner of publishing the disputed statements, i.e. in the same or equivalent place, it is ready to accept without the further continuation of this litigation.
I. The defendant is ordered to pay the plaintiff the amount of HRK 50,000.00 together with the corresponding statutory default interest rate from 04.08.2020 as the date of filing the lawsuit until payment at the rate of the average interest rate on loans granted for a period longer than one year to non-financial companies calculated for the reference period preceding the current half-year, increased by three percentage points, within 15 days under threat of enforcement.
With a little more detachment, the message was clear. Publicly apologise and lose credibility among your readership, be silent in the future, and all this goes away. Otherwise, the lawsuits will take their course. I had 15 days to respond.
2. Costs include 8% interest
As I was weighing up my limited options, the route to a public apology looked the most likely, especially when I learned that there would be 8% annual interest fee, I believe, from the moment the lawsuit was issued, until the verdict. I had heard that these cases could go on for years. It had somehow taken 2 months for the issuance of the lawsuit from the court to be delivered to my home. Some 8% divided by 6 of 100,000 kuna. The clock was ticking. Should I just apologise and move on?
The only person I could think to ask for advice was a smart young lawyer called Vanja Juric, regarded as the best in the region for media law, and a very successful defender of Croatia’s biggest and most controversial news portal, Index.hr. Index owner Matija Babic, a personal friend, had kindly made Vanja’s advice available to me a couple of years earlier when the Mayor of Jelsa, Niksa Peronja, announced in a public meeting that he was suing me over my reporting of a questionable tender – you can read more in Mayor Niksa Peronja: If Carpe Diem Really is Coming to Jelsa and Zecevo, Then…
Here is Mayor Peronja publicly announcing the lawsuit against me. He never actually followed though, and 4 years later, I await the lawsuit he promised.
But the announcement of the lawsuit shook me up, and Vanja gave me some great advice. And so I knew that she would be the person to turn to with the case of the Croatian National Tourist Board. The first thing she told me was to relax, there was no way I would lose.
And from that moment, I started to relax, and I decided that I would document the whole experience in a mini-blog on TCN called Diary of a Croatian Lawsuit.
And yet, despite Vanja’s considerable reassurance and calming influence, that 8% would not leave me, especially when I learned that the first hearing of the first case would not be until the following April, and the second one in May, 8 and 9 months respectively after the lawsuits were issued. Around 6,000 kuna in interest, and we had not even started!
And then when I went to my first hearing, only to have the prosecution lawyer present an additional motion one minute before the hearing started, which necessitated an adjournment of 3 months (1,000 kuna more), and then their lawyer double booked not once, but twice, necessitating a delay in the other case from May to November (2,000 kuna), I began to have my doubts. It was almost 18 months from the lawsuit to the first hearing that actually took place.
Delay, delay, delay. Perhaps it was all accidental (this was the Kingdom of Accidental Tourism after all), but it felt a little more coordinated. After all, the lawyer who had double-booked twice was from a firm with 50 lawyers. This was hardly a complicated case, and yet no other lawyer was able to take his place.
On not one, but two occasions, their lawyer submitted last-minute motions to my lawyer literally one minute before the hearing started on each occasion. The apologetic excuse was that he had had health issues. There was no mention of the other 49 lawyers in his office who could have helped out. Perhaps these were all genuine reasons, but I slowly began to form the opinion that all this seemed to be a deliberate tactic. This feeling was solidified for the hearing where I was supposed to give evidence on the meme, Croatia, Full of Uhljebs, as was Director of the Croatian National Tourist Board, Kristjan Stanicic.
The hearing was announced in July 2021, to take place on Thursday, January 20, 2022, so 6 months to prepare. Although I speak Croatian quite well, Vanja advised that I hire a court interpreter, which I did. Six days before the hearing, late on a Friday evening after office hours, Vanja received an email stating that Director Stanicic could not attend the hearing the following Thursday as he had to go on urgent business to a tourism fair in Madrid, attaching the director’s flight details (Tuesday to Friday). The Madrid fair had been announced 6 months before, about the same time as this hearing, but for some reason, this trip had been put in the calendar at the last minute. I cancelled the interpreter, and Vanja advised me to attend the hearing, but not to give evidence in his absence.
And so the following Tuesday came, with the director presumably off to Madrid. And Wednesday. The hearing was scheduled for midday on Thursday. At around 09:00, Vanja received an email to say that, in fact, the director was not in Madrid after all and would be attending court and giving evidence. He had presumably known this on Tuesday when he was supposed to fly, but for some reason waited until the last minute to tell us. Trying to find an available court translator with less than three hours notice was an almost impossible task. Almost.
If I had been a cynic, I would have questioned the additional motives behind some of these delays and double bookings, as hearings which were scheduled before elections managed to get delayed until after elections, thereby avoiding any negative publicity. But obviously, I am not a cynic…
One of the most interesting aspects of the whole process was learning that I had the right to apply to photograph and film proceedings if I applied to the court more than 48 hours in advance. The chance to put the absurdity of what I was subjected to on YouTube was very appealing. It would have greatly added to showcasing my story. I applied as advised and was stunned at the speed of the reply, an email just one hour later. My request was denied, as filming was only applicable to cases deemed to be in the public interest, which mine was not (despite being all over television and the national media when the story broke). A second email to Vanja at the same time gave another reason why I would not be filming any time soon – the case suddenly got delayed 6 months (lawyer double-booking) – another 2,000 kuna in interest.
I can only imagine going through this process without the expertise and calming support of Vanja. Once she told me to relax, I knew I was going to be ok. But without her, this would be a terrifying ordeal, as I am sure it is for the many others who are subjected to SLAPP lawsuits here and elsewhere. Indeed the support of certain sections of the media (big shout out to Index, Telegram, Morski, RTL and N1) was a huge boost, as was MP Marijana Puljak calling for the dismissal of Director Stanicic, the withdrawal of the lawsuit, and the introduction of anti-SLAPP legislation (see video below).
We are shocked by the bizarre news about the lawsuits of the Croatian National Tourist Board against Paul Bradbury, journalist and owner of the Total Croatia News portal. It is a classic way of intimidating and stifling freedom of speech, in order to silence criticism of the dysfunctional system of the Croatian Tourist Board, which spends a lot of taxpayers’ money. We demand the immediate withdrawal of the lawsuits and the removal of director Kristjan Staničić.
The CNTB should see a partner in Paul Bradbury. He is a man who has undoubtedly indebted Croatian tourism with his actions, and instead they are trying to intimidate and destroy him. This is just another proof of the justification of our request for the introduction of voluntary membership in the CNTB. If taxpayers were given the opportunity to choose who to finance, many would certainly prefer to invest money in tourism promotion in the knowledge and work of experts like Bradbury, rather than in any of the 300 or so directors of tourist boards.
The Center Party will always vehemently oppose any form of intimidation and attacks on journalists, activists and citizens. Any attempt to restrict freedom of speech, and we witness them in Croatia almost every day, we consider unacceptable, so we will send to the procedure legal changes that would prevent such lawsuits from occurring at all.
Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of any democratic society and the first line of defense of all other freedoms. In addition to believing that an open public debate on any topic has no alternative, history teaches us that persecuting and silencing dissidents throughout
it makes society intellectually but also economically poorer. Only an open exchange of ideas, but also criticism, is the guarantor of intellectual and economic progress.
I was grateful for all the support and fully aware that many others facing SLAPP lawsuits do not have such exposure. I felt the whole process to be quite intimidating. As I stated in a previous article, I get the impression that the CNTB lawyer is a pretty cool guy that I would enjoy having a drink with (he was always very friendly outside court, making a point to shake my hand each time), but his questioning and tactics in the courtroom were very intimidating. I spent an hour on the witness stand being cross-examined about the meme on topics such as how many Facebook fans did I have, what was I doing before I moved to Croatia in 2002, how many employees did I have, and did I speak French.
My favourite moment in the second hearing was seeing a HUGE file with so many papers inside that a whole forest must have been sacrificed. On the front of the file, two words – Paul Bradbury.
If that file was full of documents about me, just how big was my legal bill going to be on top of the interest and claim? Intimidating. Or at least it would have been without Vanja. An intern who watched proceedings asked me after if I also thought that a lot of the pieces of paper in the folder were blank.
As I could see that this was an intimidating process, I decided to document my case from start to finish. Knowing that the cases would take years to resolve, I started a mini-blog called Diary of a Croatian Lawsuit on TCN. Apart from being extraordinary free PR for me (thanks, CNTB!), keeping the case in the public arena could only help my cause, especially if I detailed all the absurdities. But I also wanted to show others going through the same process that they were not alone. And that it was possible to win.
But had I had to face that alone… And then there was the option to publicly apologise and it all goes away…
When talking about intimidation, I thought back to the Mayor of Jelsa, Niksa Peronja, who publicly announced he was suing me, but never did as mentioned above. Just the threat of a lawsuit – it does focus the mind on writing about less controversial topics in the future. There is not much net reward for writing a great article and then having to pay thousands in court for the privilege. There is a reason why these lawsuits are called Strategic Lawsuits against Public Prosecution.
6. Doors close and the stigma
I am currently in the search for a new identity. For the last two years, I have been known as the ‘guy getting sued by CNTB.’ That’s it. My epitaph on my tombstone. I have lost count of the number of people I have met who have only heard about me for that one reason. It is something that I guess will be with me forever. it is not something I would have chosen to be remembered by, but I have tried to turn that into a positive and approach this reality with humour.
What has been a quite extraordinary lesson, however, has been how people and institutions in Croatia reacted to being sued by a state institution. It was the same with the threatened lawsuit from Peronja and the national tourist board. Certain people unfriended me on Facebook, looked the other way when I walked down the street, and generally distanced themselves from me. To be seen to be with me (and this was especially true in Jelsa 5 years ago) meant that there were in the enemy camp. Why risk a cafe concession of an extra two tables as a cafe owner by being friends with the pariah?
The reaction of the Croatian media was very instructive, and it was then that I could see clearly who were the most independent media (named above) and those who were not. Not only was my case not covered, but in one famous example, I was completely erased from history on a big media report from the opening of a conference I co-oganised, as well as being told I would not be allowed to speak at the opening of my own conference, as I would be sharing the platform with the Deputy Minister of Tourism.
Paid contracts dried up. Sorry, Paul, we hope you understand, but you are being sued by CNTB…
The lawsuits became the big elephant in the room, particularly in topics where I was very active (digital nomads being a prime example) where the national tourist board was starting to get involved (and with a budget to spend). Sorry Paul, the national tourist board are funding this so…
It was a lesson, and one I am glad I had, for it forced me to diversify, which I have done. And now I am in a much better space. So thanks to all for that.
7. Winning is not the aim
As time went on, I began to realise that finding me guilty and actually winning the case was not the main aim of these lawsuits. It was intimidation and an invitation to silence. Zoran Pejovic, a respected tourism expert and defence witness in my case, who had also been quoted in the article that got me sued, reflected on his day in court as a witness in the case on LinkedIn (you can read Zoran’s full post here):
Ever since I learned of the case against Paul I have reduced my Croatian media appearances. Several times I was asked to comment on some of the ongoing challenges of Croatian tourism and I politely declined. It only today dawned on me that I chose the path of lesser exposure to stay out of the limelight and avoid similar litigations, regardless of how pointless and ultimately unsuccessful they tend to be.
Perhaps they never aimed for victory in court.
The verdict in the first case was set for January 13, 2023. After the fabulous testimony in the hearing last November of both Zoran and Kresimir Macan, as well as Vanja’s magic, there was no way in a normal country that I could lose. There simply was no case. Recognition of that fact came (again at the last minute – delay, delay, delay) when Vanja receive a request to withdraw the first case, giving us 8 days to agree. Just enough time to inform the court the day before the verdict. If they withdrew, they would not lose, I suppose was the logic. Their justifications for withdrawing the lawsuit were quite special, an explanation of which I may save for another time.
What started 2.5 years ago as a demand for a public apology or 50,000 kuna plus costs ended with a polite request to forget about the whole thing. If I accepted, the case went away and my costs would be paid. If I refused, the court would deliver its verdict, an expected victory for me, and another PR own goal for the Kingdom of Accidental Tourism. I decided to try and put an end to the whole farce by suggesting that if they dropped both lawsuits and paid my costs, then I would agree. If they only wanted to drop one, then I would refuse. Their counter-offer was quite special (but let’s leave that for another time), and we agreed that they would withdraw both.
And so here we are, 2.5 years later. A public institution sues someone using public money, demanding either a public apology or compensation of 100,000 kuna plus costs. Two and a half years later, having wasted an enormous amount of time, energy and public money, they withdraw the cases and are required to pay all the costs – with public money, of course.
Absolutely zero, and nothing to stop this happening again to someone else, someone who might be a little more intimidated than I was (post-Vanja reassurance).
And the legacy?
I will be known as the guy who got sued by the Croatian National Tourist Board, and apart from that?
Plus ca change.
At least by highlighting my case on TCN (and soon on my YouTube channel with a very detailed look at it), we have raised a little awareness of the realities of SLAPP lawsuits in Croatia. I have been very encouraged by the number of European lawyers who have been following my case on LinkedIn, and their messages of support have been very welcome.
10. Remarkable individuals are building a better Croatia
And where to end but with my fabulous laywer.
Over the years, I have met several people who are passionate about their niche, and whose determination and dedication have brought positive change. Marko Rakar is one of my all-time heroes, and his efforts to hold the government accountable and to improve the system are truly admirable. One of his biggest achievements was effecting the removal of 800,000 fake names from the electoral register – this in a country of 4.2 million people at the time.
In the media space, you may love him or hate him, but Matija Babic, the owner of Index.hr has made a considerable contribution over the last 20 years with his portal’s reporting and exposing of corruption.
And Vanja, as a bastion of protection of free media speech, is right up there in her own niche. As Vice President of GONG, she was also appointed expert group member of a European task force on SLAPP lawsuits. And only last week, she held the first GONG workshop on SLAPP lawsuits. I feel honoured that my case is one that is highlighted.
Vanja is also using the case in her education of the next generation of lawyers. Perhaps this will be the best legacy of all for Croatia, Full of Uhljebs…
You can follow the whole story, including the publication of both lawsuits in English, in Diary of a Croatian Lawsuit.
Croatia, a Survival Kit for Foreigners is now available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.