EU funds go to ‘one of the leading disinformation producers’ in Croatia, fact-checkers say

November 13, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

How would you feel if you were a fact-checker and after having spent hours debunking pieces of misinformation published by a single website, you read that this same site would receive a generous sum to reach a larger audience? And what if this grant came from the government and was built by taxes?

This is the situation in Croatia.

Fact-checkers from Faktograph are very disappointed with the way the Croatian government handles the money collected from EU taxpayers and don’t feel like hiding it.

The Croatian Ministry of Economy, Entrepreneurship and Crafts approved and announced a grant of 98,000 HRK (more than $14,500) to Dnevno.hr a year ago – but the website put a logo on its homepage last week, calling fact-checkers attention.

But according to Faktograph’s editor-in-chief, Petar Vidov, Dnevno.hr is “one of the leading producers of disinformation” in Croatia.

In an article published Nov. 5, Vidov openly criticizes the decision and lists some of the misleading content Dnevno.hr has published.

“They (Dnevno.hr) blamed German Chancellor Angela Merkel for trying to deprive Croatia of its sovereignty. They identified the billionaire George Soros as the culprit of migrations from Islamic countries to the European continent,” wrote Vidov.

Faktograph said it has questioned the Ministry of Economy whether the quality and factual correctness of Dnevno.hr’s content was taken into account when deciding on the grant, but hasn’t received any formal answer so far.

Faktograph said it has also reached the European Commission about the support given to a “notorious producer of disinformation.” Unofficially, fact-checkers learned that the European Union is helpless in this case because the rules of distribution of funds didn’t foresee the situation in Croatia.

On Aug. 21, Dnevno.hr published an article accusing Faktograph of being the “left team that is well paid to control the media in Croatia.”

As it happens in other parts of the world, fact-checkers in Croatia are inaccurately accused of being unpatriotic and/or censors – and not only by Dnevno.hr. Other websites, pages and profiles on social media usually harass fact-checkers for doing their work.

Read the English version of Petar Vidov’s article below.

Croatian government uses European funds to support the spread of disinformation

Petar Vidov

The Ministry of Economy, Entreneurship and Crafts approved a grant of 98,000 HRK (13,200 euros) from the EU funds to Dnevno.hr internet portal — considered one of the leading producers of disinformation in the Croatian media space.

The grant from the European Regional Development Fund was approved for the purpose of redesigning the portal, with the aim of making it easier for the readers to reach information they are interested in and to help the Dnevno.hr publisher to increase their revenue.

In other words, the Croatian government decided to use European funds to help a portal specializing in publishing disinformation, which also abounds with hate speech, in order to make their operation even more efficient. The grant to the Dnevno.hr portal was approved within the projectWWW vouchers for SMEs, launched in August 2018.

The grant contract with the Motus d.o.o. company, the publisher of the Dnevno.hr portal and a few other digital media, was signed in October 2018. Their application was approved during the term of the current minister of economy, Darko Horvat from HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union), who became the minister in May 2018, after his predecessor Martina Dalić had to resign because of the Agrokor affair.

They harangue against the EU and are financed from European funds

The irony of the fact that European funds are used to finance a portal that regularly and frequently deludes the public becomes even bigger when one looks into the content of disinformation published by Dnevno.hr. Here are just some examples of disinformation circulating through social networks from the Dnevno.hr portal ahead of this year’s European Parliament elections.

It accused the socialist Frans Timmermans of invoking mass immigration of Muslim men as a means to achieve the goal of the disappearance of mono-ethnic states. They blamed German Chancellor Angela Merkel for trying to deprive Croatia of its sovereignty. They identified the billionaire George Soros as the culprit of migrations from Islamic countries to the European continent… None of these claims were correct, which also holds for numerous other cases of disinformation that Dnevno.hr has spread for years, and that Faktograf has regularly debunked as false.

Just during October 2019 Faktograf debunked as many as 10 different pieces of disinformation circulated by Dnevno.hr. The claims by the Dnevno.hr portal whose falseness we exposed in the last month were published in the period from January 2017 to October 2019. We dealt with older articles after they were revived through repeated distribution via social networks. The pieces of disinformation by the Dnevno.hr portal that we showed were incorrect ranged from climate crisis denial to glorification of Russian president Vladimir Putin to instigating intolerance towards refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East.

The Ministry of Economy is silent, and the European Commission is helpless

Faktograph asked the Ministry of Economy whether the quality and factual correctness of the material published by the Dnevno.hr portal was taken into account when deciding on granting European money to the Motus d.o.o. company.

Faktograph also requested a copy of the contract signed with the publisher of the Dnevno.hr portal, as well as the project application documents from the Motus company.

Faktograph received neither the answer to the question we asked nor the copies of the documents requested, although Faktograph warned the Ministry that under the Right to Access Information Act they are bound to provide the answer.

The initial request was sent to the Ministry of Economy on Oct. 18. Five days later Faktograph received a “reply” without the information requested — just a general list of conditions of distribution of grants within the “WWW Vouchers for SMEs” project.

The full text of the letter the Ministry of Economy sent in order to avoid the answer to Faktograph’s question can be seen here.

On the very same day – Oct. 23 – Faktograph repeated the request to the Ministry of Economy, insisting that questions should be answered.

Faktograph also sent memos to the European Commission, i.e. the spokespersons competent for the issues of regional development, which also include allocation of funds from the European Regional Development Fund, which the Croatian government decided to use to support the notorious producer of disinformation.

Faktograph asked the European Commission if they consider such a form of allocating European funds legal, i.e. whether member states are allowed to finance activities of people who spread disinformation and instigate hatred.

Faktograph also asked whether there would be any sanctions against Croatia because of the irresponsible management of the common European funds.

Faktograph was told that the European Commission cannot officially comment on this particular case. Sources from the commission pointed out that “the struggle against disinformation is a common and long-term challenge all EU institutions, which member-states must jointly face.”

Unofficially, however, Faktograph learned that the European Union is helpless in this case because the rules of distribution of funds have not foreseen the situation described.

Promotion of nationalism and hatred

The Dnevno.hr portal is a part of a media network founded by the controversial entrepreneur Michael Ljubas, most famous for the case of takeover and destruction of Elektropromet, once a respectable company in Zagreb that employed more than 300 people and managed property worth around 100 million HRK, which is now facing bankruptcy.

Ljubas established the Portal Dnevno d.o.o. company in 2010, long before the term “fake news” became fashionable. In the meantime, the media ecosystem changed drastically — the awareness of the problem of disinformation as a first-class civilization threat has become widespread throughout the world, but Dnevno.hr is still undisturbed in doing its business and even gets funding from Europe.

Apart from the Croatian version of the Dnevno portal, Ljubas’s media enterprise encompassed the portals of the same name in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. All three portals are known for stirring up nationalism and publishing disinformation.

The Croatian branch of the Dnevno portal frequently harangues against Serbs, while the Serbian branch simultaneously harangues against Croats, deepening the gap between people whose states were on the opposite sides of the bloody war in which Yugoslavia fell apart. The Croatian Journalists’ Association (HND) warned in 2013 of the damage that Dnevno.hr made to the already polarized Croatian society. “The attacks and insults of this portal, and to a lesser degree the printed weekly ‘7Dnevno’, against individuals, associations, and social groups who do not share their conservative right-wing worldview take us back to the 1990s and often degrade the culture of public communication to the level of hate speech of wartime tabloids Slobodni tjednik and Imperial,” said HND.

In the meantime, Ljubas’ company Portal Dnevno d.o.o. went bankrupt and was closed in 2019. The bankruptcy was the result of numerous court cases caused by Dnevno.hr regularly publishing false and libelous claims. The plaintiffs were not able to collect most of the indemnities approved by courts and in June 2017, Ljubas sold the rights of the Dnevno.hr portal to Marija Dekanić, the owner of the Logobox digital marketing agency and former member of Croatian People’s Party (HNS), the junior partner of HDZ in the current ruling coalition.

Dekanić is the owner of the Motus d.o.o. company, the current publisher of the Dnevno.hr portal, through which the funds from the European Fund for Regional Development were acquired for the purpose of redesigning the portal.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect more precisely that the EU didn’t directly participate in the allocation of funding, only the Croatian government.