How the line between satire and truth became blurred.
December 28, 2018 was a bad day for journalism in Croatia.
It started with the public broadcaster, Croatian Radiotelevision (Hrvatska radio televizija, HRT), announcing that, due to damage to its reputation and good name, it would be suing two journalists, both its own employees, as well as the Croatian Journalists’ Association. The alleged damage to the broadcaster’s reputation came in the form of a statement in which the representatives of HRT’s journalists within the Association distanced themselves from various scandals involving the national broadcaster at the time, such as the sale on the black market of football World Cup tickets that had been issued to HRT by FIFA.
According to Bilten, HRT has 35 ongoing lawsuits against journalists and various media, with the damages it is demanding exceeding 2 million Croatian kunas (almost 270,000 euros).
By the end of that same December afternoon, the news of HRT’s latest lawsuit against journalists had become overshadowed by another equally surreal disclosure.
One of the headlines that day was that the court had passed a verdict in favor of Velimir Bujanec, host of the right wing TV show “Bujica” that is broadcast on the local television channel Z1. Bujica had sued the satirical website News Bar for their “false” and “offensive” article titled: “Ambulance Crew Resuscitated Bujanec After News of Cocaine Worth €44 Million Confiscation.”
The article stated that “the fact that police had seized 1,100 kilos of the finest Columbian white powder proved to be too much for Velimir Bujanec, a Croatian patriot weak of heart.” The original text is no longer available on the News Bar website nor anywhere else online.
Bujanec’s attorneys had denied News Bar’s claims, regarding “the whole story as untrue.”
“They say it’s fake news — what else could satire be but fake news?”
News Bar responded by publishing the attorney’s statement with an ironic commentary stating that “it is highly possible” that while writing the contentious article they “might have published entirely made up content.”
Domagoj Zovak, one of the editors at News Bar and the host of one of its satire shows, “Prime Time,” highlights that the whole point of satire is to use humor to exaggerate and ridicule.
“They say it’s fake news — what else could satire be but fake news?” he says. “It’s egregious, hyperbolic and distorted.”
As with any good satire, however, the article in question was somewhat based on a true incident. In 2014, the controversial journalist was sentenced to 10 months in prison — suspended for three years — for allegedly having dealt cocaine, which was linked to his decision to pay a prostitute with this drug. At the time, Jutarnji List had published an article on the court’s verdict titled: “It’s True, I Paid Her for Sex With Cocaine!”
Giving her reasoning in last year’s case against News Bar, Judge Snježana Šagud summarized: “The statements they have made are highly inappropriate and utterly unprofessional. The publication was used with malicious intent in order to morally discredit Velimir Bujanec not only as an individual, but as a journalist as well.”
Domagoj Zovak, an editor at the satirical website News Bar, points out that the media in Croatia is faced with various pressures and other problems. Photo: Josip Šomođi (from Domagoj Zovak’s private archive).
Zovak is reluctant to offer any further comments on the court ruling since such actions could be regarded as “pressure on the judiciary.” However, News Bar is appealing the decision and hopes that the first instance ruling will be overturned.
“From the start, we have felt that the judge did not understand what we do or how News Bar functions,” Zovak says.
Should the ruling become final, the webzine will need to pay indemnity of 12,000 kunas (approximately 1,600 euros).
“This sentence violates common sense, it’s a typical volley to the brain,” says Hrvoje Zovko, president of the Croatian Journalists’ Association. “The society we are part of speaks for itself when it suppresses things like this … it seems to me as though we are living in some sort of dislocated reality.”
Asked whether any satirical media has been convicted of making false claims anywhere else in European countries, Camille Petit from the European Federation of Journalists responded: “We have no knowledge of such cases.”
Truth or lies?
The News Bar multimedia website was originally created in 2011 by journalist Vlado Lucić. At the time, he worked at the 24sata news website, where he first started filming and uploading satirical video clips. Having got the hang of the process, he decided to start his own website, which went on to become what today is known as News Bar.
The concept itself is very much comparable to the one perfected by the American satirical media organization The Onion. Following an everyday journalism template, a group of journalists address current affairs while distancing themselves from reality by adding satire into the equation.
In his academic article “Laughter as Resistance: The Rise of Political Satire in Croatia and Serbia,” Srđan Jovanović, a researcher at Lund University in Sweden, describes satire as a way to fight back against a political system. He draws a parallel between News Bar and Njuz.net, a Serbian satirical website launched nine years ago whose satirical show “24 Minutes,” hosted by Zoran Kesić, has risen to fame since it first aired in 2013 and is still running.
Since they first started, News Bar and Njuz.net have consistently poked fun at Croatian and Serbian politics and societies in general, occasionally dealing with circumstances in other Western Balkan countries. Their form of satire is based on “drawing upon the standard journalistic style, employing hyperbole, and focusing on the most relevant burning issues within socio-political aspects of life,” says Jovanović, suggesting that “they ridicule by means of painstakingly copying the usual news reporting style.”
Although all these mediums clearly put an emphasis on the fact that what they are concerned with is satire, sometimes the news they publish is taken to be real.
A similar approach is taken by the Kosovo-based satirical site KuKuNews, which was established in February 2016 by journalist and editor at online media Insajderi, Vullnet Krasniqi, as a reaction to the proliferation of fake news. With a daily posting of “news” KukuNews makes sarcastic references to high level politicians and diplomats in Kosovo as well as current developments and discussions.
“With the low level of journalism in Kosovo, which has many portals but no News Agency, we are established as a Serious Extraordinary Agency of Satiric News, only so as not to embarrass ourselves in front of the international community so that they won’t say ‘there is no serious media in Kosovo,’” reads the self description on its website.
Perhaps Kosovo’s first production with famous sarcastic references in their social commentaries was the comic group Stupcat, which came together as a group of five actors in 2002. Stupcat were one of the first critical voices toward the power gained by former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members turned politicians, and, now as a trio, they still produce a series of comic sitcoms, usually using humor as a satiric and at times parodying reaction toward political and social issues in the country.
Although all these mediums throughout the region clearly put an emphasis on the fact that what they are concerned with is satire, sometimes the news they publish is taken to be real.
For instance, a number of Francophone media organisations shared Njuz.net’s 2013 “news” about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the then economic adviser to the Serbian government, who had been involved in a sex scandal. Having sexually assaulted a maid at a New York hotel, Njuz.net published a satirical article saying that Strauss-Khan was urging Aleksandar Vučić to support gender equality by fgiving more jobs in the Government of the Republic of Serbia to women.
Furthermore, according to the Croatian Journalists’ Association’s journal “Journalist,” around 40 news websites — mostly from Serbia — treated as fact an article by News Bar that said “a Swiss institute, Franjo Arapović” had proved that Croats originate from Serbs.
News Bar has also been involved in other controversies in the past. Having expanded to television, the website was due to get its own series called “Show Trial,” which was to be aired on the national broadcaster, HRT.
However, the program was canceled in March 2016 under the initial pretext that one segment of the show promoted “intolerance of religion” and “nationalism”; the show’s editors said at the time that they had been told the TV station had a problem with one of their satirical sketches about Jews. Later, it was claimed that the cancellation had been as a result of allegedly high production costs.
All of this took place in the same year that eight right wing political parties had forged a united front for the 2015 elections in Croatia. The so-called “Patriotic Coalition” went on to win the election, paving the way for Zlatko Hasanbegović, a controversial conservative figure, to become the minister of culture, a position that includes responsibility for the media.
Though short, his mandate was marked by “purges” carried out at the national broadcaster — some 70 journalists or editors were demoted or dismissed, and several shows were discontinued overnight — as well as by a general deterioration in press freedoms. State subsidies to non-profit, independent media were abolished, and the country fell from 63rd to 74th place in Reporters Without Borders’ media freedom rankings.
The News Bar troupe found refuge at the N1 broadcasting channel, where Domagoj Zovak and Borna Sor* still run the show “Prime Time,” preparing texts, acting and designing graphs all alone.
Satire as a ‘beacon in the night’
Format-wise, News Bar say they were greatly inspired by American satirical series such as “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show.”
“I believe there is this huge potential for the youth to engage themselves the way we do,” says Zovak, noting that in the United States such programs have become sources of information more reliable than the standard media, which slowly but surely seem to be losing leverage with young people.
“This was obvious in the States during the Bush era and the Iraq War, when mainstream media made grave mistakes with regard to reporting and delivering the news with no critical approach to the process,” Zovak says.
However, satirists from the region have not looked only to the West for their inspiration. They have also discovered role models in the Western Balkans, particularly in the cult newspaper Feral Tribune.
“HRT’s daily news would depict all politicians as serious and highly decorated, the founding fathers of Croatia — in Feral, our president was naked.”
Zovak acknowledges the enormous impact that Feral had on him in the ’90s. “HRT’s daily news would depict all politicians as serious and highly decorated, the founding fathers of Croatia — in Feral, our president was naked,” says Zovak, who believes that, even though what he used to see in Feral would make him laugh, reporting in such a way allowed for “the liberation of a young man’s spirit.”
Feral Tribune derived from a publication established as far back as 1988 as a satirical supplement to the Nedjeljna Dalmacija newspaper. It began to function as an independent publication five years later, after its founders, Viktor Ivančić, Predrag Lucić and Boris Dežulović, had left the main company, Slobodna Dalmacija, due to its forced privatization; the company had been taken over by Miroslav Kutle, a tycoon who had connections in the government at the time.
The three were soon joined by a team of free-thinking journalists and editors dissatisfied with the contemporary situation within the media. Their work enabled them to become regarded by many non-nationalists and professional journalists as “a beacon in the night” (“Feral,” in one of Croatia’s dialects, refers to “lantern” or “beacon”), and they have remained a symbol of uncompromising journalism both in Croatia and in the wider region.
Using their sharp wit, this group of people were ready to address a wide variety of issues, including corruption, crimes in transition economies, war crimes committed by the Croatian Army and the involvement of Croatia in the Bosnian War.
In addition to their texts, they were creative when it comes to photomontage and they preserved the tradition of shrewdness while coming up with titles. Some of these photomontages and their titles have entered journalistic folklore, particularly the 1993 piece titled “Did We Fight For This?” in which Franjo Tuđman and Slobodan Milošević — then presidents of Croatia and Serbia and enemies at war — are depicted in each other’s arms, lying in bed naked.
Another classic example of such photomontages was published two years later and correspondingly titled “Did we fight over this?”; it portrays Alija Izetbegović, the wartime president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as having joined the two leaders in their embrace.
“You realize that it’s OK to shout that the emperor’s got no clothes when you see that really is the case,” Zovak says. “You realize that it’s alright not to blindly follow the authorities.”
Even today, he considers Feral to be one of his biggest influences. “Not only because it was a satirical newspaper, but also because, first and foremost, they did top-notch investigative journalism — they wrote what no one else dared to write about,” he says.
During Franjo Tuđman’s mandate during the 1990s, the weekly was subject to political pressure on various fronts. They had to pay taxes normally levied against “pornographic magazines,” they faced many charges of mental anguish, and there was also a period when one of the main editors, Viktor Ivančić, was called up to the army.
Although they managed to persevere during these difficulties, they were unable to overcome various financial difficulties over the years, nor a relatively low level of circulation. After 15 years of successful work, the final issue of the magazine came out in 2008.
Former Feral employees continue to actively chronicle Croatian society even today, working as writers or freelance journalist for mainly non-mainstream media, and some of the finest satirical commentary still comes out of their pens.
Satire as a multimedia form of expression
Another strong influence on present day satire in the region has been the Sarajevan troupe Top lista nadrealista (The Surrealists’ Top Chart).
In 1981, this group of young people started working on a music program at Radio Sarajevo only to later switch to television. They designed a TV series comprising of various sketches, some of them never to be forgotten by the generations growing up in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the ’80s and ’90s.
In spite of the significant amount of time that has passed, seeing a few of these sketches is a particularly revealing experience even today since they have a prophetic dimension. For example, one of the sketches anticipates the division of Sarajevo, a city currently torn between two entities, Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Filmed in 1988, the scene shows a wall that divides the city into two parts, an eastern sector and a western one.
In another sketch announcing the beginning of war, “the European Community Monitoring Mission puts in considerable effort to keep the state of war somewhat stable,” so they seek to drive a wedge between childhood friends, a Bosniak and a Serb, while the two are playing a game of billiards.
Finally, there is a 1991/92 New Year’s Eve special where “the former Yugoslavia breaks up into 723,321 states, 45 percent of which are located in Sarajevo alone.” The scene portrays Mrs Popušlić (“Mrs Suckington”) on her way back home, crossing various borders in the streets of Sarajevo. Partitioned along the same lines, her flat is littered with border crossings intersecting rooms, which is why her family members need to show a passport when they go to the toilet or another room.
Although the original cast of Top lista nadrealista ceased the show’s production in 1992 (after that New Year’s Eve special), it has left an enduring mark.
Montenegrin collective The Books of Knjige (knjige meaning “books” in Montenegrin and other similar languages) count it amongst their biggest influencers.
The Books of Knjige, one of whose members is Zoran Marković Zonjo, look up to Bosnian ’80s-’90s outfit Top lista nadrealisti and British surrealists Monty Python as inspiration. Photo: Still from The Books of Knjige.
Based in Cetinje, the self-described “multimedia association of comedians” have been active for more than 20 years. Having got together in the ’90s to work on theater productions, they have tested themselves in many formats — from producing radio and television series, to playing music as a band and even making a feature film titled “The Cases of Justice.”
“Every Friday at midnight on the airwaves of a Podgorica radio station, Antena M, we try to straighten out the deformed reality and very often even to distort some everyday things by making them as absurd as possible,” says Zoran Marković Zonjo from the Montenegrin troupe.
Besides Top lista nadrealisti, Zonjo reveals that they draw their inspiration from Monty Python, the world famous comedy group from the United Kingdom who started to work in the ’70s. Their influence on comedy is often compared with the Beatles’ influence on music.
“They were brilliant and it seems to me that it makes no sense to do something similar right now, because in their sketches and movies they addressed every single issue there is and they did it in the most ingenious ways possible,” Zonjo says.
However, he notes that “fortunately or not, there’s still a lot of material in the Balkans for turning crap into gold.”
“For almost 30 years now we have been adamantly taking the mickey out of the government, the opposition and our society in general — we pay for it.”
The Books of Knjige’s satirical style heavily relies on improvisation, but they have managed to retain the dimension of socio-political critique. This comes at a price.
“For almost 30 years now we have been adamantly taking the mickey out of the government, the opposition and our society in general — we pay for it,” says Zonjo, referring to the different forms of pressure they are subject to, whether these are subtle or not.
“Basically, in order to avoid explosive reactions, it’s important not to tamper with the money of the powerful people in Montenegro,” he says. “The precious little satire that turns up here and there tends to be stifled by silent obstruction.”
The hardest part is to put up with financial pressure.
“If the youth see their role models starving because they can’t make a decent living out of their artistic work, they will know that they should stay away from that path,” Zonjo says, adding that this is why young people have no one to put on a pedestal but politicians and tycoons. “They are the popular ones, they are the ones who’ve got money and the power.”
Satirical and other media are also subjected to pressure through legal action and allegations of injury to reputation and good name, as in the case against News Bar. Often under strong political influence, Western Balkan courts regularly pass judgements against the media, which are financially burdened by the costs of legal services even when sentences are handed down in their favor.
Just three days after the verdict against News Bar in December 2018, Milijan Brkić, the Croatian Parliament vice president and the deputy leader of the ruling HDZ party, successfully sued the current affairs weekly magazine Lider for libel. According to the court decision — which Lider has appealed — Brkić could receive 15,000 kunas (around 2,000 euros) in compensation after Lider published a text stating that he had plagiarized his undergraduate dissertation.
In fact, Lider merely quoted Brkić as “having plagiarized 70 percent of his dissertation,” which is a previously substantiated claim presented in Jutarnji list.
Hundreds of journalists recently protested limitations on freedom of the media under the slogan “You’ve taken away the media, we won’t let you take away journalism itself!” Photo courtesy of Giovanni Vale.
Such circumstances have led to protesters recently taking to the streets.
On Saturday, 2 March, fed up with by a growing number of lawsuits, political pressure and threats, more than a thousand journalists and supporters marched through Zagreb protesting for freedom of the press under the slogan “You’ve taken away the media, we won’t let you take away journalism itself!”
Journalists say that it is not just the right to satirize that is at stake, but the right to write objectively and express yourself freely.
“If someone is fucking about and making things up, they get hurt, but if someone tells the truth, they get hurt, too,” Domagoj Zovak says with indignation. “What else can one do but write down pretty lies? That’s the only way you don’t get sued.”K
Feature image: Courtesy of The Books of Knjige.
* Correction: The name Borna Sor was originally incorrectly written as Borna Kos and has been corrected after publishing.