"In a way, my Osijek has shrunk, like a cheap shirt after the first wash". The great reporter on the recent attempt to bribe him, the main corruption and criminal cases he has been investigating, and his future as a writer
(Originally published by Novosti, on August 6, 2017)
Drago Hedl, multi-awarded Croatian journalist and writer, has recently been the target of a corruption attempt by Franjo Lucić, member of the ruling party in his country (HDZ). Lucić offered him money to dissuade him from publishing an investigative report exposing his dirty business – unsuccessfully, as not only did Hedl publish the report, but he also recorded the controversial phone call.
This did not surprise anyone, except maybe Franjo Lucić. In his long career, Hedl has always been a righteous reporter. Winner of numerous awards for his work as a journalist and writer, as well as for his commitment to defending human rights, Hedl tells us about this recent episode, but also about his literary projects.
Few believe that Franjo Lucić, until recently president of the HDZ section of Požega County-Slavonia, autonomously decided to resign from all party duties. Even fewer believe that – as declared by his wealth statement – he is the worst-off among the MPs of the Sabor [Croatian Parliament]. Despite your revelations on Lucić's bank accounts, and his attempt to corrupt you, he maintains his seat in Parliament for the time being. Do you think something could change in that regard?
I am convinced that Lucić's resignation was ordered by the party leadership. He loves political power too much to step back so easily. It was precisely because of his political power that he was able to do all he did, including the maladies aimed at obtaining state-subsidised loans for his companies to build residential buildings along the coast. After the works were completed and the flats were sold, the employees of Lucić's companies Tofrado and Tofrado bačvarija ended up on the street, including many war veterans. One of them, having lost his only source of livelihood, killed himself. Yet, no one protested.
The HDZ, of course, was aware of Lucić's business. They had to – if nothing else, because the notifications of criminal charges against him were delivered to the party's headquarters too. But Lucić kept winning the elections, and winners can do what they like. If not for that corruption attempt, I am sure nothing would have happened to him. Everything I revealed about him in that investigative report, published in three installments on the weekly Telegram – far worse things than a bribing attempt – would not have been enough to make him resign. The story has caused a great stir because, as far as I know, it is the first time that a clear attempt to bribe a journalist is recorded and made public.
Sanader's "old" HDZ paid nationalist singer Marko Perković Thompson so that he would not perform at the pre-election meetings of other political parties, and Lucić just adapted this formula to the image of the "new", presumably more credible HDZ, trying to pay a journalist not to write.
The leaders of the HDZ – i.e., of the government – have tacitly endured the embarrassment for a couple of days, and now behave as if nothing had happened. Prime Minister Andrej Plenković remains, again, unfazed. Did you expect a different reaction?
As soon as the bribe scandal broke out, I asked party leaders for a comment. There was no response – from them or anyone else. Total silence. They seem to think that Lucić's resignation from all party duties is sufficient and that the case is solved.
Let's remember, however, another quite similar case – that of SDP deputy and former mayor of Vukovar Željko Sabo [convicted for the attempted corruption of two councillors of the municipality of Zagreb, ed.]. At the time of the event, every high official of the HDZ, concerned with his own reputation, had publicly and harshly condemned Sabo's gesture. Sabo was subjected to lynching, attacked by all sides, and "system institutions" proved to be more efficient than ever – instant charges, a full-speed trial, and a confirmation of conviction issued by the Supreme Court at the speed of light. And before Sabo could figure out what hit him, he was already in jail. We will see how the "system institutions" will act now.
You experienced judicial persecution because of your reporter work. Do you think such a thing can happen again now, after the publication of this last series of investigative reports?
There would be nothing strange about this. Lucić is already threatening to sue me for defamation, and maybe you remember that he might also sue me for recording our conversation without his knowledge and consent. The latter is less harmless – you can end up in jail. But maybe I will be lucky – I could end up in Parliament like Marija Budimir who, after secretly recording the conversation with Željko Sabo and handing it over to the media, became an MP. Strange are the ways of the Lord, especially in Croatia.
During your long journalistic career you have collaborated with several newspapers, writing countless articles. Were you surprised by Lucić's gesture? After suffering so many threats and intimidation attempts for doing quality journalism, is there anything that can still surprise you?
Lucić's offer was really a new thing. He did not threaten me, he offered me money. He probably estimated that the carrot would be more effective than the stick. But, when he offered me money to forget about publishing what I had discovered on his business, it felt as bad as the threats. It is a humiliating situation. Maybe it is normal for him to solve things this way.
At one point, as it can be heard clearly in the recording, he said: "Money is not a problem". Those for whom money is not a problem – and there are few in this country – probably caught the essence of the proverb "Para vrti gdje burgija neće" (Money can get where a drill cannot). In this country you can buy and sell anything, it is just a matter of melting point, as Stipe Mesić once said. They sell diplomas, court judgments, amnesties, medical certificates, jobs, posts... the supply is wide.
Sitting in the Sabor there is also a character you know very well – the man who in 1991 broke into the editorial office of Glas Slavonije, where you were then editor-in-chief. After many years of vicissitudes, Branimir Glavaš' trial for war crimes – that you extensively covered both as a journalist and as a essayist – resumes from scratch. In the meantime, he remains an MP. How do you comment on this situation?
Glavaš became an MP, so there are people who support him, who gave him their vote, bringing him into Parliament. The point here is that, in a parliamentary majority so unstable that Andrej Plenković's government depends on the confidence vote of one or two MPs, Glavaš' mandate has a huge weight. Although the HDSSB (the Croatian Democratic Alliance of Slavonia and Baranja) is in a state of total disarray and at an all-time low – it seems to have fewer members than letters – it is more influential in the Sabor today than in its golden moments, when it had seven MPs. Today, it has one – Glavaš, but he happens to be the one that Plenković needs. To what extent, it is demonstrated by the fact that Josip Salapić – one of those seven HDSSB MPs of the golden times who turned up in Parliament wearing a badge reading "Hero, not a criminal" – was appointed secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, right now, on the eve of the reopening of Glavaš' trial for the war crimes committed in Osijek. Hence the HDSSB, of which Glavaš is president ad interim, is in coalition with the HDZ and represents the foundation of Plenkovic's pyramid of power. This says much more about the top of the pyramid than it does about the basis.
Glavaš is one of the protagonists of the great reconciliation between former opponents in the Croatian political scene that Vladimir Šeks has encouraged for a few weeks. The latter is also a character in whose political career you have been interested for years. How do you see his current role in the HDZ?
Šeks is a great player, I do not think he has equals in Croatian politics. Since the Nineties, he has been involved in all major events in this country. Even with highs and lows, he has always been at the centre of the political scene. His recent attempt to reconcile with everyone is interesting. Some have accepted his olive branch. We have recently seen him with Glavaš, smiling and hugging, in a photograph published on the latter's Facebook profile .
It is noble to forgive and ask for forgiveness. Sometimes, neither is easy. However, one wonders if Šeks will succeed in reconciling with everyone. Maybe with Josip Manolić [member of the Yugoslav intelligence agency UDBA, former politician, and head of the Croatian National Security Service UZUP during the war, ed.] and Stjepan Mesić [last president of SFRJ, then prime minister and president of Croatia, he testified at the Hague tribunal, exposing the country's responsibilities in the war in Bosnia, ed.] – he did mention both; but it remains to be seen how things will go with the surviving members of the Zec family [a Serbian family, three members of which were brutally killed in their Zagreb home in 1991, when Šeks was state prosecutor, ed.] and Jadranka Reihl-Kir [widow of the Osijek Police Chief, also killed in 1991, ed.], to name just a few...
Slavonia has always attracted your interest, both as a journalist and as a writer. Having written a lot about its present and past, how do you see its future?
I write about what I know best, so all of my novels – both those already written and those I intend to write – are set in Osijek and Slavonia. I was born in Osijek and spent only four years outside the borders of Slavonia: one in the United States; another in Skopje – where I did the military service, the worst year of my life; then one in London; and one in Rijeka. So I think I know Slavonia and my hometown. I fear that the future of Slavonia is by no means bright. Villages are depopulating, and the situation is not much better in cities. In a way, my Osijek has shrunk, like a cheap shirt after the first wash. It is deteriorating, along with all of Slavonia.
You write your novels almost at the same speed as your journalistic pieces. How are things on the literary front?
Unfortunately, at this time, as many as five novels are waiting to be finished. I am working on a manuscript titled Vrijeme seksa u doba nevinosti (The Time of Sex in the Age of Innocence), conceived as a follow up to my first novel Donjodravska obala (On the Banks of the Lower Drava). I had a bad experience with this second novel. A cryptovirus blocked all of my computer files, including the almost finished manuscript of Vrijeme seksa. I started writing everything again, but it is a tough job, believe me, a tremendous effort. Anyway, I hope I can finish it. It will be a sui generis trilogy, because after finishing the second novel I am going to write another one, that will go through the period when the boy from the first novel, Dado Kenig, investigates the story of his family and the environment he grew up in, discovering facts that will upset him deeply.
I also have to finish the third chapter of a thriller trilogy titled Kijevska piletina (Chicken Kiev). The first novel in this trilogy, titled Izborna šutnja (Election Silence), will soon be released in Italian by the famous Venice publishing house Marsilio. I also signed a contract with the Drugi Plan production house – which released, among others, an excellent series titled Novine – for a TV series from this trilogy, which should start already next year. As soon as I finish this mystery, I will take up the challenge of a black comedy, of which I have already written some chapters, and I am pretty impatient to start. The working title is Pomrčina u Sunčanom domu (Dark in the House of the Sun). Then, I plan a novel that will be deeply intimate and rather painful, because it will be about my own life.
I want to finish all this, and time does not abound. I think that, step by step, I will abandon journalism to devote myself to my books. If I can write all that I have planned, I will leave behind me as many as eight novels. Enough for a lifetime.
Media and politics in Croatia
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