Croatia’s press freedom in danger

By Ana Pastor

On World Press Freedom Day in May 2016, Croatian journalists openly protested against their government’s interference in the news media. Since then, nothing has changed in Croatia. In fact, things could get worse.

Journalists protest in Zagreb, Croatia, demanding freedom for the press during Freedom of the Press Day, May 2016. Photo by Branko Radavanovic, through Wikimedia Commons

Journalists protest in Zagreb, Croatia, demanding freedom for the press during Freedom of the Press Day, May 2016. Photo by Branko Radavanovic, through Wikimedia Commons

The media situation started to deteriorate in January 2016, when a new coalition entered the government. The right-wing party Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) led this coalition, and it appointed Zlatko Hasanbegovic as culture minister, which made him responsible for media policy, too.

Hasanbegovic not only cut funding for non-profit media, but also started what it is seen as a political purge inside the public broadcaster HRT. Less than two months after the new government was formed, around 70 journalists, managers and technicians lost their jobs at HRT. In March, the majority in Parliament replaced the head of HRT, Goram Radman, with Sinisa Kovacic, who allegedly was in favor with the government. In April, Sasa Kosanovic was fired for filming a documentary about war crimes committed in 1995. HDZ argued that those changes were necessary because the public broadcaster remained a voice of the former government ruled by the Social Democratic Party, SDP.

“The government will bitterly oppose any allegations on restricting freedom of speech,” journalist Slavica Lukić said during a panel for IREX. “But it doesn’t take necessarily any proactive measures for that. It is enough to turn a blind eye [to] breaches of transparency of media ownership and tolerate draconian fines in libel cases to encourage the culture of self-censorship, with its devastating impact on media freedom.”

The governing coalition broke apart due to internal tensions, and new elections were held in September 2016. The HDZ won again, this time with more votes, and the public broadcaster was again accused of biased coverage. The South East Europe Media Organization published a report in June highlighting the government’s attempt to take control of the broadcaster for its own gain.

Fears that the country was regressing on media standards began more than a year ago. Tin Gazivoda, Open Society Foundation representative in Croatia, said in an interview in October 2015, just before the first parliamentary elections, that “there is no direct interference from the government on freedom of expression now; there is indirect control through companies and social networks. But with a change of government, I fear they will be more direct,” he added, referring to HDZ.

When two of the most prominent journalists in Croatia were sacked from Slobodna Dalmacija and Novi List, in June 2015, the Croatian Association of Journalists (CJA)  said that that was the beginning of an editorial cleansing for political purposes. Boris Dezulovic, columnist for Slobodna Dalmacija, lost his job, and Boris Pavelic, from Novi List, almost did, but readers’ criticism made the news outlet rethink its decision. Some argue that Dezulovic’s firing happened because the daily was changing editorial policies, from a left-wing position to a right-wing one, as the parliamentary elections were approaching and the right-wing party was predicted to win.

“Croatia has pretty good media but still they are being controlled by the party in the opposition,” Gordana Knezevic, Balkan Service Director at Radio Free Europe, said in an interview.

In Croatia, an opposition that is likely to regain power exerts more pressure and drives more turnarounds in editorial policies than the government itself.  “These are the very worrying signs,” Gazivoda said.

The situation reached the attention of top officials, and last April, ambassadors to Croatia from Austria, Germany, the US, the UK, Norway and the Netherlands met privately to discuss media freedom. In May, Nils Muiznieks, human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, was concerned about the treatment given by authorities to threatened journalists. According to the organization Index on Censorship, since 2013 threats and attacks on journalists have been less serious. However, the CJA and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have asked to end impunity for crimes againts media professionals because it leads to self-censorship, the primary threat to media freedom.

In August 2016, a report that aired concerns on media freedoms and political pressures was published. The report came after an international media freedom mission to Croatia led by the South East Europe Media Organisation and including representatives from other media organizations. Sasa Lekovic, president of the Croatian Journalists Association, expressed no surprise as the association had been warning about these issues for months.

How can this be happening in a European Union country, when the EU regards press freedom and freedom of expression as a pillar for democracy? Why is the EU silent?

Press freedom is a very controversial issue, according to an EU official who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely. On the one hand, it is seen as a national matter and, therefore, it collides with the national sovereignty sphere. Moreover, as happened in the case of Serbia, the EU has too many points of and it cannot pressure a state on all of them at once. Usually, press freedoms fall from the priorities.

On the other hand, the EU lacks mechanisms to force member states to comply with its standards. It doesn’t even have its own department for media legislation, as explained in the previous article about Serbia. As mentioned in that article, too, the biggest incentive that the EU has to make countries comply with its standards is the accession process, but, once they become members, the EU loses that tool.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a report in October 2015 stating that the major EU institutions – European Commission, European Council, European Parliament, Court of Justice – are poorly equipped to address violations of press freedom. Although there are diplomatic mechanisms such as the issuing of statements to warn about wrongdoing, at the end of the day “the fear to confront countries of importance to the EU prevails,” a European External Action Service officer told CPJ.

Croatia is the most recent country to join the European Union, and to do so it had to harmonize its media legislation with European standards. But Croatia adopted the acquis of the EU (the body of common rights and obligations that is binding on all EU member states) with the idea of gaining full membership, rather than because of the “intrinsic benefits” that the acquis could bring, Ulrich Sedelmeiner wrote in “Europeanisation in New Member and Candidate States.”

Going back in time, we can see that, after the break-up of Yugoslavia, the regimes failed to modernize the media. Because they needed public support, they didn’t hesitate to exploit the previous mechanisms of media manipulation for their own gains. After the Dayton accords in 1995, a sense that media should be reinvented arose. Franjo Tudjman, president of Croatia since the fall of Yugoslavia, remained in power until 1999.  He controlled most of the media, but never silenced the press completely. After him, pro-European parties won the elections and the new government pledged to protect media freedom. The ideas of the free-market gained momentum when the country attained EU candidate status in 2004. During the accession, the media privatization process that Tudjman had started was completed with all the lack of transparency of previous governments.

According to the Spanish organization Access Info, Croatia’s media ownership is transparent by law, but not in practice. To allow the public to know who is behind the new ownership structures, owners of media outlets must register, including shareholdings over 1 percent and those with indirect interests. But the information is not easily accessible and is usually very unclear. Media companies are obliged to give financial data to the Croatian Chamber of Economy (CCE), too, but these data are not available to the public. Media outlets have to publish the information on their websites, but there is no monitoring of these actions. Funds should be controlled because, as Ana Novakovic, journalist at BIRN, stated in an interview a year ago, if you want to know who controls the media, “always follow the money.”

Since most of the privatization happened before the current laws were passed, the amendments did not affect the process. The lack of monitoring and enforcement do affect the application of the laws. In 2010,  new amendments to the Croatian constitution recognized freedom of the press and the right to be informed. But soon afterward, other laws were passed that would interfere with these rights.

The brightest example of political control comes from the Croatian Radiotelevision law, adopted in 2010 and amended in 2012. The amendments allow the parliament to appoint the main personnel at the public state broadcaster, HRT. The parliament appoints its director general, the members of the Program Council, and the members of the Monitoring Committee.

The government also appoints members of the Council for Electronic Media, an independent public authority whose duty is to grant broadcast licenses. Although the appointments should be based on merit, according to the South East Media Observatory, the appointments usually are influenced by political affiliations.

In addition to external control issues, Croatia suffers from self-censorship due to its libel laws, which can be brutal. The EU does not require that all member states adopt the same libel laws. In Croatia, hate speech is punishable by up to five years in prison and is taken very seriously due to the country’s history. Defamation is not a criminal offence, but libel is. Insulting ‘the republic of Croatia, its flag, coat of arms or national anthem’ can lead to up to one year in prison. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, has expressed concern about pending charges against journalists because “it sends a chilling message which could restrict the free flow of information and hamper reporting on matters of public interest.”

Perhaps the most controversial of these offences is the one of vilification, which also is translated as “humiliation,” and does not exist in the EU legislation. In March 2014, the first journalist was sentenced under this offence. He was Slavica Lukic, from the newspaper Jutarnji list, and he was fined around 4,000 euros after writing an article saying that the private health company Medikol was facing economic problems even after receiving public funding. The court did not pay attention to the information and its validity or truth, because Medikol’s director said he felt humiliated. Even some government ministers requested that the offence of vilification be removed because they felt it is worse than some laws from the communist era.

In July 2013, Croatia joined the European Union, becoming the 28th member. A few days later, the Index on Censorship warned about remaining threats to freedom of expression. Tin Gazivoda of the Open Soceity Foundation said: “Although things were improving in the legal and political basis, the socio-political base didn’t change. So there is a potential of things getting worse, which is happening as we speak, and it is amplified by the recession now.

It is clear that EU membership does not guarantee media freedom, and, in fact, Croatia has mediocre scores in press freedom rankings. (chart)

2016 2015 2014 2013 2012
Freedom House

Freedom of the Press Index

Partly Free

42/100 score, being a higher number a worse score in press freedoms.

Partly Free

40/100 score

Partly Free

40/100 score

Partly Free

40/100 score

Partly Free

40/100 score

Reporters Without Borders, World Press Freedom Index 63 out of 180 countries, being 1 the country with most freedom and 180 with less. 58/180 65/180 64/180 64/180

The CJA  is the only institution in Croatia that oversees journalists’ ethical performance. A year ago, 47 percent of journalists felt that media freedom was in decline and 76 percent felt that ethical standards were not respected as much as they used to be, according to the Croatia Media Sustainability Index (MSI)  “The level of defamation and hate speech on the web is beyond any acceptable standard,” Sasa Lekovic, the current president of CJA, said to the International Research and Exchanges (IREX) nonprofit organization.

One reason for the decline in quality is that, since 2007, salaries have dropped drastically. In 2014, salaries were 25 percent lower than in 2008. The worsening conditions in the field plus the influence of advertising have had an impact on the quality of news and the lack of investigative reporting. There is more “infotainment”. Proof of this is that 86 percent of journalists see direct links between media owners and some business lobbies, and 90 percent admitted pressure to “fabricate” stories, according to the MSI.

Croatia needs a coherent media policy to prevent abuses and stop further erosion of the sector, and the EU needs to change its mindset regarding press freedoms. As the OSCE official explained, the EU sees the media with market eyes even though the news media has to be a service. Pluralism is a leading EU principle but European law does not differentiate between news organizations that provide a service, and other companies that are purely commercial. At the same time, there are no rules on the allocation of state advertising to the media, according to Reporters Without Borders. State aid is regulated on the basis of market oriented rules, to avoid distorting competition, and on this basis the law stipulates when the State can use its budget to support a company or not. The law does not make clear that news media must be independent from political power.

Transparency of ownership is not regulated by the EU. When it comes to regulatory bodies, the EU does not have a common law to ask member states to comply. Therefore, some member states have regulatory bodies while others do not, and some regulatory bodies are independent from government influence while others are not.

Although the EU has tried on the surface to protect freedom of expression and the media, the reality is that without proper legislation and a specific body inside the EU to monitor and deal with this issue, problems will continue.  It is necessary to conduct proper monitoring on the ground in order to see worrying signs before it is too late and to generate case studies before intervening in any country. The EU should require member states to create databases available to the public that clarify the ownership structures of all the media. When it comes to public service broadcast, revenues and financing of the media should be available, too. The EU also should regulate State advertisement to avoid government interference in the news media, and it should promote self-regulatory bodies and, very important, grant news outlets a specific status inside its competition law as they are not regular companies.

The EU works in a very mechanical way, and if it does not change this mentality, news media will keep facing pressures, especially economic ones. News media should be sustainable, not just profitable ventures that are purely market oriented. The news media serve a purpose in society that cannot be fulfilled by any other means, and we cannot allow ourselves to lose these watchdog powers.