The issue of media freedom in Croatia has earned the EU’s newest member the dubious honour of being visited twice in as many years by a team of press freedom organisation representatives. Upon return, they said the situation has improved but serious concerns remain.
The country has fallen ten places in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index since joining the bloc in 2013 and it now ranks 74th on the list.
This has prompted concerns that media freedom is in a perilous state in former Yugoslav republic and activists now hope that steps can be taken so that a free and independent press can be guaranteed.
A delegation including RSF, the Association of European Journalists and the South East Europe Media Organisation returned to Zagreb on 16 January to discuss the current situation and assess how the current government, led by the conservative HDZ party (EPP) is taking steps to get Croatia back on track.
RSF’s Pauline Ades-Mevel highlighted Croatia’s fall from grace after its accession and warned that Prime Minister Andrej Plenković’s government should take steps so that “Croatia does not follow the example of Bulgaria”. The current holder of the EU presidency ranks the lowest of the 28 member states in the index.
Between the two visits, the delegation experts explained that biased reporting and internal governance of state-owned broadcaster HRT had not improved. The picture was made even more unclear when members of its management cancelled a meeting with the delegation at the last moment due to illness.
The European Broadcasting Union’s Boris Bergant warned that HRT’s willingness to cave to political pressure and the influence of other interest groups showed that there is a “fundamental misunderstanding of the role and function of the public service media”.
Under the preceding short-lived administration of Tihomir Orešković, rules were put in place to ensure the Croatian parliament essentially elects the general-director of the broadcaster.
Otmar Lahodynsky, president of the Association of European Journalists and editor of Austrian magazine “profil” told EURACTIV:
“I was astonished to learn from the president of the republic that there is a news webpage with sensational reports organised by some former or active secret service agents – not a condition for fair, unbiased reporting in my view.”
“And I find the situation in HRT alarming. Political influence is strong. They recently cancelled the popular comedy series “Ministry of Love” after protests from the war veteran association. It was screened later, very late at night, without further notice.”
Worrying reports about secret service agents turning up unannounced at the offices of private news channel N1 have also emerged. Intelligence officers reportedly arrived late in the evening last November and demanded to know, among other details, the names of journalists’ sources.
The visit was allegedly prompted by the channel’s coverage of the Agrokor scandal — the collapse of the country’s biggest private company, weighed down by debt — but both the culture and labour ministers denied any knowledge of the event.
Head of Croatia’s association of journalists Saša Leković told Osservatorio balcani e caucaso why the delegation returned for a second time: “if we do nothing, it makes no sense to do this job… My task is to point the finger at irregularities and problems, in the same way that the task of politicians is to create a legal framework that allows journalists and the media to work professionally and without pressure.”
But the findings of the mission did acknowledge that the situation has improved, admitting that the new Plenković government has at least confirmed that media freedom is on its agenda. Culture minister Nina Obuljen Koržinek revealed that a new media law is being drafted but that it won’t be ready to roll out until 2019 at the earliest.
The delegation also praised the work of the Croatian police, which has started to take complaints made by journalists more seriously. Arrests have been made following physical attacks on members of the press but altercations and threats are still “a big problem”.
Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who met with the delegation as well, admitted that hate speech is a big problem, adding that there should be legislation to deal with it. She warned that instances of it have returned to levels not seen since the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
“We were quite astonished to find that the Agency for Electronic Media considered all 30 of the hate speech complaints in 2017 as not being hate speech. In 2016, there was one single case that was recognised as such. Croatia desperately needs to deal with the problem of hate speech”, said Sophie Albers Ben Chamo of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom.
The delegation is due to issue its full report by the end of next month.