A delegation of six press freedom organisations concluded a three-day mission to Croatia by calling on the country’s political leaders to guarantee the independence of the public broadcaster HRT as well as of the national electronic media regulator.
Members of the delegation said the next Croatian government should act swiftly to reform the current law governing HRT, which does not provide sufficient safeguards against undue political influence over the broadcaster’s operations and output. Delegates specifically highlighted as problematic the process for nominating HRT’s director-general via a parliamentary vote. Public service broadcasting should not be controlled by party politics.
Professional standards and a balanced approach to news and content at HRT will be tested in the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for September. The delegation underscored the need to ensure respect for European standards on the editorial independence of public broadcasters during this period.
In a meeting with the delegation on June 21, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović indicated she supported efforts to protect HRT’s independence. The broadcaster, long a model of professionalism in South-East Europe, has recently come under scrutiny after new leadership appointed by Croatia’s outgoing governing coalition reassigned some 70 journalists and editors in key positions, according to station employees and journalist groups. While staff restructuring had also occurred with previous government changes – a pattern the delegation said should stop – the speed and breadth of the changes suggests a political motivation at odds with the mission of a public-service broadcaster.
In addition to the audience with Grabar-Kitarović, the delegation met with Acting Culture Minister Zlatko Hasanbegović, who insisted that there were “no limitations” on media freedom in Croatia, despite increasing international concern.
Led by the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), the delegation met numerous representatives of government, media, journalists’ associations and civil society to ascertain the situation of media freedom in the newest EU member state amid an atmosphere of political polarisation and what some view as a rise in nationalist sentiment. Croatia is currently governed by a caretaker cabinet after a troubled five-month old coalition between the right-leaning HDZ and the centrist Most party collapsed earlier this month.
The mission met directly with HRT representatives as well as RTL Televizija, one of the country’s two main private broadcasters; journalists or editors from various media outlets including Index.hr, Jutarnji list, Nacional, Novi list, Direktno.hr, H-Alter.org and the HINA national news agency; and with the Croatian Journalists’ Association (HND), the Trade Union of Croatian Journalists (TUCJ) and a recently formed splinter group, the Association of Croatian Journalists and Publicists (HniP).
Following a meeting with Mirjana Rakić, president of the Croatian Electronic Media Council (EMC), delegates also expressed deep concern over the Croatian government’s failure to publicly stand behind Rakić after she and the EMC were the target of a protest earlier this year in which participants – including the deputy speaker of Parliament – hurled hate-filled slogans and symbols alluding to Rakić’s Serbian ethnicity. The protest was a response to an EMC decision taking a broadcaster off-air for three days for violating hate-speech rules. Rakić later resigned, although Parliament has not acted to accept her resignation.
Mission participants also expressed dissatisfaction with the failure of Croatian authorities to fully investigate physical attacks on prominent journalists and hold the perpetrators accountable. These include the 2008 beating of Jutarnji list journalist Dušan Miljuš and a vicious 2015 assault on award-winning reporter Željko Peratović.
“It is unacceptable for violent acts against journalists to be met with impunity in an EU member state,” SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic said. “We are disturbed by the lack of progress in these and other cases and call on the authorities to send a signal that violence against the media will not be tolerated.”
The delegation plans to publish a full report on the mission and on key challenges facing freedom of expression and media freedom in Croatia around the end of July. New elections in the country are scheduled to be held in early September.
In addition to SEEMO, the delegation also includes representatives of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), the International Press Institute (IPI) and Reporters Without Borders Austria (RSF).