Media Freedom in Croatia

Croatia became the newest member of the European Union in 2013 and in the course of the accession period harmonised its media legislation comprehensively with European standards. As such, EU membership per se cannot guarantee media freedom, however. Croatia continues to score mediocrely in press freedom rankings and the media industry has been suffering from the financial crisis.

In contrast to most Southeast European countries, media freedom watchdog organisation Reporters Without Borders (RWB) used to indicate a continuous increasing of media freedom in Croatia until 2015. However, in the latest RWB ranking Croatia deteriorated its position by eleven ranks. The country now ranks 74th out of 180 countries in terms of media freedom in the Freedom of the Press Index 2017. The IREX report 2017 notes that "by appointing a pronounced extreme right-winger to the helm of the Ministry of Culture, announcements materialized on radical changes for media policy" leading to removals of journalists at the Croatian public broadcaster HRT. According to the news website BalkanInsight, the public broadcaster acted like a political institution and removed the journalist because of political reasons. Freedom House, another NGO monitoring press freedom in the world, rates the country’s media situation as "partly free", sharing RWB’s concerns about the public broadcaster.

Throughout the accession negotiations with the EU, much of Croatia’s legislation was adapted, including the provisions concerning freedom of the press. The constitution now includes references to media freedom and the right of access to information. Just like in other countries in South East Europe, a robust legislative framework cannot guarantee media freedom alone. Both implementation and social acceptance of the laws matter a great deal as well.

Libel is a civil law issue in Croatia. Until early 2016, journalists such as investigative reporter Slavia Lukić were charged for "vilification", meaning they were criminalized for the publication of verified facts someone might find "offensive" or "harmful." As the latest 2017 IREX Media Sustainability report for Croatia states, this law has been amended in spring 2016, now excluding "the responsibility of the journalist if the subject is of public interest, even if the facts published would prove to be false, but taken with "good faith."

The regulations concerning access to information have also been amended and now reflect international standards. Problems relate to the implementation and understanding of Croatia’s Act on the Right of Access to Information, which is why "journalists find it difficult to request and obtain information from the government," so Freedom House. The IREX reports see the obstacles journalists face as part of a general move of the government to share less and less information with the public – and with journalists in particular.

The financial crisis in Croatia has left the media industry in the country particularly devastated. Many journalists lost their jobs in the six consecutive years of recession and the line between journalism, advertising and PR has been blurred, according to Freedom House. Sales and circulation have dropped, alongside advertising revenues. Not only quality has suffered from this development, it also poses a threat to media freedom, as more and more outlets have to avoid criticising the political or business interests their owners represent. Earning an average salary lower than the national average salary and being desperate to keep their jobs, Croatian journalists are often subject to self-censorship, as noted in the 2017 IREX report. Self-censorship may also be a reason for why the mainstream media is perceived to be more conservative, thus lacking a desired variety in the media landscape in order to keep the public debate open for example for minority issues.

Although the public television channel HRT is by large funded with subscription fees, which should allow for editorial independence from outside interests, recent amendments to the public television act have done away with this protection. The parliamentary majority can now directly appoint the most important decision makers. This has made the public broadcaster exposed and more vulnerable to political pressure. First indications of political pressure were experienced through replacements of several journalists in March 2016. According to the news website BalkanInsight, journalist which supposedly had a leftist political attitude were removed from HRT. Even before this step was taken the broadcaster had been accused of censoring or suspending its programmes without providing explanation, for its lack of transparency and low professional standards. Both the OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijativić, and the European Union progress reports have continuously criticised this – without much success. Recent attempts by the broadcaster to silence some of its journalists critical of either the government or the channel have fuelled the debate further.

Like elsewhere in the region crimes against journalists still occur – with relative impunity. This especially concerns journalists investigating into sensitive topics, such as war crimes, corruption or organised crime. All reports fortunately depict a decline of those instances. But media experts remain vary, pointing to the fact that more subtle forms of pressure and intimidation, especially in regard to labour rights, are becoming the norm.

Especially, "journalists investigating corruption, organized crime, or war crimes are often subjected to harassment campaigns", cited in the recent RWB report. The IREX 2017 report shares this view and points out, that attacks on journalist has become more frequent within the previous year.

What is blatantly obvious in the case of Croatia is the fact that EU membership and the harmonisation process that precedes it cannot alone guarantee media freedom. They must be accompanied by a government willing to apply democratic standards, loosen their grip on public media, responsible media owners and a society willing to value freedom of expression and the press.

Lina Rusch, KAS Media Program South East Europe

2016 adjusted by Rebecca Kittel, KAS Media Program South East Europe

2017 adjusted by Lena von Holt, KAS Media Program South East Europe