In the old Yugoslavia, the Croatians knew only what the communist government wanted them to know. Today, in 2013, we Croats do not believe that we have a free and impartial media in Croatia. The Croatian people are not being informed of what they need to know in order to make educated civic decisions. Over the last month, a Croatian reporter has been publicly sanctioned and suspended, while her program has been taken off the air solely for giving counterarguments to government policies. According to some measures, Croatia, a soon to be EU member, is on par with Third World countries such as Burkina Faso and Botswana in terms of media freedom.
“Freedom of the press, or, to be more precise, the benefit of freedom of the press, belongs to everyone – to the citizen as well as the publisher… The crux is not the publisher’s ‘freedom to print’; it is, rather, the citizen’s ‘right to know. ” Arthur Sulzberger, chairman of the board of The New York Times Company
Background to present situation
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Croatia has experienced a long line of manipulation and corruption of media integrity. “Red” journalists are supported even when they do wrong while “Blue” journalists are attacked when they do what they are supposed to do. In 2000 some 50 journalists and editors were fired from HTV when Ivica Račan came to power. In 2012, in preparation for new socialist oriented leadership at HTV, about 40 editors and journalists were demoted.
Both UNHCR and Freedom House have found that the media is only partly free in Croatia. In 2012, Freedom House ranked Croatia in 83rd place out of 197 countries. In 2011, Croatia ranked 83rd and in 2010 ranked 85th, with the status of a country with partly free media. Freedom of the media is not improving.
The present situation
The most recent manipulation and corruption of media independence and integrity, which has sparked outrage in the public, deals with Ms Karolina Vidović-Krišto, a well respected journalist with HRT/HTV. Ms Vidović-Krišto was the editor and host of a program, produced specifically for the Croatian Diaspora, called “Slika Hrvatske” (Portrait of Croatia). The program is quite popular and has received wide acclaim for the topics presented and quality of production.
Note: HRT, and the TV arm HTV, is the main national media entity in Croatia. You should be aware that HRT/HTV is a public and not private media organization. The funding for HTV programming comes directly from the people, who are mandated by law to pay a monthly fee for the operation of HTV. The people are forced to pay for media services but have no say in the nature and editorial content of the programming!
On December 29, 2012 Ms Vidović-Krišto hosted an episode that investigated the government’s new policies and strategies on sex education. The sex education issue has been a topic of widespread debate in Croatia, in the media and by the people online in various forums. The program was well researched, professionally produced and of significant interest to the citizens of Croatia. The program, as are most Croatians, was critical of the government policy and the foundations on which the program is based.
On December 30, 2012 the HRT/HTV publically sanctioned Ms Vidović-Krišto, suspended her from her duties and took the show Picture of Croatia off the air. HRT/HTV made the following statement: “HRT apologizes to viewers of the program Picture of Croatia (which is broadcast for expatriates) for yesterday’s broadcast by editor and host Karolina Vidović-Krišto. We point out that the opinions expressed in the show are not the opinions of HRT. Due to serious breaches of professional rules and abuse of position, HRT will take strong measures” – HRT said in a statement.
Zdenko Duka, president of the Croatian Journalists’ Association (HND), with alleged ties to the previous communist regime and alleged ties to the present “red” government, has done nothing to help Karolina (who is not a red). He has made comments along the lines of “you got what you deserve”. Mr Duka has stood behind a “red” journalist who was taken to court for defamation and in which she pleaded guilty. The CJA / HND is a member of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) but many of us do not believe that the CJA/HND lives up to the high international standards for journalism.
Ms Vidović-Krišto is receiving support from large segments of the population but the government is ignoring the people. The Croatian Diaspora, which is accustomed to a media system outside of government control, is particularly outraged. Numerous people from around the world wrote letters of support for Ms Vidović-Krišto and sent them to the HRT main office, but no one ever received a response.
A Facebook support page for Ms Vidović-Krišto has accumulated more than 25,000 supporters in less than a week – a huge accomplishment in Croatian social media. A survey in the largest Croatian newspaper, Vecernji List, shows the high level of support for the program with 84% of online respondents said “Finally, they said what is true”.
The importance of a free and independent media
The media in Croatia appears to be more of a government propaganda arm rather than a servant of the people and a check on the government. With important local elections occurring later this year and a presidential election next year, debate about government policy must be promoted. Manipulation and corruption of Croatian media independence and integrity, at the only public media entity in the country, destroys the fundamental rights of Croatian citizens to information and subsequently making informed decisions in civic life and elections.
This incident sets an extremely bad precedent because journalists across Croatia are now, more than ever, afraid of speaking against the government. There are numerous journalists, especially in the younger generation, that want to be impartial investigative journalists – but are afraid of voicing their concerns. In a country with unemployment at about 20% and near 40% for those under 25, keeping your job is a powerful motivator to “toe the party line”.
When journalists are afraid of the government, so too are the citizens. If democratic institutions in Croatia are to mature, and people feel empowered to be civically active and to fulfill their civic duties, the freedom and integrity of the media must be protected!
Change is not happening from the inside as indicated in the MSI Professional Journalism assessment for Croatia in the graphic below.
We hope that investigation and pressure from around the globe can help Croatia become a First World nation in media integrity and freedom.
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