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Croatia: Media Shed State Shackles

  • Alexandra Poolos

Croatian media are poised for a new beginning in the wake of parliamentary and presidential elections last month. Correspondent Alexandra Poolos looks at the changes that must take place for a controlled media to become free.

Prague, 3 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Now that the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which ruled Croatia for the last decade, has surrendered power after a reduced showing in last month's parliamentary elections, Croatian journalists say that a new freedom of the press is around the corner.

The biggest change slated for Croatian media is the release of the state broadcaster, Croatian Radio and Television (HRT) from government control. The incoming government has promised to quickly change the laws that have harnessed the station as a government mouthpiece for years.

Peter Palmer is a media monitor with the Zagreb office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE. Palmer says that since the January parliamentary elections, the Croatian Radio and Television's reporting has already become much more balanced and fair.

"Of key importance is the law on the state broadcaster Croatian Radio Television. The government has said that they intend to change the law in order to ensure in the future that the broadcaster will be a true public service broadcaster, and will not serve the interests of the government and the ruling party, as it has done in the past. In other words, to protect, to ensure that the sate broadcaster is protected from political interference and direction. They've also given assurances that no longer will senior appointments in the state broadcaster be based on political criteria, which has been the case in the past."

Croatian Radio and Television is by far the most influential outlet of Croatian media. Close to 2 million people tune into its broadcasting every day. In comparison, the newspapers with the highest circulations reach only 200,000 people.

In the past, the station was under strict government control. The director and the editor-in-chief of its various programs were always members of the ruling Croatian Democratic Union. Palmer says editors were under heavy pressure to fulfill the expectations of their political masters.

Palmer says that many Croatian journalists are hoping that the elimination of party members from editorial positions will vastly improve the editorial process in the state broadcast.

"In a normal situation of a state broadcast, what one would expect is a situation in which journalists and editors have an 'us and them' attitude, in which we are 'us' and the politicians are 'them.' And we try to do the best job we can to report properly, fairly, and in a balanced manner. Unfortunately, what's happened here is, it's been the journalists who are 'us,' and the editors are 'them.' The [editors] are [allied] with the politicians. And this has been very frustrating and aggravating for a great many journalists. And I hope that now that situation will come to an end."

Another policy change promised by the incoming coalition parliament is to revise the censorship laws.

In the past, censorship of the press was achieved through defamation lawsuits. Officials lodged thousands of defamation cases against newspapers, forcing the smaller papers to spend their limited funds defending themselves in court. The defamation cases were based on a very stringent criminal code, which includes excessive restrictions on freedom of expression.

Davor Butkovic is the deputy editor of the daily "Jutarnji List," one of Croatia's first independent newspapers. Butkovic says that the strict state control had a psychological effect on reporters, stunting their ambition blunting their reporting instincts.

"So it's not a problem that they feel free or not. The problem is that they don't know what to do if they will have freedom. We have a real strong professional problem with national TV."

Palmer of the OSCE says that raising journalistic standards will not happen overnight:

"The changes in the media in all the countries of transition are never easy. Again, I'm putting a lot of emphasis on the state broadcaster because it is overwhelmingly the most important source of news and information for most of the population. It's really not easy. It involves a very substantial change in work and culture. It's not easy, and I'm not sure if any transition country has really fully succeeded in making that transition yet. It does take time. It will take a lot of training. It will take a lot of effort." One area that the new government will also have to address if the press is to become fully free is newspaper distribution. Currently, one company, Tisak, holds most of the distribution rights for print media in Croatia. Due to difficulties in privatization in the early 1990s, Tisak has become almost insolvent, and often does not pay independent publishers.

Palmer says that in the short term, the new government will have to try to revive Tisak. In the long term, the press distribution market will have to be opened up to insure the livelihood of newspapers and magazines.