Flash report 3: Croatia

Flash report 3: Croatia
Another year of regression for journalism in Croatia
Endured economic crisis, which is swinging Croatia between recession and depression for six consecutive years, profoundly influenced journalist profession. On the other hand, as a new EU member country, Croatia is expected to follow the high standards of conduct in media industry in general. However, as the examples of Hungary and, to a certain degree Slovenia, have recently shown, the EU membership as such is not a guarantee for an irreversible process in promoting those “higher standards”, especially in journalism. Indeed, the first year within the European Union, was yet another year of regression for Croatian media, both in terms of decline of professional standards in journalism and overall downward trend of the financial and other quantitative indicators.
Economic crisis hits journalist profession hard
In the past five years, media industry has suffered net losses due to drop in circulation/audience ratings and shrinking advertising market. This set of circumstances has had a severe impact on wages and labour rights of employees in the media. Average salaries in 2013 are about 20% lower than the ones in 2008, for example. Unlike in some other professions (government institutions, health or education system, etc.) where salaries are somewhat lower than in media, but are paid regularly, journalists’ salaries are ever more often delayed for months.  Growing number of journalists work either without regular contracts, or on fixed-term employment contracts, which makes them more dependent on publishers, editors or owners. Thus they are less prone to investigate and go in-depth in exposing wrongdoings, especially when actors are politicians, influential advertisers or business lobbies. This situation creates what a journalist recently described as a “pyramid of fear”: journalists fear to lose their jobs; editors fear to lose their positions and most often act primarily as owners’ “transmitters”; finally, owners fear to lose advertising income. Only a steady increase of the revenue and a stabile improvement of the market position of media outlet could break this vicious circle. As the market trends clearly indicate, such a change is not feasible by the year 2020, if at all. Number of jobs in media industry is falling year after year, with no sign of recovery on the horizon. Quite the contrary, it is expected that additional 300-350 jobs will be lost in 2014.
Freelancers are in especially precarious condition, since they are at the very end of the list of publisher’s financial priorities. “It is virtually impossible to be a freelancer and to make enough for a living” recently commented Gabrijela Galić, journalist at Novi list (Rijeka) and a former trade union activist.
Government’s undemocratic communication habits
Current top politicians are clearly avoiding any public exposure to criticism, reducing communication to interviews in “friendly” media, while overusing Twitter and Facebook making illusion they are actually communicating with the public. This is, in fact, very close to the “soft” manipulation, which aims at moulding public opinion. “This Government is manipulating the public, and wants to reduce it down to the recipient of the information on the decisions made, rather than to accept the public as an active partner in the process”, said Jelena Berković, activist in the NGO Gong. The end result is a visible deficit in applying democratic standards of communication, which is well below the EU proclaimed values and principles.
Not clientelism, but conformism = self-censorship
It would not be accurate to say that journalists have adopted the role of clients to political and/or business patrons and lobbies, but a certain “conformism” exists, by all means.  Unsecured positions, job cuts under excuse of “resizing” and “restructuring” of the media companies and drop of all financial indicators create the perfect environment for more or less subtle forms of self-censorship. Indeed, it seems that just too many published or broadcasted reports have already gone through filters of self-censorship, balanced to fit the editorial policy or presumed (or openly expressed) expectation of media owners and lobbies behind them.
Journalists (and media) which disclose corruption or clientelism, are exposed to various forms of pressure.  Crimes and physical attacks against journalists have been in decline for the past five years, but journalists are more than before exposed to subtle types of pressure. Journalists are prone to pressures due to their dependence on media owners and the related lobbies, and virtually no protection of even the basic labour or social rights. Threats to the whistleblowers, which sometimes include immediate loss of job, additionally discourage in-depth and investigative reporting.  The prolonged economic crisis had a negative impact on public's sympathy for the problems of media professionals.
Diminishing professional solidarity
For years Croatia's journalists have been well known in the region for their elaborated code of ethics and other self-regulatory tools, and its efficient, influential and long-lasting Journalists' Association. However, the ongoing crisis has taken its toll it this segment as well. This is tangible primarily in terms of lack of solidarity, both regarding the violation of labour rights and protection of the professional standards. A rare example of journalist solidarity was the act of boycotting organisers of the national referendum on “constitutional definition of the marriage”. This was provoked by the organisation’s decision to deny the public TV crew access to their press conference because of previous “biased reporting”.
Investigative reporting with agenda or no investigation at all
There are still occurrences of good investigative reporting, but their number and relevance is in decline. The overall impression is that just too many of “investigative” stories have been tackled with a certain agenda behind, which does not necessarily follow a genuine public interest. Rising trend indicates that majority of the relevant investigative stories have been initiated by independent web portals. Although some of them (like www.index.hr) have high number of visitors, their effective reach is still largely limited.  In the mainstream media, the journalists generally have no time, no editorial support, no financial and other resources to do the investigation, but, unfortunately, also no desire and vigour to do the in-depth and investigative reporting.
Yet another potential threat to investigative journalism appeared recently, endangering also the profession as such. Namely, the criminal code introduced a new criminal offense – “vilification” - defined as “systematic and deliberate” defamation. An internationally renowned lawyer and media law expert Vesna Alaburić assessed this as “a clear regression” in relevant legislature. In addition financial fines in libel cases in Croatia are out of proportion (sometimes going up to 150 average salaries), which is yet another factor which pushes journalists into practicing self-censorship. 
Media Integrity