Appointments Threaten Editorial Independence at Public Service Broadcaster.


A provision in the Public Television Act allowing the government to appoint and dismiss the general manager of public service media (HRT), a position which by the same act is given extensive managerial and programmatic powers, has raised once again questions about HRT’s independence. Recent changes in key editorial positions at HRT news programmes (Denis Latin, Katja Kušec and Ružica Renić) have been perceived by the general public as a result and a direct consequence of political will (in this case that of the Prime Minister) which bypassed the regular procedure. These are cases that could both seriously damage the public image of the PSB and effectively threaten its editorial independence.

“I am concerned by the circumstances under which these journalists have been relieved of their positions within HRT. This action can undermine freedom of the media in the country, of which the public service broadcaster should be a cornerstone”, said Ms. Dunja Mijatović, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

The new HRT Act (adopted only 18 months after the previous Act had been passed almost by consensus in the previous parliament) has indeed given more power to the parliamentary majority in appointing key HRT management, governing and regulatory positions. Although the general public is aware of the need for strategic restructuring of the public service broadcaster in Croatia, the possibility to reach consensus on the election of key managerial, programmatic and regulatory/self-regulation positions and the chance to give a stronger and more 'independent' mandate to the PSB general manager were undermined by the will of the government. The ruling coalition had rejected the proposal to elect the HRT general manager by a two-thirds majority of votes rather than by simple majority.

Although there are no ‘universally’ accepted models of appointing management, programmatic and self-regulatory positions at the PSB, the most commonly used (and by the same virtue – the most recommended) way of appointing PSB governing bodies is exactly a two-thirds majority of votes with a more prominent role of civil society organizations and actors. The recent changes have been seen by many as a step backwards in normative and pragmatic terms. For some this was an indication that a government-friendly approach would substitute for a broad representation of the political and social spectrum in managerial and governing bodies at public service media.

Under the contract between the government of Croatia and HRT (signed for the period of 1 January 2013 - 31 December 2017), public service media in Croatia are to be financed from licence fees (more precisely: from tax on TV set which is allocated in a way that 97% goes to HRT while 3% goes to the Fund for Pluralisation of Media) and HRT's own commercial revenues. The monthly licence fee/tax may not exceed 1.5 percent of the average net salary in Croatia. That currently represents approximately 10.5 EUR/month (80 HRK) per household. The amount of the fee is decided by the HRT Supervisory Board with the prior consent of the Electronic Media Council. On an annual basis the public source (fee/tax) contributes to HRT's overall budget with almost 85%, or some 160m EUR. The annual advertising revenue has been in a decline since 2008 and currently contributes to HRT's budget with up to 20m EUR per year.    

The amount of some 1.8m EUR (13m HRK) is annually allocated to HRT from the state budget for programmes for Croats living outside Croatia. Since this amount is assigned for a strictly defined purpose and represents only a very small percentage of HRT's overall budget, it should not be treated as a potential source of any political influence. Still, HRT's large outstanding tax debt (about 25m EUR) is an open issue that allows a certain degree of undue political pressure on the PSB and its editorial staff.  

Considering by far the highest fee collection rate (96%) among all public broadcasting services in the region, as well as taking into account HRT's position on the advertising market, the public service broadcaster in Croatia should have a stable and firm financial position not allowing any political influence. Still, HRT is in a financial turmoil and gross debts to the state budget (taxes) which makes it vulnerable to political pressure. This situation, however, is not a result of any intrinsic element (be it regulatory and/or self-regulatory), but rather the consequence of utterly inefficient and non-transparent business management. As an example, HRT has some 3400 full-time employees (in addition to some 3700 part-timers and contributors), although all relevant analyses have shown that 3000 in total should be an adequate number of employees/contributors given HRT's current programming output.

Under the contract, HRT has an obligation to produce and broadcast programmes on four TV channels and three national and eight regional radio networks. Regardless of its elaborated structure and secured sources of income, HRT's audience share has been in a decline since 2005 both in aggregate figures and in specific audience groups. HRT's flagship programme (central TV news), which has been undisputedly the most relevant and watched show for years, is now only third in terms of the national audience share (Nova TV 19.3%; RTL 12.1%; HRT 10.9%). This is even more striking if one compares respective budgets for news production on these three national TV stations, with HRT far beyond any competitor. Although HRT has managed to stop further decline in audience rates, no one is expecting their sudden increase. All too frequent changes in HRT's editorial sector, as well as a number of recent scandals that foster the public perception of the public service as politically influenced (if not controlled) and manipulated by its own management (primarily in terms of bypassing regular and transparent procedures), have contributed to further decline in public trust in the Croatian PSB.   

There are strong indicators of HRT's practice of selling advertising time below the standard market rates, seriously distorting the advertising market. By using discount and even dumping policy, HRT is seriously affecting not only its main national competitors (Nova TV, RTL), but local television stations as well. It is to be noted that this practice is largely about taking direct advantage of the market thanks to an influx of public money. Such a practice directly undermines and threatens the market position of commercial broadcasters, especially local TV stations most exposed to market conditions. Therefore, this practice should be addressed both in general terms as detrimental to media pluralism and from the point of view of market competition standards. Since HRT enjoys a relatively generous legal framework in terms of commercials, this issue is likely to be raised by the Association of Commercial TV Stations in Croatia at the first given opportunity. It is to be expected that this appeal will be supported by the strong and influential Association of Publishers, since they see HRT’s advertising rates as distortional and detrimental to the print advertising market as well.  

Standards of transparency are yet to be reached in terms of purchasing programming and outsourcing the production of programs. Although complying with EU standards in terms of market competition means that public money (fee/tax) should be used only for the public interest, it is not easy to strictly divide 'public' from 'commercial' interest. (Is buying a package of award-winning movies, for example, 'commercial' or 'public' interest?) As a consequence, HRT is still in a position to use public money for financing its 'commercial' activities (purchasing, outsourcing or co-producing programs) at the expense of its competitors on the market. Provisions on production outsourcing and contracting independent program producers are also largely seen as non-transparent and open to different types of financial and procedural manipulations.

The public perception of PSB as an inefficient, corrupt and politically controlled (or at least vulnerable to subtle political pressure) institution has not only directly affected HRT’s ratings (which is also reflected in lower advertising income), but has also seriously damaged the needed support for strategic restructuring of public service media. Without far-reaching reforms, it is highly unlikely that HRT could be successful in achieving its primary goal: informing/educating/entertaining the general audience by promoting higher professional and production standards. 

Media Integrity
Public Service Media