Media integrity in Croatia: Interplay of political and economic power left only few critical voices

Media integrity in Croatia: Interplay of political and economic power left only few critical voices
In contemporary Croatia economic power is much more threatening to free and independent media than political power which was viewed as the main threat in the 1990s.

All trends identified in this research urges for the invention of a quite different media system in Croatia.

In contemporary Croatia economic power is much more threatening to free and independent media than political power which was viewed as the main threat in the 1990s. Perhaps this is a simplified division, since interconnections between power structures in the Croatian society are quite complex. However, it is clear that in a neoliberal market economy, new threats in form of advertisers, marketing agencies, public relations agencies, as well as banks that are creditors of media outlets, are growing, Influence and pressures emanate from actors that have no direct, palpable connection to media organizations and are located outside of the conventional proprietor-editor-journalist scheme. At the same time, the society’s expectations of social responsibility of these actors are low, and they remain in the interim area between the public and the private. The question is how to resolve this structural problem – one that goes way beyond the borders of Croatia.

In the field of media policy, what is connected (but not limited) to Croatia is the formally well-defined media legislation –  formed as a part of the EU accession process – that lacks implementation on all levels, and a domination of interconnected economic and petty political interest that are not serving the public interest at all. In the case of media policies, only a few civil society actors counteract the aforementioned sources of power, and demand better regulation and implementation in the media landscape.

Economics scarcity produces further difficulties for media operation. Advertising revenues and state budgets are reduced and the imperative of media is to lower the production costs, which has a negative impact on content. International donors that played an important role in the media landscape in Croatia in the 1990s, now have a marginal role in the media sector financing. This left the critically oriented media to adjust to the new rules of market competition that they could not possibly cope with. Today, only few critical voices and public interest advocates mainly come from small media organizations that are to a large extent financed through the state budget via various programs.

In terms of media ownership, the power is concentrated in the hands of a few commercial actors who have penetrated so many social fields that they take key positions in the social networks. This makes the whole system dependent on them, and thus makes them untouchable.

An institution that counterbalances the power of large commercial players – the public service broadcaster Croatian Radio-television (HRT) – is currently facing a major crisis affecting its organizational structure, finances and programming. With the change of government at the end of 2011, new amendments were added to the Croatian Radio-television Act and a new management appointed, which was expected to initiate a process of serious restructuring of the institution in order to resolve accumulated problems. However, the expectations of a positive change were not met. Instead, old problems are still unresolved, and the few new changes that were initiated seem to bring about more confusion than resolution. Also, in order to cope with the competition, HRT has – to a certain extent and despite its public service role – resorted to mechanisms similar to those used by commercial televisions (in terms of format change, trivialization of content, sensationalism etc.). Nevertheless, HRT is an institution with a long tradition of quality production, and specific content that is not available elsewhere can be found there. It also has a stable financial source (compared to other type of media) due to efficient system of license fee collection, and should make better use of it.

The status of journalist profession has eroded significantly. The explanation for this can be found in changes in the social structure and various trends affecting the field of media productions. While the position of journalists varies depending on media platform and position in the hierarchical structure, in general, being an average journalist in contemporary Croatia implies a precarious working a position with a low level of autonomy and engagement in production processes often reduced to technical skills. However, it also needs to be emphasized that journalists themselves often uncritically engage in social practices that further perpetuate their unfavorable status.

While the main values of a pluralist market economy are competition, diversity and individual choice, the question is whether the greater number of media outlets increases diversity of content and whether the available choices are viewed as relevant and recognized by the audiences. The current trend in Croatia indicates the opposite – a uniformity of content due to commercial interests, which mainly includes sensationalist reporting, crime stories, celebrity coverage, and advertising. It is quite clear those media outlets that provide quality content and fulfil their public role  have the privilege not to depend on advertisers and the market. Therefore the structural position of the media will to a certain extent determine what type of content they provide. The public role of media cannot be fulfilled if the media content is treated as a commodity and journalists as producers of commodities ready for an exchange on the market.

All these trends identified in our media integrity research in Croatia urges us to think of a model in which news media would be clearly separated from other types of organizations on the market, and treated as institutions of public good rather than a commodity. Thus, more profound changes, not only in the media landscape but wider structural changes, are needed in order to cope with the problems that concern contemporary societies, including Croatia. It urges for the invention of a quite different system.

The complete study on media integrity in Croatia can be found on the link here.

Media Integrity