Zagreb Pushes Through Media Reforms

The Croatian government wants the state broadcaster to be free of political influence.

Zagreb Pushes Through Media Reforms

The Croatian government wants the state broadcaster to be free of political influence.

Croatia's largest media house, Radio-Television Croatia, HRT, will this month begin a painful transformation, intended to free the state broadcaster of political control.

The station, which employs over three thousand people, is extremely influential. Latest opinion polls suggest it shapes the opinions of 80 per cent of the public.

Legislation facilitating HRT's transformation was forced through parliament in February, despite the opposition of the nationalist majority in the upper house.

The HDZ-dominated upper house refused to endorse the new laws, but under the country's constitution legislation passed by the lower house comes into effect two weeks after the latter ratifies it.

For ten years, the HDZ dictated the content and editorial policy of HRT. Since winning parliamentary elections a year ago, Croatia's six-party coalition government has fought a protracted battle to loosen its grip on the broadcaster.

On coming to power, the government appointed a new director, but staff recruited during the HDZ era stayed on.

The coalition government resisted the temptation to instigate sweeping staff changes, in order to distance itself from the Tudjman regime, which frequently undertook such purges.

But the hands-off policy has backfired on several occasions, with editors openly siding with the HDZ during political crises.

During the recent nationalist demonstrations in support of ex- Croatian army general, Mirko Norac - accused of war crimes against Croatian Serbs during the so-called "Homeland War" - HRT broadcast openly sympathetic coverage.

The government has found that living up to its pre-election promise to transform state television into an independent public broadcaster is not at all simple.

In mid-February, HRT banned a commercial for the Split-based weekly newspaper Feral Tribune, which had been a fierce critic of Tudjman's autocratic rule.

Although the appearance of a Feral ad on HRT would have been unthinkable when the HDZ was in power, last month's ban indicated the old-style censorship lingers on.

The commercial cocked a snook at Croatian nationalists. Only ten seconds long, it showed the destruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar by Bosnian Croat forces, after which the image goes black and the words "Think about it, remember..." appear.

The slogan harked back to a recent HDZ election poster, warning voters the "communists" - the democratic opposition - were coming back.

It used a notorious image from 1990, which became synonymous with the tensions leading up to break-up of the old Yugoslavia. In the photograph, federal police officers are seen beating a Dinamo Zagreb football fan with their batons, after a home match against Red Star Belgrade ended in a brawl. The poster's slogan was, "Think about it, remember..."

HRT claimed the Feral ad had been banned because the black image at the end confused viewers, who thought the programme had been interrupted.

The whole affair caused a scandal. HRT Director Mirko Galic personally apologised to Feral saying the ban had been issued without his prior knowledge. He ordered the commercial, which was already paid for, to appear on television as scheduled.

Under the new legislation, political influence over HRT will be greatly reduced and possibly severed. Parliament will no longer appoint its director. The post is to be opened to the public and a 15-strong council will make the final selection.

Previously, HRT's council was made up of politicians. Under the new system, high-profile public and cultural figures, including journalists and members of non-governmental organisations will staff the board.

In addition to key staff changes, HRT faces fundamental reorganisation. The huge monolith is to be broken up into smaller, separate companies. Its three radio stations are to be split. Two will remain in state hands, the other privatised. The transmitter and communications departments are to form a separate division.

But there are some who believe the new legislation on its own cannot solve the problems of political influence in public broadcasting.

Damir Matkovic, an editor at HRT and a member of Forum 21, a union of television journalists which openly protested against political interference during the Tudjman era, believes the absence of public scrutiny remains an enduring problem.

"The problem is that the Croatian public still has no influence because civil society still doesn't function here," Matkovic said. "Due to this lack of public accountability some politicians are able to edit programmes over the phone. They merely call the editor to let him know what they want and what they don't want to see on TV. HRT used to function this way during Tudjman's reign."

Dragutin Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor

Support our journalists