Hrvoje Zovko, the president of the Croatian Journalists Association (HND) - photo G. Vale

Hrvoje Zovko, the president of the Croatian Journalists Association (HND) - photo G. Vale

"A state attack on journalism". Hrvoje Zovko, the president of the Association of Croatian Journalists  (HND), does not mince words when commenting the new press law proposal that the Ministry of Culture and Media shared with the HND in early July. The novelties that concern Croatian reporters include the proposal to introduce a register of journalists, the obligation for colleagues to disclose their sources, or the possibility for publishers to refuse the publication of an article without giving explanations. "It is an unacceptable provocation", comments Zovko, aware that the stakes are very high: in Croatia, the current law regulating the functioning of the press dates back to the early 2000s. “The new legislation will decide the fate of Croatian journalism over the next twenty years”, the president says.

Hrvoje Zovko, the ministry's working document took Croatian journalists by surprise. Can you explain where it comes from and in what context it fits?

The Association of Croatian Journalists is part of the working group which, within the Ministry of Culture and Media, is discussing the new law. At the end of 2021, at the request of the ministry, we sent our proposals, but since then we have not received any more news. The working group was no longer convened. Now, after some concerning statements by the Croatian Prime Minister, who at the beginning of the year promised to put an end to "information leaks", we are suddenly handed a regrettable text. We received it on July 5 with a request to send our comments within two weeks. We have already written an open letter to Minister Nina Obuljen Koržinek and we have launched a campaign  that will unite all Croatian journalists and media. This text will not pass.

What worries you most in the text proposed by the ministry?

It is dangerous in its intentions. It does not recognise journalism as a public service, promotes censorship, does not name the HND as a journalism institution, and seeks to divide the media world, pitting one against the other. If it were to pass, it would be the end of journalism in Croatia, we would be moving towards an organisation of the media space.

One of the innovations that caused the most discussion is the introduction of a register of journalists and photo-journalists…

The creation of a five-person Media Council is proposed: one representative of a journalism faculty, one representative of a law faculty, two representatives of publishers, and one on behalf of journalists' organisations. That council - already unbalanced in its composition - should approve the registration of colleagues in the new register. Take, for example, Drago Hedl, a Croatian journalism institution. Drago applies to join and the Council does not approve. On what basis? And what happens once a journalist is refused registration? Do you have to change jobs? And that's not all. The Council also decides on public funding for the media. But how can two publisher reps decide how to split the money? There is a conflict of interest as big as a house.

In your open letter to the Minister of Culture, Nina Obuljen Koržinek, you accuse the government bill of "promoting censorship". What are you referring to?

In the text, publishers are given the possibility to refuse the publication of an article without the obligation to provide explanations. It's unacceptable. This would stifle critical journalism, same for the obligation for journalists to disclose their sources - a measure also contained in the current legislation, but which should be removed. We need to move towards greater source protection, not the other way around.

We come to the issue of public funding for the press. This is where you think the government is trying to divide the world of Croatian journalism.

Yes. There is great confusion here. For example, it is proposed to provide students with subsidised subscriptions to newspapers. A commendable initiative, but it should be noted that only those papers can be selected which, in addition to the digital version, also have a paper edition. It is clear that it is wrong. Everyone must be able to receive the same funding. On this subject it will be necessary to intervene in detail, to establish clear criteria. This is why I think it will take six months or a year to arrive at a good law.

Are there also positive elements in the text?

Yes, there is potential. The law currently in force was written twenty years ago, especially with the printed press in mind. Now there are new challenges and the text mentions some of them, proposing for example to tax Facebook and Google, as has already been done in other countries, and to redistribute those funds to newspapers. Even here, however, the projections for the collection are missing, there is no explanation on how and why that money is being divided… in short, there is a lot of work to do.

Furthermore, I would say that the government has the wrong approach. Instead of proposing a general strategy on the media that establishes what the objectives and challenges are, it proceeds with ad hoc laws: for example, the law on electronic media was passed first and this is now being proposed. It creates confusion and lacks vision.

What are your next actions?

I don't know who wrote this text, but I suspect that the main intention was to divide the Croatian media, creating havoc in the sector. The usual divide and conquer. However, this strategy did not work. None of the journalists and publications I have spoken to are satisfied with this text and it is important that the Croatian media front remains united. As far as we are concerned, the work must be redone from the beginning, because this law is fundamental for the next twenty years. So we remain in the working group and will speak these days with the minister who has asked to meet us, but we are not backing down an inch and in the meantime we are looking for support outside of Croatia. The government can also force this law in parliament, but without the involvement of the Croatian Journalists Association, without the consent of the profession, the new legislation will have very little value.

Tags: Croatia Media freedom Media pluralism Rule of Law

This content is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response  (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.