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Croatia

Croatia

News media outlets and owners
Country report 2023

Gordana Vilović, Kristian Došen, Željana Ivanuš, Dunja Majstorović

Table of Contents

Introduction

The enlargement of the European Union poses particular problems and raises issues in terms of media concentration and the promotion of policies to protect media diversity. The CEE countries, which will form part of an enlarged EU comprise: Bulgaria, The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia (…) The regulatory bodies that have been established to oversee broadcast media are, in many CEE countries, appointed by political elites who want to ensure continuing control over areas of the media. This trend raises issues of democratic accountability and transparency in the appointment of people to oversee the work of these bodies, and the basis for the allocation of broadcasting licenses.” (European Federation of Journalists, Eastern Empires, 2003: 5)

Even though Croatia was not mentioned at the time of the European Federation of Journalists’ report, as it was not yet part of the EU, the county was, nevertheless, very desirable for media investors from Europe. In some issues, Croatia differs from the mentioned countries, but many facts and problems are in fact equal.

Twenty years after, we are still struggling with the same problems, as we were in 2003, some of them being: transparency of media ownership, concentration of media ownership, problems regarding fully functional public media service, independent media regulatory bodies, self-regulating bodies, influence on the media by political elites, pressures on journalists from owners or advertisers. Still, compared to 2003, three significant differences can be singled out: 1) traditional media are in decline, 2) digital media have taken the leading role, and 3) Croatia has been an EU member state for ten years.

Ever since Croatia joined the European Union in 2013, the intensity of the above-mentioned problems has certainly decreased: media legislation had to be harmonised with EU directives and the registers of media ownership have become more transparent, but there are still problems that require improvements. This review will discuss in brief findings of the Euromedia Ownership Monitor project as well as the assessment of risks related to media ownership, media distribution and legal media regulation in the country.

Outlets and owners

Who owns what?

Croatia is a small country by size as well as by the number of its inhabitants (according to the 2021 census, there are 3.899 million people living in Croatia). It is the youngest member of the European Union. According to research by the non-profit organisation Freedom House – it is categorised as a semi-consolidated democracy, and longitudinal data on media freedom from 2013 to 2023 show that Croatia has never been ranked better – it holds 42nd place, while in 2013 it was in the 64th place. This data leans towards optimism, although some other findings – the ones on media, journalism and ownership – warn of the still unresolved problems.

Regarding the print media, it is evident that there have been major changes and that the circulation of newspapers has been steadily in decline. The analysis of print media ownership included those newspapers and magazines that are opinion makers and are distributed nationally. Jutarnji list, one of the leading daily newspapers, is owned by the Hanžeković sisters, Ana and Dora. The latter also runs an agency that is registered for legal and other business. In addition to this daily newspaper, they own one regional (Slobodna Dalmacija) and a specialised sport daily newspaper (Sportske novosti). The online editions of these newspapers are also very popular with the readers. They own magazines that still dominate the small Croatian market. Hanza Media is the largest media company in Croatia. Another publishing company Večernji list, which publishes the daily newspaper Večernji list, is owned by Austrian Styria. In addition to this newspaper, Styria also owns the company 24sata, which publishes the cheapest and best-selling tabloid newspaper in Croatia – 24sata. Its online edition (24sata.hr) is one of the most highly visited news outlets.

Telegram.hr is an online news media outlet that practices quality journalism and is owned by Miran Pavić. According to the ownership register, there is a very simple ownership structure. As is the ownership structure of the popular political weekly magazine Nacional. The most watched television stations in Croatia with a state-level concession, RTL Hrvatska and Nova TV, are part of foreign capital and its ownership structure is significantly different and more complex.

The analysed most popular radio stations have simple ownership structures and are sometimes owned by completely private individuals. But the question is whether they are the real owners.

Based on publicly available data, no ownership of politicians or their family members has been observed. But this does not mean there is no political bias in the published or broadcasted news. This is especially true for the news program of the public service media regarding the ruling political party.

Main ownership patterns

The main forms of media ownership in Croatia are twofold: individual (and/or family ownership) and foreign ownership, which dominates the most watched commercial television stations with state-level concessions. Some of the foreign companies in Croatia are: Slovenia Broadband S.A.R.L.; CME Media Enterprises B.V.; Summer Parents S.A.R.L. However, the question of who the real owners are, remains open. Among the latter, we include the strong capital and property of Austrian Styria.

Availability of media ownership information

When Croatia became a member of the European Union, the data on media became far more accessible than in the previous decade. Namely, there are now several registers that contain data on the annual financial reports on the media and ownership structure in Croatia. All registers are accessible free of charge and every citizen can get hold of this data. The Council for Electronic Media, a regulatory body appointed by the Croatian Parliament, ensures that all registered online news media outlets have publicly accessible and complete information about the owners and editors. Despite this fact, still, there was an array of data that was not available for the purposes of this project. For example, we know that, formally, in newsrooms there are statutes of newsrooms that represent the basic self-regulatory act that prescribes the relationship within the newsroom, the relationship with the owners, and the election of the editor-in-chief, but they are not publicly available. During this research, it was not always easy to get hold of the information on the structure of the newsroom – about who is a journalist and who performs other tasks.

Information on state financed advertising (ministries, various state agencies) through the holding of different conferences and events is not visible anywhere. In the last few years, there has been a trend of publishing different reports from such conferences (in the fields of energetics, health, economy, tax policy, regional policies, public policies, etc.) every few days in both the print media (newspapers, magazines) and on the television. The problem is that there is no indication anywhere that it was funded by any government agency. Such announcements do not have an inquisitive tone the classic journalistic reporting should have but are rather flat in presentation of events and also include interviews with government officials. They could be categorised as a sort of PR report on the work of political/economic and other elites. Finally, we have no data on these types of state subsidies in the media.

Main risks to transparency

There are several risks regarding media ownership transparency, and this primarily refers to the relationship between the editorial staff, editor-in-chief and journalists on one side and the owners on the other side. By conducting regular analyses of the media content, we can only speculate why some topics become front page news as they do not necessarily have genuine news value or are in fact of interest to the public. Is it the influence/relations of the owners with the interest groups and could the journalists themselves do something to prevent it or at least limit it are the questions that remain unanswered.

Journalists should have more security regarding their status in the newsroom as any refusal to take on a task that they consider inappropriate could end in the cancellation of the employment contract. Collective agreements, which would serve as the main mechanism for the protection of journalists, still do not exist in most media, and the Croatian Journalists’ Association and the Union of Journalists announced in 2022 that they will start negotiations on a collective agreement for the media (www.hnd.hr).

The third, but no less important risk are the lawsuits against journalists. Currently there are more than 945 SLAPP lawsuits (unfounded or malicious lawsuits against public participation – “strategic lawsuits against public participation”) in Croatia (www.h-alter.org). These are usually lawsuits that act as pressure on journalists and are a form of intimidation. Lawsuits are filed by powerful local people, politicians and even judges who, offended by an article, demand high compensations, which, if deemed valid, can threaten the very existence of journalists. Currently, a series of workshops is being held with the judges and the deputy state attorneys in order to recognise SLAPP lawsuits and thus prevent unnecessary lawsuits against journalists. The workshops are held in smaller cities in Croatia under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Media and are attended by distinguished journalists who explain to court officials the essence of journalistic profession and their quest for the truth.

Distribution

Role of linear vs. Non-linear distribution

The decline in sales of print media, both daily and weekly newspapers, continues in Croatia. Online media (including social media) and television remain the dominant source of news. According to the latest data, the number of sold copies of daily newspapers in Croatia for 2022 was about 33 million (The Agency for the Protection of Market Competition, 2023), which would amount to approximately 90 thousand copies sold in the country on a daily basis, and all newspaper publishers have experienced a decline in sales. The largest market share is held by the tabloid newspaper 24sata (Styria Media Group) with a share ranging from 30% to 40%, followed by Večernji list published by the same group with a share of 20% to 30%, and Jutarnji list that has market share of 20% to 30% (The Agency for the Protection of Market Competition, 2023).

Regarding the radio outlets, there are only a few nationally available stations, in addition to the public broadcasting service. There is a significant number of concessionaires of local radio stations, a total of 115 of them in the country. Although experimental digital radio broadcasting (DAB+) started at the end of 2017, only one state-level concession and two regional ones have been awarded so far.

According to the Reuters Digital News Report for 2022, citizens in Croatia have the highest level of trust (which is generally overall low) in the two largest commercial TV stations that are foreign-owned (Nova TV and RTL). However, the main source of news for citizens are online media outlets, while television is gradually slipping to third place, with social media taking its spot. In non-linear news distribution in Croatia, Facebook holds the top position (57%), followed by YouTube (30%) and WhatsApp (20%) (Peruško, 2022).

Non-linear news distribution

“Social media has become one of the most important sources of news for many audiences” (Vozab and Peruško, 2021: 37) and as seen in the Reuters Digital News Report for 2022, Facebook is the most popular news source compared to other social media in Croatia, followed by YouTube. But “the audiences who follow the news via Facebook and YouTube point out that they mostly come across news while looking for something else on that social media” (Vozab and Peruško, 2021: 38). Even though Twitter’s audiences in Croatia are small in numbers, the ones that follow Twitter mostly point out that it is a good place to find the latest information (Vozab and Peruško, 2021: 38).

Main risks to transparency

The distribution of the press mainly takes place in a standard way, through kiosks in larger towns. As we are dealing with small editions of printed newspapers through the company Tisak (which has a network of kiosks throughout Croatia), this method of sale becomes unprofitable. For newspaper publishers, costs are rising, and the situation is unsustainable.

Subscriptions to the print media have increased slightly in recent years, but this is not enough to help maintain traditional print newspapers. Press distribution in Croatia is done through Hrvatska pošta (Croatian Post), a state-owned company that is free to set the conditions it wants, on which media owners and publishers cannot exercise influence.

The risk of transparency is also visible when it comes to the online news media outlets. The Law on Electronic Media stipulates that web portals (electronic publications) should be registered in the Register of Electronic Publications maintained by the Agency for Electronic Media. Failing to do so will result in a fine ranging from 1,320 euros to 6,630 euros. For this misdemeanor, the legal penalty for the responsible person (meaning the director of the company/publisher) is a fine of 660 to 1,990 euros. On the other hand, there are many electronic publications in Croatia that are not registered in the Register. There is no publicly available information that any of them have been fined. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the portals that operated illegally (that have no imprint, and no information on the owners) that were the main ones in spreading disinformation.

Legal Framework

Which laws concern transparency in media ownership and control

There are two key media laws that regulate the transparency of media ownership, namely the Law on Media and the Law on Electronic Media.

The Law on Media was adopted in 2004, and even then, it had all the provisions that stated the obligation to publish owners, shares in ownership and circulations to the Croatian Chamber of Commerce once a year. The Law on Media has been amended several times, and at the end of 2021, discussions began on amendments to the existing Law and the adoption of a new media law, considering the changes that have occurred in the media environment. In the announced discussion on the changes, both journalists and publishers as well as the union gave their proposals on the changes.

The Law on Electronic Media was adopted by the Croatian Parliament in 2021. It contains several articles (provisions) in relation to media ownership in electronic media, namely: radio, television and electronic publications and its regulations are clear. For the most part, all registered e-publications, radio stations and television channels publish all the mandatory information on their websites. Part of the data that includes foreign owners can be found in the Register of Beneficial Owners which is open to the public.

Correspondence to normative expectations

Ever since the adoption of the Law on Media in Croatia, almost twenty years ago, the provision on the publication of all relevant data on the ownership of print media has never been fully implemented. Some publishers have, in accordance with the Law, published part of that data, but not all. However, there was no body that would control the publication of these data and possibly sanction those entities that, in fact, did not respect the Law. Today, the situation is better, and there are far more publicly available sources from which one can get hold of information on the real owners. We expect that the public consultation on the new Law on Media will contribute to the understanding of how important public disclosure of media ownership is.

According to information from the Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Croatia, the Digital Services Act that is “EU answer to updating rules for digital services” (Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, 2021), will soon be adopted in Croatia. The full application of the Act that is expected to happen on 17 February 2024 should significantly contribute to the regulation of social networks and digital services in general.

Main risks

Media legislation is significantly different today, in 2023, than it was in the first years of Croatia’s independence. Republic of Croatia, as a state of electoral democracy, is burdened with corruption and clientelism, and needs investments in resources that will, on the one hand, strengthen the transparency of media ownership, and on the other hand, reduce state influence on media regulators. This primarily refers to the Council for Electronic Media appointed by the Croatian Parliament. Up until now, the ruling party has determined who are eligible members of that body and until this changes, we cannot talk about an independent media regulator.

Furthermore, the role of the public service media should be reasserted, so it would go in the direction of providing information to all citizens equally including minority groups and different political options, since, in its current form, it does not fulfill that service. By changing the legislation, the role of the Program Council of the public service media as a group of experts and representatives of the public should be strengthened so as to warn against political bias and contribute to implementation of quality changes.

References

Agencija za zaštitu tržišnog natjecanja [The Agency for the Protection of Market Competition] (2023). Istraživanje tržišta tiska za 2022. [Print market research for 2022]. Available at: https://www.aztn.hr/ea/wp-content/uploads//2023/07/Prikaz-stanja-trazista-tiska-2022-3.pdf

Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act (2021). Available at: https://www.eesc.europa.eu/sites/default/files/files/qe-03-21-260-en-n_0.pdf (accessed 13 June 2023)

Peruško, Z. (2022). Croatia. In: Newman Nic, Fletcher, Richard, Robertson Craig T., Eddy, Kirsten and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022, p. 70-71.

SNH: Pokrećemo pregovore o granskom kolektivnom ugovoru koji je jedini jamac zaštite radničkih prava novinara [Croatian Journalists’ Association: We are starting negotiations on the collective agreement, which is the only guaranty of the protection of the labor rights of journalists]. Available at: https://www.hnd.hr/snh-pokrecemo-pregovore-o-granskom-kolektivnom-ugovoru-koji-je-jedini-jamac-zastite-radnickih-prava-novinara (accessed 13 June 2023)

The European Federation of Journalists (2003). Eastern Empires: Foreign Ownership in Central and Eastern European Media: Ownership, Policy Issues and Strategies. Brussels.

Trenutno je u Hrvatskoj najmanje 945 tužbi protiv novinara i medija [There are currently at least 945 lawsuits against journalists and the media in Croatia]. Available at: https://h-alter.org/vijesti/hnd-trenutno-je-u-hrvatskoj-aktivno-najmanje-945-tuzbi-broj-tuzbi-protiv-novinara-i-medija/ (accessed 13 June 2023)

Vozab, D. and Peruško, Z. (2021). Digitalne publike vijesti u Hrvatskoj 2017.-2021. [Digital news audiences in Croatia 2017-2021]. Zagreb: CIM – Centar za istraživanje medija i komunikacije, Fakultet političkih znanosti, Sveučilište u Zagrebu. Available at: https://cimfpzg.files.wordpress.com/2021/06/digital-news-izvjestaj-hrvatska-2017-2021-za-web-1.pdf (accessed 13 June 2023)

Country report published in September 2023

Methodology