Deep in rural Croatia stands a radio station that should not be there. It has survived war, waves of privatisation and a recession that has hollowed out the media sector.
It serves a town of 28,000 people, where everyone knows everyone’s business, and every day is a slow news day. A big story on the daily bulletin might feature local farmers complaining about agricultural subsidies.
As the roads are not congested, there is no need for live traffic updates. Music presenters have been known to punctuate their playlists with interviews of townsfolk feeding the squirrels.
|Radio content is getting worse, despite the vast sums of public money thrown at it.(Photo: Franjo Tot)|
Nevertheless, serious journalism seems to be making inroads here. The station recently received a grant of more than €20,000 to support quality programmes, including its flagship news magazine show.
The money came from a state fund for public-interest programming. The fund was established by Croatia as part of a vast overhaul of its media sector – one of many conditions for its entry into the European Union this year.
To qualify for the grant, the radio station had to provide a sample edition of the news magazine from the preceding year, 2011.
It would have been a simple request – had the show not been taken off air in 2010. Under pressure to secure the money, the staff turned creative. They stitched together a fresh edition of the show, using snippets of news salvaged from the vaults.
“We had to lie a lot to get the money from the fund,” says Jelena, a former editor at the station.
“We were forced to fake the application by using our archive from 2001 to 2010, searching for news items that were not date-specific, and that were read by the same host.”
The flagship news magazine had been axed when the station was bought by a media conglomerate. In the space of two years, the new owners would also get rid of nine of the station’s 15 staff and replace much of the original, local programming with syndicated content.
“Our listeners were not ours any more – we just acted as a loudspeaker for our owners,” says a colleague of Jelena, who confirmed her account of faking the funding application.
|Many local radio stations are in remote locations, such as the Croatian islands.(Photo: Franjo Tot)|
Both workers spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared legal action if identified. Other details – such as the name of the station and the town – have also been withheld to protect their identities.
Small radio stations ought to have been easy prey for the crisis that is killing off traditional media in Croatia, and indeed in much of Europe and North America.
Yet their number in this country has more than doubled in the last 20 years. Some 145 radio stations, most of them privately owned, currently serve a population of just four million, three-quarters of whom live in small towns or villages.
Their rise conceals a decline in the quality of programming. While the number of outlets has grown, the average number of journalists they employ has nearly halved – from 20 each in 1998, to 12 in 2012.
The broadcasters have not thrived because of their provocative content or their competitiveness. Instead, their survival reveals the cracks in the EU’s campaign to foster a free press in the countries that aspire to join it.
Brussels has heightened its scrutiny of the media sector as it has expanded eastwards, into the former Yugoslav republics.
When Slovenia joined the bloc in 2004, changes to the press were recommended – but not mandatory. For Croatia, the reforms were treated as a human-rights issue. Failure to enact them would, in effect, have been a deal-breaker.
An applicant for EU membership, Serbia is currently debating laws that could help it qualify for entry into the bloc.
The EU’s guidelines for reordering the Serbian media are as strict as they were for Croatia – and they could unravel for the same reasons.
Twenty years ago, most of Croatia’s local broadcasters were financed by the local or central government. The shift from state ownership was encouraged by the EU, as it examined Zagreb’s candidacy.
The country’s media was regarded at the time as a mouthpiece for the dominant political party – echoing its function during Yugoslav socialism.
Brussels advocated privatisation as the path to a healthier press. In theory, the politicians would find it harder to manipulate the media if it was funded by commercial revenues rather than by the state.
|More stations, fewer journalists|
|Year||Number of local radio stations||Number of journalists* employed|
|*Journalists are defined as staff involved in producing programmes|
|Source: Croatian National Statistics Office|
A variety of new outlets, run by independent owners, would provide a healthy range of competing opinions. But this ideal requires strong foundations – in the form of a robust market and strict oversight.
If the market is weak, the private outlets do not earn enough revenue to wean themselves off state funds. Instead, they continue to cut deals with the politicians who control the public purse.
If oversight is slack, the regulations that are meant to preserve the independence and diversity of the press are easily flouted. Instead, the media outlets group themselves into monopolies, which again lead to unhealthy deals between politicians and all-powerful press barons.
Croatia privatised its media to satisfy the EU – but it did so upon weak foundations.
“Local radio and TV may pretend to be vital players in the market,” says Milan Zivkovic, an adviser to the Croatian culture ministry. “But the truth is, they depend on public grants.”
Privately owned or not, most of the local radio stations cannot live off commercial revenues alone. Their survival relies on deals with the state.
Politicians – in local and central government – use subsidies and advertising contracts to channel public money towards the broadcasters. By failing to enforce checks, they also permit the formation of monopolies and, as with the station where Jelena worked, turn a blind eye to occasional fraud.
The broadcasters return the favour by obeying their political protectors.
“We had imagined that the Western model could be applied here,” says Zrinjka Perusko, a journalism professor at Zagreb University. “Private ownership was meant to guarantee the independence, objectivity and impartiality of the media, because it enlarged the market.”
However, she says, the market was too weak to support a free press.
“Media owners are willing to subordinate the independence of the press for their economic benefit,” says Perusko.
By pushing through privatisation on shaky foundations, Croatia left its new radio stations vulnerable to political influence.
The origins of the problem lie in the process itself. The government awarded scores of new broadcasting licenses in the last two decades.
Private owners were also sought for existing outlets, including local radio stations that had been funded by the state. Only the national public-service broadcaster, funded directly by the citizens, was set to remain in the public sector.
But as the number of local radio stations mushroomed, the market approached saturation. Journalists were the first to be sacrificed, leading to a drop in public-interest programming.
|Who owns the radio stations?|
|Total number of local radio stations in 2012||153|
|Privately-owned stations that are independent, or not part of a larger network||47*|
|Privately-owned stations that are part of a larger network||49|
|Stations that are still majority-owned by local governments||57|
|*Six of of the 47 are non-profit, and two are owned by former politicians|
|Source: VEM’s register of contracts for radio licenses|
Away from big cities such as Zagreb, independent outlets struggled to attract the advertisers that were central to their business model. Joining media conglomerates, owned by rich businessman, offered one means of survival.
“For most local radio stations, networking was the only way to attract advertisers,” says Juraj Hrvacic, the former owner of a string of broadcasters across Croatia.
The networks would swallow up the smaller stations and try to make them viable. The workforce would be slashed, and costly original programming replaced by syndicated content from a central source.
Mismanaged privatisation thus contributed to the formation of monopolies – an outcome that the EU had cautioned against.
Moreover, the private outlets that had been taken over by large networks were less likely to produce original, public-service content – further undermining the EU’s objectives.
“We have a variety of radio shows, but the schedule everywhere is the same. There are traffic reports and weather forecasts every two minutes,” says Viktorija Car, a media expert at the University of Zagreb.
The privatised local radio stations that have not been taken over by large networks may appear independent – but they too are vulnerable to state influence.
Beyond Zagreb, these stations have little hope of attracting advertising from private companies, according to Sinisa Bogdanic, the owner of Radio Net, a non-profit agency that produces content for small broadcasters.
As a result, these stations rely heavily on advertising revenues from public sector firms, which are often beholden to the government.
“The [stations] are actually co-financed by local politicians, which leaves a question mark over their autonomy,” says Bogdanic.
The transition to private ownership thus failed to break the harmful bond between politicians and the press. Moreover, it led to job losses and to a reduction in quality programming – a pattern repeated across Croatia.
The story of Jelena and her colleagues echoes other reports of Croatian radio stations misusing public money.
All these cases involve the Pluralism Fund, which was set up to meet the EU’s criteria for supporting quality journalism.
The Fund is financed by Croatia’s citizens out of their annual contribution to the public-service broadcaster.
Every year, it disburses grants worth around €1.5 million to radio stations that have promised to make public-interest programmes. The vast majority of Croatia’s 145 local radio stations receive a grant from the Fund.
Four are currently being investigated for misusing their grant. However, the station where Jelena worked is not among them.
According to Zeljko Stipan, a Zagreb-based businessman who has spent more than 30 years in the radio industry, the Fund has failed to monitor how its money is being spent.
“We all know that this Fund is a farce,” he told BIRN. “The programmes are being produced for real in the area of Zagreb.” But, he said, radio stations outside the capital easily escape scrutiny. “Who is monitoring them? Nobody.”
Stipan said it was an open secret that small broadcasters were using the Fund’s money as a lifeline.
|Croatia’s entry into the European Union was meant to strengthen the free press.(Photo: Franjo Tot)|
Since its creation in 2005, the Fund has awarded nearly €32 million of public money to radio and TV stations. However, it has not produced a thorough report evaluating the impact of these grants.
The Fund is administered by the Electronic Media Council, known by its Croatian acronym, VEM. The Council is a regulatory body, responsible for radio, television and online broadcasting.
It was established in the last decade, again as part of Croatia’s drive to remodel its media landscape to meet the EU’s requirements.
In an emailed response, the VEM said it would check all claims of the misuse of grants, whether anonymous or not.
“We invite all those with specific knowledge of the alleged irregularities to report to us,” the email said.
The statement added that the VEM had started keeping closer tabs on how broadcasters spent the Fund’s money. It said stations had been asked to keep permanent copies of their shows, and to account for their spending throughout the year – rather than just at the end of it.
Until recently, stations were not required to keep archives of their public-interest shows for more than three months, making it hard to verify if a certain programme had in fact been broadcast.
Lessons for Belgrade
The Serbian media sector shares its Yugoslav origins – and many of its problems – with Croatia. It inhabits another overcrowded market, with 1053 registered print and broadcast outlets serving just over seven million citizens.
Most of these outlets are locked in a bitter fight for diminishing advertising revenues, currently estimated to be worth €170 million. Making matters worse is the dire state of the economy: unemployment is at nearly 30 per cent and public debt at 60 per cent of the GDP.
As with Croatia, most of the money flowing through the media can still be traced to the state or to state-owned companies.
Under the current system, private owners operate alongside state-owned outlets and public-service broadcasters that are funded by license fees.
Belgrade has issued 320 licenses for local radio stations. Most of these outlets are privately owned, employ very few journalists and have little interest in quality programming.
|The homogenisation of radio content is making it increasingly irrelevant.(Photo: Franjo Tot)|
However, roughly a quarter of the 320 stations are owned by the state – a vestige of communism. Thanks to their guaranteed incomes, they have enjoyed a huge advantage over privately-owned rivals. They are also vulnerable to political influence, with directors typically appointed by the parties in power.
It is these outlets that are among the biggest targets of a law, due to be passed early next year with a view to meeting EU demands for reforming the media.
The Law on Public Information and Media envisages the privatisation of all 79 radio stations that are currently owned by the state. In theory, this should reduce direct political influence over the press.
Whether that happens or not, experts agree that the move will shake up the sector.
Zoran Sekulic, a representative of the Association of Print Media, a trade association, estimates that state-owned outlets currently get 85 to 90 per cent of the €25 million media budget.
“Unofficially, at least another €20 million goes to the same media through advertising by public companies,” he says. “This is how politicians control the content.”
Vukasin Obradovic, the president of the Independent Association of Journalists, a professional guild, predicts that many of the state-owned stations may disappear because they cannot survive on the market.
“The vacuum will hopefully be filled by those who pay attention to the public’s needs – and not just to politicians’ dictates,” he says.
However, opponents of the plan argue that it will lead to job losses and to a decline in quality programming.
“This is not a clever idea,” says Marko Savic, a member of the ruling Progressive party, and a director of a state-owned radio station in the small town of Pozarevac. “We produce content that is in the public interest. Commercial radio stations are not interested in that.”
Aleksandar Djordjevic, a media officer for the EU delegation in Serbia, says the fears are unfounded. He says policymakers have learned from the Croatian experience and strict rules will prevent media owners from forming monopolies.
The new law will also enable all outlets to compete for money to make public-interest programmes. Djordjevic says the grants will be awarded by independent commissions – rather than by a central body, like Croatia’s Pluralism Fund.
However, the law does not specify a mechanism for checking if the money is indeed being spent on public-interest programmes.
The lack of oversight, along with the rapid privatisation of radio stations in a weak and overcrowded market, could push Serbia down the same path as Croatia.
Unable to survive on commercial revenues, the broadcasters could reach for state funds as a lifeline. According to Jovanka Matic, a Serbian media expert, this will leave the backdoor open to political influence.
The EU’s media policy towards aspiring members is loosely based on policies in existing member states.
Broadly speaking, the bloc aims to regulate the ever-changing relationship between politics and the press. While recognising that these two domains will influence each other, the regulations try to prevent that influence from becoming overt.
But while the bloc has clear expectations of its aspiring members, it does not spell out how these should be met.
“The criteria [for entry] were stricter in every field – not just for the media,” says Jadran Antolovic, a former Croatian culture ministry official who led talks with Brussels over reforming the press.
However, he tells BIRN, the bloc did not offer any examples for following its guidelines.
“We asked Brussels if they had any model that we could adjust to. They told us there was none for media policy,” he says.
The absence of a model reflects the imperfect relationship between politicians and the press, even in the EU’s older democracies.
In Italy, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was long accused of using his vast media empire for political ends. In Britain, the tycoon Rupert Murdoch has been criticised for his apparent influence over successive governments. His recent pursuit of a bigger stake in a UK broadcaster was blocked at the eleventh hour amid fears that it would create a monopoly.
“Capitalism tends towards concentration [of ownership], as it is the only way to make a profit,” says Sandra Hrvatin Basic, a Slovenian expert who has been engaged by the EU to help draft media laws in Serbia.
She suggests there is a conflict between Brussels’ enthusiasm for privatisation and its insistence on media diversity in the Balkans.
“Concentration [of ownership] is the natural way – and now you want to have pluralism in the system? How will you get there?” she asks.
The free press faces similar perils in democracies new and old. But the Balkan experience suggests that Brussels has failed to realise its ideal of an independent media – even where it exerted huge leverage over the politicians.
“We often talk of the EU’s insistence [on measures],” says Antolovic. “[But] the EU can only give the legal framework. Each country must find a solution, within its own national laws, in accordance with that framework.”
Melisa Skender is a Zagreb-based journalist. This article was edited by Neil Arun. It was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.