If the verbal attacks on journalists and on media, made by the most powerful people (including the President) in the country as well as the pressures from the Prime Minister do not stop, I am afraid that Croatia is moving in the direction of Hungary, Poland and Slovenia regarding media lack of freedom. This certainly is not the path of Europe, but the path of autocracy.
Even though insulting and devaluing journalists is not something new in Croatia, the Croatian public should seriously reflect on Prime Minister Andrej Plenković's recent move, because the moment the disparagement of journalists goes from verbal to physical, it is clear that the Prime Minister has crossed not only the line of decency, but also the line beyond which a democratically elected prime minister turns into an autocrat. And when the people have a Prime Minister with autocratic tendencies who unjustifiably paints a bullseye on the backs of journalists i.e., those who work in the interest of the public - it is quite clear that the bullseye can be placed on any citizen or group in Croatia in the near future.
Mere hours after declaring HDZ’s landslide victory in the local elections, Prime Minister Plenković attacked commercial television stations, accusing them of being "mercenaries who derogate a political option" by deliberately mispronouncing the name of HDZ's candidate for mayor of Zagreb – Davor Filipović in the first-round debates. In his extremely paranoid episode, the Prime Minister concluded that this was a joint effort of commercial media and that, therefore, the media were to blame for the poor result of HDZ’s candidate Davor Filipović. Although, it should be underlined that the journalist of Novi list, Damir Kundić, revealed that it was HDZ themselves to first present the wrong name of their candidate in the public discourse.
In an unprecedented move on the Croatian political scene, the Prime Minister angrily "tapped" on the microphones of television stations and called them out in turn - RTL, Nova TV and N1 television, which, the Prime Minister said, should "make a poster that says that they are an ideological TV station." This very alarming detail of tapping the microphone sponges can only be detected as a prelude to physical violence against journalists, instigated by the Prime Minister.
Two days later, the Prime Minister gave an interview for RTL television, a TV station he had previously accused of joint media sabotage. RTL’s Damira Gregoret reminded him that he gave his last interview to RTL a year ago, even though he had been repeatedly invited in the meanwhile. When asked if he had ever seen "such tapping on microphones by any other Prime Minister", Plenković answered with a cynical counter-question - do you think that microphone sponges feel pain?
Gregoret then correctly stated that such behaviour sends a certain message. Because when we live in a country where, for example, a member of the Armada fan group is free to openly threaten a radio station that is part of the Croatian Radio and Television system for playing the "wrong song", the Prime Minister's physical belittling of journalists sends a twice as terrible message, considering that it comes from the most powerful man in the state who, by his act, is saying that it is okay to physically deal with journalists.
Condemnation of SNH and HND
A joint statement signed by the president of the Croatian Trade Union of Journalists, Maja Sever, and Hrvoje Zovko, president of the Croatian Journalists' Association, strongly condemns Plenković's verbal attack on the media, his interference in the editorial policy of RTL's national commercial televisions and the criticism of journalists and analysts who reported on the campaign and the local elections in Croatia.
They pointed out that SNH and HND, as the largest professional and trade union organizations of journalists in Croatia, consider the open threats made by Prime Minister Plenković, in his position as the most powerful man in the country, to colleagues who are "not aligned with his and HDZ's ideology“ to be inadmissible. To declare as mercenaries all those who critically consider candidates before elections and to label them as "analysts who will badmouth for money" is not a discourse used by politicians, let alone prime ministers of civilized and democratic countries of the European Union.", they stated.
Attacks on journalists are the Prime Minister's modus operandi
They added that it was not the first time that Andrej Plenković "pointed his vengeful threatening finger at journalists who were not to his liking and will, accusing them of even waging a hybrid war against him personally and against HDZ, trying to impose himself as the only possible editor-in-chief of all Croatian media ".
Indeed. Let's remind ourselves when in June he accused N1 TV journalist Hrvoje Krešić of agitating for the opposition, or when in July the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said: "Shame on you, Andreja Plenković" for an unprovoked attack on HRT journalist and SNH president Maja Sever, when, in the debate with SDP's Davor Bernardić, he accused her of prepping Bernardić for the debate. When he touched on the editorial policies of N1, HTV, Nova TV and RTL in December, he pointed his finger at each of their journalists and said: “The more reasonable people are on the air, the more people will be vaccinated. PR costs less than death from Covid.” Or when, in January this year, he attacked journalist Domagoj Novokmet saying that he was reading questions from cue cards. Thus, in the past year, which we will remember, among other things, for restricting the freedom of citizens, the Prime Minister showed that the new situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic suits his autocratic aspirations, which are especially visible in attacks on journalists and attempts to influence media editorial policy, and the escalation of such aspirations we witnessed precisely in the Prime Minister’s latest attack on the media and journalists when he went a step further and tapped on journalists’ work equipment.
Reaction of the European Federation of Journalists
The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) showed support for its Croatian branch, the Croatian Journalists' Association (HND), condemning the latest verbal attacks and accusations made by Prime Minister Andrej Plenković against the media and journalists following the May 30th local elections.
"It is totally unacceptable that journalists are being attacked by both the Prime Minister and, just recently, the President of Croatia. Blaming journalists in this way is an attempt to undermine their credibility in order to limit their role as a counterweight. To insult or threaten journalists is to insult and threaten citizens and to undermine the right of citizens to access free, independent information." EFJ Secretary General Ricardo Gutiérrez said.
"There was no reaction from either the Prime Minister or the President to EFJ's condemnation. Maybe the Prime Minister was instructed that these are the institutions of the European Union with which he shares a close connection and I believe that he respects the European idea, so maybe that is why he did not react. I doubt that he didn't see it, "said Maja Sever, HRT journalist and president of the Croatian Trade Union of Journalists.
Milanović side by side with Plenković
Marlon Brando, as President Zoran Milanović dubbed himself since he took office, has not stopped arguing. Even though they are constantly arguing with the Prime Minister through traditional and social media, they still share a character trait - the autocratic approach to media and journalists. Plenković is not alone in the battle against the media, the President of state helps him by pulling half the weight. Thus, the Prime Minister attacks commercial media, and the President attacks the national broadcasting service, with a few exceptions. "Try to find a job on the open market, let's see which television will hire you. You are a state, political television, your political program is a disgrace, it is at the level of the Soviet Union and I say that as the Croatian president, and most citizens agree", he attacked HRT journalists with such repulsive vocabulary in May and told them that "they are worse than Yutel ”. April marked the 76th anniversary of the advance of the last detainees from the Ustasha camp Jasenovac. On the occasion, the President had a verbal conflict with journalist Saša Kosanović, which, to be honest, was given miserably little attention in Croatian public space, even though the act of attacking Kosanović is absolutely condemnable. When we talk about any attacks on journalists, then the division into left and right is an end in itself. One cannot "turn a blind eye" when the left-wing President is handing out insults and react when the right-wing Prime Minister does so. If the President is already "in his own head", then at least journalists should wake up and realize how detrimental this "joint venture" of the Prime Minister and the President of Croatia, in terms of their attitude towards the media and journalists, is for democracy.
"I personally reported Milanović several times. But the difference between Milanović and Plenković is that Plenković has a mechanism in his hands as the first man of the government, able to enact laws, a media strategy and a number of other tools that could improve the media and protect journalists. The fact is that the power and ability to make decisions that could change things regarding the freedom of journalism is in the hands of Andrej Plenković ", Sever concluded.
If the verbal attacks on journalists and media made by the most powerful people in the country, as well as the pressures from the Prime Minister do not stop, I am afraid that Croatia is moving in the direction of Hungary, Poland and Slovenia regarding media lack of freedom, which certainly isn’t the path of Europe, but the path of autocracy. A worrying fact is that even the EU cannot do too much for media freedom. In March, the European Parliament debated media freedom in Poland, Hungary and Slovenia. Then the Vice President of the European Commission Vera Jourova admitted that “the European Commission has a very limited ability to act "and that it lacks "effective political and legal means".
So, if Croatian journalists cannot count on the EU or the government to take concrete measures to improve the situation in the media, then there is only one other option that is best reflected in the words of the late Croatian investigative journalism doyen Jasna Babić: "No one will hand you freedom, journalists have as much freedom as they create for themselves. No more and no less. And I do not want Parliament or anyone else to guarantee me free space, because that means that it has been gifted to me. When something is given as a gift, when freedom is a gift, even if it is journalistic freedom - then, my dear people, it can be taken away. Those who give it can also take it away.”
So, it is clear that journalists will have to fight for media freedom on their own, which is actually impossible without strong and prompt synergies throughout Croatia - because only united journalists are free journalists. I am not optimistic, but I still hope that my colleagues will understand that this is the only right way.
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