On December 12, the Croatian weekly Nacional published recordings revealing that Jurica Lovrinčević, an advisor to the then Minister of Economy, had offered to award public money, via advertisements placed by state-owned companies and institutions, to local television Mreža TV, while requesting part of the sum be transferred back to him. 

Following these revelations, both the Minister of Economy, Davor Filipović, and his advisor were sacked by Prime Minister Plenković. Recent research on the funding of the media sector and media insiders suggest that this was not an isolated case, but rather the status quo. Non-transparent public media funding leaves local media dependent on political goodwill, and stifles media independence and quality journalism.

For Melisa Skender, general secretary of the Croatian Journalists’ Association (HND), “this [scandal] is just the tip of the iceberg.” Recent research on public media funding revealed it was unclear how much funding the state allocates to the media and how much state-owned companies spend on advertisements. From documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests in 2020 and 2021, Skender and her colleagues established that in more than 80% of cases, funding was allocated to local media without a public tender. Moreover, local councillors would often decide who gets the money. 

“We should have a public tender, clear selection criteria, and independent juries deciding who gets the subsidies. That is not the case today,” says Skender, who gave the example of how the former mayor of Zagreb used to determine how funding was allocated. The same publishers such as the local TV stations Z1 and OTV were routinely awarded the biggest sums

Sponsored content as news

The practice of local governments paying for sponsored content with public funds has dangerously blurred the lines between journalistic content and hidden political advertising. “Some of the [funding] contracts we analysed stated the number of interviews with the local councillors a media should publish to get the funding. Some publishers even indicated the price for the work of their journalists. Other contracts included an obligation to place promotional content in the news shows and editorial segments,” says Skender. “The problem runs deep since not only local authorities, but also publishers, fail to make a distinction between paid content and journalism.”

While there are no official statistics about the number of journalists – let alone local journalists – in the country, some parts of Croatia have already become proper “news deserts,” where citizens have limited to no access to reliable and comprehensive local news. Understaffed newsrooms, lack of funding, and untransparent financing have also affected the quality of content. 

The 2022 report “Local media for a better society”, which analysed media content in four regional countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia, and was led by the Trade Union of Croatian Journalists, revealed a casual attitude towards reporting conventions such as using bylines and quoting multiple sources. In Croatia, the identity of the author wasn’t clear in 30% of the published articles. “This didn’t happen only in cases where the news was taken from a news agency, but also in local stories,” noted Dina Vozab, researcher and assistant professor at the Faculty of Political Science in Zagreb who studied the content of five media outlets in Croatia by analysing the top 10 articles published on seven different dates in February 2022. Additionally, 14 % of articles didn’t mention any sources, while 82,4 % of them used only official sources or other media or social networks as a source. “Local politicians in power were well present in the media, while the opposition and other actors that could be important for the local community – such as NGOs or experts – were underrepresented,” Vozab added.

Vozab also noted that sometimes paid content wasn’t properly labelled, but was published alongside other news. Most troubling, however, was that only one out of five media editors and one local journalist agreed to discuss the issue with Vozab. “People declined the interview. Either they were not interested, or they said they didn’t want to expose themselves since they worked in small communities,” she said.

Tool for political promotion

Operating within a tight-knit community, while trying to hold the local politicians accountable can be a difficult balancing act. “It is common for the local deputies and representatives not to answer our calls or emails. We have to send them Freedom of Information requests which they also ignore. Recently, I was asked to email my work contract to be able to cover a local council meeting,” recounts journalist Chiara Bilić. Bilić works for Istra24, an independent media from Istria, which currently employs 12 journalists.

She previously worked for Glas Istre, a daily that has been covering Istria since 1969. When she joined Glas Istre in 2018, it had just hired a new editor-in-chief. “Those were times of complete freedom, we could write about everything,” she remembers. As time passed, censorship and subtle pressure mounted.

“I was once given an article, which was basically promotional content, to sign off. I didn’t accept it. There were other types of censorship, from changing our headlines to cutting the photos so that they excluded people from the opposition parties, for instance. Or you could suggest a relevant topic to cover, and it would never get accepted. Or your article would not be published in the end,” Bilić remembers. 

Content praising or promoting local politicians, entrepreneurs, or companies often comes in the form of unsigned articles and extensive coverage that is all praise and no hard questions asked. Boris Miletić, the Istria county prefect spent 360.000 euros from the local budget for the promotion of his administration in the local media (Glas Istre included) in the two years he has been in power. A quick search on the Glas Istre website yields a number of unsigned articles about hm or his work, portrayed through a complimentary lens, boasting about the Istrian firefighting system (“the most efficient in Croatia”), addressing his opponents in his own party (“the next move is mine”), mingling with entrepreneurs or being elected the “most popular and most successful prefect in Croatia” via a Facebook poll.

Passing promo content as journalism isn’t specific to Glas Istre or local media. Research into media financing led by the NGO Gong and the HND highlighted the example of blurred lines between advertisement and journalism in the example of one of the most important Croatian dailies, Jutarnji List, and the national energy company, HEP. In 2022, Jutarnji List published not only a number of advertisements for HEP but also an interview with the management that reads like a promo text or a news piece about a fitness event where the six photos in the article feature HEP’s logo. Neither were flagged as promo content.

As for Bilić, she recounts that at some point she was receiving her salary while hardly publishing anything. In 2021, between two rounds of local elections, three of Bilić’s colleagues from Glas Istre were sacked after having criticised the newspaper’s biased election coverage in favour of the party in power in Istria. Bilić couldn’t be fired then since she was on maternity leave, but that was her cue to leave the newspaper. She soon decided to resign and joined Istra24. Glas Istre’s editor-in-chief dismissed the accusations and said the journalists were fired because they caused reputational damage to their employer. 

Content published in the local media is seen as a powerful campaigning tool during elections. In 2021, the fact-checking website Faktograf demonstrated how newly set-up websites published articles without bylines and sources,  content whose only aim was to discredit a left political party in Zagreb. Furthermore, Skender’s research revealed that out of 338 companies that received financial support from the local administration in 2020 and 2021, 98 weren’t even registered as media. This shows that anyone can set up a media structure to get funding from local administrations, without being bound by media rules and regulations on fair election coverage. Such practices are of great concern in 2024 when Croatia will vote three times: at the European elections in June, the parliamentary election in early autumn, and the presidential elections in December. 

Meanwhile, the Croatian Journalists’ Association has been working on a media funding model for local governments, which highlights the need for establishing independent juries to award the public advertising funds to the media. “The sales pitch for the local administration is that they are protecting themselves in this way. Sure, they will not be able to influence the media content, but the media publishers also cannot blackmail them with negative coverage if they are not given the money,” said Skender. So far, four cities including Zagreb have accepted or implemented HND’s recommendations , while several others have also shown interest in the new funding model.

At the European level the Media Freedom Act (EMFA) which was finalised in December 2023, also seeks to end the politicised distribution of state advertising funds by governments across the European Union. Article 24 of the EMFA requires governments to distribute funds objectively, non-discriminately and transparently and empower regulatory bodies to monitor and provide public reports to expose any misuse of such funds. Regrettably, the new regulation only applies to political communities over a population of 100.000, meaning that many local governments in Croatia will not be covered by the new rules. 

This article was commissioned by IPI as 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, Candidate Countries, and Ukraine. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.