COVID-19 has exacerbated the financial pressures on Croatia’s legacy media seeking to adapt to the shift of readers and advertising revenues online. Journalists have lost jobs, wages, and come under more political pressure. Meanwhile, current outdated regulatory arrangements risk reducing the range of news channels and pose a threat to pluralism in Croatia.
COVID-19 affected the Croatian media in multiple ways. On the positive side it is probably the main factor explaining the very strong increase in trust in news overall in Croatia (up by 6% points) as people became more reliant on the media during the pandemic. But the negative economic impact was considerable. A survey of electronic media, conducted by the Agency for Electronic Media in January 2021, found that 70% of respondents reported that revenues were down, with TV and radio broadcasters being hardest hit.1 Among journalists, freelancers were worst affected, nearly 30% had no work during the first months of the pandemic, and two-thirds reported reduced earnings, according to a survey conducted by the Croatian Journalists Association (HND) and the Union of Journalists.2 While journalists and media companies were covered by the government’s COVID-19 business support scheme, freelancers were excluded. And the problems affecting the print sector were evident in the fact that many journalists suffered wage cuts – in some cases wages were halved.3
The pandemic increased the structural problems of the media sector in many countries but Croatia was additionally vulnerable given its small market size and the very low level (7%) of numbers of people paying for news online. The need for new digital strategies is urgent, since the pandemic has led to a further decline in the use of print as a news source, down by seven percentage points in the last year, equivalent to the decline in the previous two years. Legacy media finally seem to be waking up to the need to reach audiences online and have launched new subscription campaigns.
COVID-19 also added to the already difficult reporting environment for Croatian journalists. In April 2021 the HND published a report documenting the continued use of lawsuits to silence journalists investigating people in power. They found 924 such cases, primarily against journalists working for Hanza Media and Styria, publishers of the largest dailies Jutarnji list, 24 sata, and Večernji list. Commercial television channels RTL, N1 and NOVA TV came under increased pressure by the Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, who accused the media of conspiring against his party’s (HDZ) candidates, following local elections in May 2021.
Proposed amendments to the Law on Electronic Media initially attracted attention because of plans to limit hate speech in online comments on news stories. The proposal to hold media organisations responsible for this content has been widely criticised. Some fear that news media would choose to disable online comments if they were held liable for their content
Another issue around the media law relates to popular cable news channel N1, which many admire for its independent reporting. In spring 2021, the channel was removed from the package provided by an important telecom operator, A1. Because N1 is a cable channel owned by the United Group, operating from the Netherlands, and is not a free-to-air television channel with a national licence, it is not covered by cable-must-carry rules that apply to stations licensed in Croatia. The risk now is that the country’s largest telco HT follows suit. If it does, N1’s audience would be very hard hit. The channel is hoping the issues will be resolved in a new media law or a national broadcasting licence. If they are not, the potential loss of distribution would pose a real risk to media pluralism and damage the diversity of the Croatian information ecology.
Centre for Media and Communication Research, University of Zagreb
Commercial broadcasters and the public service broadcaster remain the top news sources among legacy media, followed by daily print newspapers, but with some decline. Nova TV is the top offline news source and Index.hr is top online.
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Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Trust in news in search
Trust in news on social media
Trust in the news has increased overall and for the sources people use themselves. Commercial broadcasters Nova TV and RTL are the two most trusted brands, followed by quality newspapers – with the public broadcasters lower down. Sources associated with the left or right side of the political spectrum (Index.hr and Dnevno.hr, respectively) carry higher levels of mistrust than other brands.
1 Pandemija uzrokovana virusom COVID-19 negativno utjecala na 78 % elektroničkih medija u Hrvatskoj https://www.aem.hr/vijesti/pandemija-uzrokovana-virusom-covid-19-negativno-utjecala-na-78-elektronickih-medija-u-hrvatskoj/
2 Samo 15 posto freelancera u medijima zadržalo poslove od početka zdravstvene krize https://hnd.hr/samo-15-posto-freelancera-u-medijima-zadrzalo-poslove-od-pocetka-zdravstvene-krize
3 Kako je Covid-19 kriza utjecala na novinarstvo i medije https://faktograf.hr/2020/10/15/kako-je-covid-19-kriza-utjecala-na-novinarstvo-i-medije