Croatian Radio & TV in blind alley

Milivoj Djilas

WED, 12 JUL 2000

Zagreb, June 30 - What is the role of the Croatian Radio & Television (HRT) in the society and how should it realise that role - these are the question that has raised heated discussion ever since the change of power after January elections in Croatia. Journalists, politicians, communication experts, political scientists and sociologists - broad spectrum of competent and less competent experts - all have their own vision of the solution for this major media problem. Until today, they have all agreed on only one thing: that such as it is HRT is no good.

This conditional agreement was reached regarding one more thing: that HRT must become a "public" institution in the service of all citizens, and not a political service of the currently ruling nomenclature. However, concerning the definition of the term "public" there were essential disagreements, while its possible application to the future functioning of state television is becoming more vague day by day, despite numerous round tables and conferences organised on this subject.

The Parliament has received two bills on HRT for consideration: one prepared by the ruling coalition and the other drafted by the today's opposition HDZ (better known as "Kosor's proposal" after Jadranka Kosor who is the official signatory of the bill). The law should, inter alia, regulate the number of programmes on state radio and television, possible detachment of transmitting and links system into a special unit, possible changes in the functioning of regional centres of the Croatian Radio, as well as the number of members on the HRT Board and the method of their election.

Although these two drafts are essentially similar, the small things have tipped the scales in favour of Kosor's proposal. However, its possible implementation in practice requires more money with which television, as well as the entire state, have great problems.

Since the ruling coalition is after all ruling, its bill was submitted for the second reading, but numerous amendments and critics indicate that its final version will significantly differ from the original one. At the same time, even HRT employees are not sure how to carry out significant improvements, especially regarding the programme quality and reduction of the number of employees. General dissatisfaction with the programme has remained even after the dismissal of Obrad Kosovac, a HDZ leader, and people he brought to HRT, the more so as the new editors are not very good at tasks entrusted to them. A high quality information programme is still more an exception than a rule, and the majority of HRT workers are not on speaking terms in fear of losing their jobs (which in HRT still entails numerous privileges) which further hinders normal coordination of HRT's daily functioning.

The final result is that instead of reducing production costs, now as many as three crews come for the filming of a minor event, each for its desk.

Recently, Drazen Budisa, HSLS President, added fuel to the fire of the TV skirmishes by his statement that television was currying favour with Prime Minister Racan and his party, at the same time doing nothing for its own transformation from a party into a public institution. With his short statement Budisa has dealt a double blow to the new TV leadership led by Director Mirko Galic, accusing him of supporting those who have appointed him to that position (in other words, SDP), and at the same time doing nothing for the internal reconstruction of television which is indispensable in order to cut down the costs. Galic responded indirectly by saying that he refused to have his team do the dirty work, especially not just before the adoption of the new law on HRT. Since the final organisation of radio and television is still unknown, Galic rejected the possibility of surplus labour (some thousand people) being fired and shifted the responsibility for their placement outside HRT to the Government, as the owner of HRT.

Since the reduction of staff, as recommended even by foreign experts who prepared an analysis of HRT, coincided with the announcements of the closing down of the third TV programme, and eventual reduction of the third and second radio programme (which, in all likelihood, should broadcast from the same frequency, but at different times), this only increased the existing dissatisfaction. As the climax of illogical and bad moves, was the "staff audition" - a kind of test in knowledge and general culture of journalists who came to HRT in the last couple of years. With messages such as "Do not bother to come to work if you fail to turn up at the audition", the organisers literally forced journalists, some of whom have years-long experience on TV, to appear at this audition which was organised for the purpose of getting rid (general conclusion) of "unsuitable" journalists, primarily those from the news desk, loyal to HDZ. The cherry on the top in this whole mess with audition, were silly questions journalists had to answer. They were prepared in "Dr Ivo Pilar" Institute of Social Sciences which is considered to be HDZ oriented.

However, the greatest objections to such method of resolving problems of redundant labour and inadequate use of personnel, came only a few days later after the publishing of the findings of the State Auditing Commission which was charged with analysing the legality of specific decisions, especially those concerning financial operations.

Some of the most glaring examples of the financial madness characterising the operation of this media house are: a hundred or so manager's contracts for salaries of DM 10,000, financial ruin of the recording company "Orfej" which is totally owned by HRT, enormously high payments to the "Orfej" Director, paid mobile phone bills, cars, clothes at the disposal of television staff, suspicious establishment of "Erotel" (which broadcasts all three HRT television programmes in B&H) firm and non-transparency of financial transactions with that firm, some illogical elements in the business operations of the firm "Sono", some underhand dealings in the entertainment and special projects departments (various beauty contests, Euro-song competitions, etc.), disproportionately high entertainment allowances from which, by all indications, HRT staff profited the most, high payments to subscription collectors, some 8,500 persons hired as outside help, negative last year's financial balance of nearly DM 30 million, etc.. All said and done, it seems that the only thing missing for the declaration of bankruptcy of the Croatian television is an official request.

This is not where the story about television conflicts ends. The recent indictment of a radio journalist who incited to hate and caused the death of several hundred people in Rwanda by the International War Crimes Tribunal, started a debate in Croatia about journalists who have participated in the war in Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina in the same or similar way, so that Mirko Sagolj and editors who broadcast his commentaries were first mentioned in this context. Because of misinterpretation, the state agency HINA drew a bead on Dubravko Merlic, former editor of the show "Picture vs. Picture" and, later on, within Forum 21, one of the most fervent advocates of the transformation of television. Today he is one of the TV news desk editors.

Although this was a mistaken interpretation of the news, the possibility of journalists being prosecuted for their writings is looming over the already shaken "cathedral of the Croatian spirit" and its leaders.

A contribution to the story about the Croatian Radio and Television was rendered by a case of the journalist Branimir Farkas, who in his interview to a daily accused Merlic of censorship, to which Merlic responded by filing an appeal before the Ethical Board. However, shortly after that some (cult foreign) movies were banned from HTV because they were "offensive to the public morals" and are now shown in the newly opened multi-media centre "Mama" within the cycle named "Censored, banned & forbidden". In addition, a young and very talented journalist Ivan Kralj, also offered his resignation in TV because his material was censored, primarily that about the rape of a feeble seventy-year old Serbian returnee by three Croats in a village near Sibenik. Although the mentioned cases speak to the contrary, Director Mirko Galic only briefly stated that "there is no censorship on HRT".

Although only six months have passed since the coalition assumed power, the problems that have accumulated in television and around it, as well as interests - individual, as well as those of political parties have totally paralysed any reasonable discussion about the transformation of television. Moreover, some are inclined to claim that the situation is much worse today than it had been under the HDZ rule, especially as there are no visible improvements in the programme, while uncertainty about the future direction of transformation, as well as the destiny of many of its workers, is only growing.

Original article