Foto: Telegram

Interview with the head of the European Federation of Journalists: Politicians’ lawsuits against the media are one of our most important topics

We are conveying Barbara Matejčić’s interview with Renata Schroeder, published on the news site:

 “Renate Schroeder is the director of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), the largest European journalism organization, representing 320,000 journalists across Europe and advocating for better working conditions as well as quality and independent journalism. We spoke with Renate Schroeder because the pandemic hit the media hard, with many journalists in Croatia losing their jobs or having their already low salaries reduced.

During the pandemic, the media found themselves in a paradoxical situation: digital media audiences increased drastically, but at the same time their revenues declined. How much damage has the pandemic inflicted on the media sector in Europe?

SCHROEDER: We still don’t know how much damage there will be in the end, but from preliminary figures and from the information we have received from journalist associations and institutions, it seems that the damage will be unprecedented. We have already had many media crises – the financial crisis of 2008, the crisis caused by the transition of traditional media to the internet, facing the lack of a sustainable business model for today’s media, etc. – and the pandemic has further deepened existing crises. For years, we have been warning about the difficult position of the local media and the precarious position of freelancers, for example, and now we are facing the very possible death of the print media. Advertising in the media has dropped drastically, in some countries by as much as 80 percent. But it is true that at the same time the audience of digital editions has increased, and respect for journalism has grown. Thus, studies show that trust in the media, which was very low, has increased. So, yes, we are in an ironic position: citizens have realized that journalism is very important, and at the same time the media financial structure is collapsing.

In Croatia, short-term financial support has been granted to self-employed and freelance journalists. How have other European countries reacted to the media crisis caused by the pandemic?

SCHROEDER: The EFJ has launched a mapping to see what urgent recovery measures for journalists and media have been brought by EU countries. It is not surprising that countries with a high level of media freedom and stable media, such as the Nordic countries, reacted quickly. For example, in Denmark, the government supports any media outlet that has lost 30 percent or more of its advertising revenue and covers 75 percent of its payroll benefits for media workers. The entire package of support for the media in Denmark amounts to 24 million euros. Portugal has allocated approximately the same amount to help the media. We asked the EU countries for urgent help to the media, but we would also like to see long-term measures to help the media sector.

Until recently, there had been a widespread opinion that the media should be left to the market, but it is increasingly heard that the media is a public good and that it should be treated financially. Thus, for example, a recent report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism states that independent, professional journalism will be shut down without financial support. What is the position of the EFJ?

SCHROEDER: A few years ago, the EFJ conducted a campaign with the slogan of journalism as a public good. When we approached the European Parliament and the European institutions with this thesis, it was not very well accepted. It was considered too leftist, even communist, so that, except from the left parties, we did not get support. But now that has changed. During the pandemic, it was understood everywhere that journalism was a key sector, and key sectors needed protection and support.

We hope that this crisis has confirmed to the governments, politicians and institutions of the European Union that journalism needs long-term protection, especially independent journalism. There are different models of support, so last year we published a study on business models for digital media. But all this is still insufficient while big internet players like Facebook and Google are taking away a huge part of advertising, and we think it is time for the European Commission to regulate it in order to have a fairer media ecosystem.

We asked the European Commission to support the media sector significantly more than it has been doing so far. I would say that the Commission listens to us much more than before and that for the first time it understands that if journalism is endangered, democracy is endangered too. Now is the moment to decide whether to invest in the media or let them fail. But it is also important to encourage media literacy because if young people are not interested in quality journalism, then all our efforts are in vain.

In Croatia, there was an effective model for financing non-profit media through the Ministry of Culture, but the then Minister Zlatko Hasanbegović revoked the fund in 2016, and his successor, Minister Nina Obuljen Koržinek, did not re-establish it. In addition, the Ministry of Culture has been postponing the announcement of tenders for funds from the European Social Fund for Community Media for years, and now we have been waiting for the announcement of the results of that tender for almost a year. How do you comment on that?

SCHROEDER: That Croatian model was the best in Europe for strengthening independent media. When the abolition of this funding model was announced, we expressed our concern. In countries like Croatia, where the independence of public television is also threatened, it is especially important that there are digital, pluralistic, independent media. Failure to restart the fund will further jeopardize media pluralism in Croatia.

The EFJ, together with 25 organizations, signed a letter to the European Commission requesting that measures be taken at European level to address intimidation of journalists, media, activists and trade unionists through lawsuits. According to the Croatian Journalists’ Association there are currently 905 active court cases in Croatia against journalists and media outlets. The consequence of these lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits is that even some of the best, bravest editors have become overly cautious in their publications. How to fight against it?

SCHROEDER: Lawsuits against the media and journalists, known by the acronym SLAPP, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, are currently one of the most important topics we address at a European level. The murdered Maltese investigative journalist Daphni Caruani Galizia was also threatened with lawsuits. Although this practice is widespread throughout Europe, no other country has as many lawsuits as Croatia, and this encourages self-censorship and is a major threat to journalism. The seriousness of the situation was also understood by the European Parliament, with which we are preparing a working version of the action plan for the protection of the media and journalists from strategic lawsuits. As we have dealt with the protection of whistleblowers, in the same way we want to protect journalists and the media from lawsuits. The same practice is encountered by NGOs – those who have money try to silence with lawsuits those who work in the public interest. The European Commission has promised to include the issue of lawsuits in its action plan. 

Even the public radio and television HRT filed lawsuits against its journalist Sanja Mikleušević Pavić and against the president of the Croatian Journalists’ Association, Hrvoje Zovko, and against the HND itself. Isn’t it a unique European case for a public service to sue its employees and a professional journalists’ association?

SCHROEDER: Yes, it is a unique case in Europe, something that could be expected in Hungary or Poland. We reported the HRT case to the Council of Europe Platform for the Protection of Journalism and the Safety of Journalists. We decided to hold this year’s EFJ meeting in Zagreb in November in order to support journalists and invite the competent ministers for talks.

One of the biggest problems of Croatian journalism is public radio and television, primarily due to its political influence on HRT. It does not seem to be any different with the new government either. Is it possible in such circumstances to fight for an independent public service at all?

SCHROEDER: The lack of editorial independence is a big problem for Croatian public television. Of course, this could change if there was political will and awareness of the importance of independent journalism, but it is clear to me that it has not existed for years. So, for now, the battle for independence remains with the editors and journalists inside the house.

In the past year in Croatia, we have recorded several physical attacks on journalists, as well as hate speech against journalists with the words “Death to journalists” in the immediate vicinity of media companies. The Croatian government was silent about it. What message is it sending?

SCHROEDER: It’s very dangerous. It is a trumpization of politics, although Trump, like some European politicians on the right, is even worse because they are not silent, but openly attack journalists. Hate speech directed at journalists should be condemned from the highest political level. When the right-wing AFD party in Germany attacked journalists during the Covid-19 crisis, Angela Merkel loudly defended media freedom by saying that in a democracy, journalists should not be attacked. It may not be much, but it is important, ” Barbara Matejčić wrote in an interview with Renate Schroeder for Telegram.