MON, 01 DEC 1997 19:05:16 GMT***THE "CATHEDRAL OF CROATIAN SPIRIT" AGAINST FORUM 21
AIM, ZAGREB, November 21, 1997
It did not take long for the first reactions to the establishment of Forum 21, an informal section of journalists of electronic media, members of the Croatian Journalistic Association, to appear. Their Resolution of 21 articles signed by 23 journalists of the TV Network, Radio 101 and the Croatian Radio and Television (HRT), all well known and reputed journalistic names, has caused the greatest shock precisely on the HRT, television Bastille which is mockingly also called "cathedral of the Croatian spirit". After a rather mild reaction of the Presidency of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which declared the resolution "unfounded" and ended at that - probably because of the exceptional reputation which individual signatories enjoy in the world - several days after the Forum's public presentation, the HRT Council issued its statement liberally applying the well known epithets which are so frequently used for labelling all those who disagree with the policy of the Croatian power holders, be they from the HDZ ranks or persons in high positions to which the ruling party appointed them although they did nothing to deserve them, and thus gave them unlimited authority and power to implement their self-will.
Drago Krpina, a HDZ deputy to the Parliament, considers the Forum's Resolution an accusation, naturally - totally unfounded. He explained its demand for unbiased and professional information of television viewers by the wish of some journalists to appear more frequently on TV screens and, according to Krpina, their dissatisfaction with the present situation is in fact their dissatisfaction with the fact that they cannot be on the most influential media in Croatia all the time.
According to Krpina, it is not accidental that the appearance of the Forum 21 practically coincided with the demand of four opposition parties to be handed over HTV's second channel in order to make their voice heard at greater distances and more frequently. It goes without saying that Krpina proclaimed all this a conspiracy against democracy, even adding that in recent years Mirko Galic appeared more frequently on TV than Tudjman himself. And who else but these fourteen signatories of the Resolution, employees of the HRT, are to be blamed for unobjective and unprofessional information and censorship. They are guilty for not informing the public in time of what the censorship forced them to do.
At the Council's session Ivica Mudrinic, HRT Director, concluded that "it is highly irregular for the employees to act against the interests of the house they work for". What and which are these interests of that house, Mudrinic did not explain. However, he did not miss the opportunity to ask where had the signatories learned so much about democracy, undoubtedly hinting at the fact that the majority of them were once holders of foreign, mostly American scholarships, and travelled all round the world in order to learn about state, public as well as private television houses. Why does this bother Mudrinic so much can be explained with the old socialist credo which is so readily retold today - Yes, we need the money, we need the loans, but what we do not need is somebody telling us how to use that money and loans, we know that. In a more "democratic" variant this could read - Yes, we want to become a part of the western world, but we do not want to behave in that way.
At that session Mrs.Hloverka Novak Srzic, TV editor-in-chief, placed that best democracy in the world some ten years back. She saw the demands of the Forum 21 as a reflection of private interests of their individual signatories. And concerning Mirko Galic, she claimed that he "got himself mixed up in something that has nothing to do with professionalism and programme orientation of the HTV". She also did not explain what that "programme orientation" was and since all these years none of the signatories has ever seen that same orientation it would be very difficult to claim that they were against it. As Hloverka has put it, she did not want to work with the people who by organizing weekly gatherings aim at exerting pressure on television and, according to her, the basic principle of a democracy is "to have editors who will tell their journalists what is and what is not the editorial policy".
All stated in the Resolution was "but a petty-political discussion which has nothing to do with the profession", she was "ready to bear all the consequences - even being recalled", but "those who only walk along the television house corridors and refuse to work, have to be fired", threatened Hloverka forgetting that she was the one who denied them any work by taking off their shows and changing their posts according to her whim. (One of the most popular programmes of Radio 101 "Week Report" made a joke by suggesting that Zeljka Ogresta, whose talk-show "Zeljka Ogresta and her guests" was taken off the air without any explanation, should start reporting from the Presidential Palace for the prime time TV News which could be renamed "Franjo Tudjman and his guests").
Hloverka asked that all signatories to the Resolution, employees of the HRT, be individually interviewed which was done several days later, but, according to Damir Matkovic, the first President of the Forum 21, these interviews were painless and proceeded in a rather tolerant atmosphere. At the Council's session Hloverka demanded for all signatories to state whether they accept the HRT's "programme orientation", but for the time being nothing has happened. The public interpreted rather pleasant and parliamentary tone of discussions in the facility on the banks of the Sava river with a huge support the Forum 21 received and on account of which it was concluded that any form of repression against it would only additionally intensify the dissatisfaction with the current authorities accumulated in Croatia, and that even a possibility of a social unrest, which the Forum 21 could trigger off, should not be ruled out.
And how large support the Forum 21 really enjoys was seen at their first public gathering entitled "The HRT or Public Television" held in the large hall of the Journalistic Center which was packed with people. Leaders of opposition parties, non-governmental organizations, journalists from practically all the media, many ambassadors, representatives of the Council of Europe, trade-union officials and the so called ordinary people, gathered on that occasion not only to hear what the Forum members had to say, but to express their open and public support to efforts aimed at democratizing the Croatian media space not only through the transformation of the HRT, but also by the establishment of private TV stations. Namely, Croatia is one of the five European states which do not have private television houses (except on the local level, but these are also under the strong HDZ influence), while the radio situation could not be considered any better - if it were not for Radio 101, there would not be any truly independent electronic media in Croatia.
According to Matkovic, the already mentioned President of the Forum 21, they have lost patience. For seven years they watched all that went on on television and in other media in general, and if there was a reason to keep silent during the war, that reason was no longer valid. Someone had to finally speak out about television and its transformation and who knows better than the journalists what is troubling them. Prescribing the allowed amounts of democracy never gave any results and the influence of politics on the editorial concept of the HRT had to be finally reduced to its normal measure. That is why the opposition's riding on the Forum's coat-tails - same as with the Radio 101 last year - is a totally out of place. According to Matkovic all these years neither the authorities nor the opposition have offered a good-quality and adequate solution for the media situation so that it would be unrealistic to expect them to do anything. After all, the opposition was not if favour of independent television, rid of all influence, but tried to put part of it under its control which would by no means improve information.
There was much speculation about Galic's arrival and changes that he might introduce on television. But, no one knows how broad are his powers apart from rumours that he was advised "from the highest place to proceed slowly". Signatories to the Resolution concluded that they had nothing more to wait for as with such media and their becoming instrumental and subordinated to everyday politics only postponed the democratization of the overall Croatian society and they could not tolerate such a sin. Irrespective of the tolerance exhibited in their discussions, their main opponents - for the time being, only the Council of the Croatian Radio and Television - are not ready to give up the positions they have usurped.
Realizing that they could not go against all who are employees of the HRT, the authorities decided to attack and destroy them one by one. The first one they drew a bead on was Dubravko Merlic, at whose door they laid the firm "Dual MV", which he owns together with Branko Vuksic, a journalist of the "Vecernji list" and which allegedly owes television about 60 thousand DEM. The HRT Council immediately formed an "fact-finding commission" to verify the allegations of the press published by "Tjednik" and "Vijesnik". At the same time, television never paid any attention to a wide-spread wasteful spending the amount of which exceeds the alleged Merlic's debt to such an extent that even the Parliament had to replace television Directors whose expenditures for luxurious toilets amounted to more than a three-year average worker's income.
According to a number of media and public statements the establishment of the Forum 21 was the most important event in Croatia in 1997 and perhaps the most important post-war event. Will the signatories of the Resolution be wise and strong enough to oppose their "adversaries" and come out of that battle as winners - which Radio 101 managed to do only recently - will be known very soon. However, one thing is certain already now - the media in Croatia will never be the same.