State funding without clear criteria - an instrument of media censorship?
While public companies and state administrative bodies refuse to disclose how much public money they have allocated to individual media outlets and according to what criteria, there was hardly a day in May 2022 without state advertisements in Jutarnji list and Večernji list, concludes the research "State funding without clear criteria - an instrument of media censorship?" prepared and conducted for Gong by award-winning journalist and editor Saša Paparella together with Oriana Ivković Novokmet and Melisa Skender.
The research results show that only the state-owned company HEP markets 20 million kuna annually through the fast-growing Real Group, a leading marketing agency, and the newspaper publishers Styria and Hanza Media receive up to four million kuna from HEP. The analysis of texts about HEP in Jutarnji and Večernji list shows that after the series of ads, the company's work is not questioned.
In the first half of May, HEP did not publish a single ad in Jutarnji list, but then things suddenly picked up. By the end of the month, five ads were published, most of which were spread across the entire page. In addition to these ads, an interview with the CEO of HEP, Frano Barbarić, was published on two pages in the appendix of the magazine, and none of the fifteen questions asked referred to anything negative. After that, HEP published on a full page of Jutarnji a congratulation to the citizens on the Statehood Day, so one can get the impression that all this marketing and journalistic work was arranged in the same package.
"The results of this strong financial support did not fail to materialise - it became almost impossible to find critical articles about HEP in Jutarnji list, as we found out by analysing newspaper articles published in this newspaper from January 1 to August 15, 2022," the study concluded.
They have long since decided not to answer journalistic questions about their advertising and sponsorship policies. We asked HEP about media funding, but received no answer, which is pretty devastating for a state-owned mega-company that took in 10.4 billion kuna last year.
According to the results of the research on advertising by the state and state-owned companies in the media from 2017 to mid-2021, 18.2 million kuna was paid from the state budget for advertising on Nova TV, RTL received 15.3 million kuna, Večernji list 10.5 million and Hanza media 10.1 million HRK.
"We are talking here only about a part of payments to the media, while the actual amount of payments received by the media from state-owned and state-controlled companies is not transparent and these data are not published anywhere. Data on the advertising costs of state-owned enterprises are not available in the database of the national Ministry of Finance," Gong's investigation states.
Despite all the money flowing to them from state companies or institutions in the form of advertising, financial support for projects, or open grants, part of the domestic media continued to relentlessly publish the affairs of local and state authorities, while others, anesthetized by budgetary or corporate money, adopted a more conciliatory attitude toward corruption and similar deviations in the behavior of some politicians and managers of state companies, which, of course, were also created by the government.
To prevent government advertising from remaining a powerful tool for favoring certain media and thus a form of pressure and censorship, it is necessary to clearly regulate how public money can be spent in the media. Consequently, full transparency of public funding of the media is needed, with public calls and clear criteria, a legally required transparent account of financial transfers from public companies and state administrative bodies to the media, as well as a ban on their involvement in native ads and payment for their guest appearances at media conferences, clear labeling of marketing content in the media as such, and the exclusion of journalists from involvement in the production of such content.
The study builds on Gong's earlier research on pressures on journalists and state advertising, with the aim of examining the transparency of conditions in tenders for media funding and their potential for (self-)censorship of media newsrooms.
The ongoing series of economic crises has made the work and independence of media editorial offices much more difficult, and they have gradually become more and more dependent on state and advertising funds and co-financing. Because of this financial dependence, a "vicious circle of pressure" has emerged from politicians and advertisers, in which the media are required to provide almost political propaganda when preparing media content, and the media are provided with existentially necessary funding in return. In such a system, the media's freedom to criticize is curtailed, journalists become mere enforcers of the marketing sector's orders, and advertisers begin to determine editorial policy. Moreover, in some local areas, it has become apparent that local government officials openly remind journalists that their existence depends on their goodwill.