June 17, 2020 — The Croatian government in a secretive mid-March meeting reportedly tried to guide journalists’ coverage of the coronavirus outbreak and the measures meant to fight it. Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and nearly every minister allegedly nudged news organizations towards a narrative of a competent government helming the COVID-19 response. The press obliged.
Government representatives, led by Plenković, held a secret meeting with editors-in-chief of print news and national television and radio on March 17 according to Index, at which the HDZ chief and members of his government instructed media editors on how to report during a coronavirus epidemic.
Croatia ranks 59th in 2020’s Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, well behind many of its EU peers. The organization’s report says journalists are regularly subjected to harassment and lawsuits which open the door to financially punishing reporters for doing their jobs.
The government also controls many spigots of advertising money via publicly-controlled monopolies such as Zagreb Holding and FINA. Media organizations in the government’s good graces often receive advertising orders from these entities. Those with the temerity to do their jobs miss out.
It’s exactly the sort of environment which makes secretive meetings between the press and government ahead of a battery of controversial measures, at best, confounding.
Three months after Index Investigations asked the government for information on the details of the meeting and after two complaints to the Office of the Information Commissioner, this week, after Plenković’s Office persistently ignored our inquiries, Index finally received some details about the meeting.
The government sent the site list of participants, but not the minutes of the meeting. The government claims that there is no such record, which is very strange because it is an official meeting at the government premises.
Andrej Plenković, as the first man of the government, organized a meeting with the editors-in-chief of television stations, print media and radio broadcasters in Croatia, as the government assured Index, “on the activities undertaken to combat the coronavirus epidemic, as well as shared responsibilities in the fight against false news and timely and accurate public information on all the circumstances of the epidemic.”
The following people took part in the meeting in the government, as ordered in Plenković’s office:
Goran Ogurlić — Jutarnji List
Dražen Klarić — Večernji List
Ivica Tomić — Novi List
Robert Frank — Glas Istre
Jadran Kapor — Slobodna Dalmacija
Bojan Divjak — Glas Slavonije
Goran Gavranovic — 24 sata
Berislav Jelinic — Nacional
Zdravko Milinovic — Globus
Miodrag Sajatovic — Lider
Eliana Candrlic — Hrvatski Radio
Silvija Londero — Media Servis
Tina Zagar — N1
Tanja Novak — Al Jazeera
Katarina Periša Čakarun —HTV
Željka Marijanović — RLT
Branimir Felger — Nova TV
These are the leading people of these media and correspondence (Al Jazeera), and the only exception is Tina Žagar from N1, who is a producer, not editor-in-chief.
Who was everyone from the government at the meeting?
Prime Minister Andrej Plenković
Damir Krstičević, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, Davor Božinović, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior
Zdravko Marić, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance
Vili Beroš, Minister of Health
Tomo Medved, Minister of Croatian Veterans
Blaženka Divjak, Minister of Science and Education
Nina Obuljen Koržinek, Minister of Culture
Boris Vujčić, Croatian National Bank Governor
Zvonimir Frka-Petešić, Head of the Office of the Prime Minister
Tena Mišetić, Deputy Head of the Office of the Prime Minister
Marko Milić, Government Spokesman
Representatives of the Croatian Journalists ‘Association and representatives of the journalists’ union were not present at the meeting. After the meeting, the government told Index that they did not call the representatives of other media because they wanted to avoid mass events — even though the meeting held nearly 30 participants.
The most controversial part of the meeting was the Minister of Culture’s mentioning of the crisis of 2008, when media revenues tanked due to fewer ads. Also, Plenković emphasized at the meeting that the goal of the media must be to avoid panic by promoting the work of the government, which, as they emphasized several times at the meeting, “took all necessary measures on time” and had “enough capacity to overcoming the crisis.”
What happened in the media after the meeting?
Shortly after the meeting, the media published articles praising the work of the government and HDZ’s members of the National Crisis Staff, as well as a strong campaign in the print media and on national television in which Minister of Health Vili Beroš was proclaimed a hero.
The government’s decisions were announced without any critical tone, and the basic idea was to shift the blame to the citizens. The message was simple: the government has done everything, but it is the citizens who are disobedient, so unpopular measures must be taken.
After the meeting, advertisements of state and public monopolists appeared on the portals of some print media (such as Fina and Zagreb Holding, which have no competition and therefore do not need ads, especially in times of crisis), in columns that promote staying home during a pandemic.
What exactly was said at the meeting? There is no official information because, as they say in the government, there is no record of that meeting.
“By the response of the Public Relations Service of the Government of the Republic of Croatia dated March 20, 2020, you received confirmation of the meeting of Prime Minister Plenković with the editors-in-chief of television, print media and radio broadcasters in Croatia, as well as the fact that This public authority does not have a meeting, we submit this response in accordance with the provisions of the Right to Access Information Act,” reads the government’s response in which they attached a note on the meeting, in which the invited participants are listed.