ZAGREB, October 11, 2020 – Electronic Media Agency president Josip Popovac says the majority of Croatian media have been covering the coronavirus pandemic excellently, without a proliferation of fake news.
“I thank the media for their professionalism, the feeling for the community and the way in which they became involved in the fight against the pandemic,” he has said recently.
At the start of the coronavirus crisis in mid-March, the Agency and the Electronic Media Council issued a warning to all electronic media in the country aimed at protecting the public interest, banning all audiovisual services which released or spread disinformation about public health.
Publishing or spreading disinformation causes concern, spreads fear and panic in the population and leads to even more difficult consequences than the ones we are faced with, they said.
The warning underlined that the Council, in line with its powers, would severely punish the releasing or spreading of disinformation.
In early April, following a query by Hina, the Electronic Media Agency reported on the first results of a stepped up oversight of electronic and other media which showed, despite fears by many media experts, that there had been no “infodemic” of fake news.
Popovac: The media have done a great job during the pandemic
By then, only 13 complaints about reporting on coronavirus had been received, including nine referring to disinformation and fake news.
Popovac says the complaints were not just about fake news but also about interpretations which were in line with freedom of speech and democratic standards. “We haven’t had any attack, deliberate causing of panic and fake news, and we are very proud of that. The media have done a great job.”
He says there have been incidents on social media, which is out of the Agency’s control, but that the media have done and are doing their job professionally.
Popovac says not every piece of disinformation can be treated equally as it depends on who it harms and how much, adding that one needs to be very flexible, notably when there are no consequences, major societal divisions or harm to individuals or society. “I think minor disinformation is prevalent in Croatia, a consequence of speed and non-deliberate mistakes which can be corrected with a retraction.”
Popovac says it is difficult to legally punish fake news by a general regulation, adding that there exists legal protection from disinformation and that a decision on that is made by a court.
Experts warn that many things are vague regarding regulations and decisions which punish disinformation, notably in Croatia.
Levak: Legal and media regulations still inadequate
The European Union and some other countries have tried in recent years to create effective regulations to crack down on the production and spreading of fake news. However, legal and media regulations are still inadequate, says Tomislav Levak, a candidate for a doctorate in communicology at the Osijek Academy of Art and Culture.
He says these regulations lag behind the problem at least as much the spreading of true and verified information lags behind the much faster and more effective spreading of fake content.
The situation in Croatia is quite problematic as the Media Act and the Electronic Media Act barely address new media and communication platforms, Levak says, adding that their regulation should be the basis for attempting to solve this problem.
Croatia has not come even close to adequately regulating the prosecution of persons and institutions that release disinformation, he says, adding that the law on misdemeanors against the public order and peace that is in force was adopted in 1977 and last amended in 1994.
Current punishment for fake news is DEM 50-200 or 30 days’ imprisonment
That law stipulates that anyone making up or spreading fake news which disturb the peace and tranquility of citizens will be fined the national currency equivalent of 50 to 200 German marks or placed in prison for up to 30 days, Levak says.
The situation, according to the government, should be improved by a bill on unacceptable behaviour on the Internet which should regulate and define accountability for content published online, Levak says. “Although its adoption was announced in September 2019, it hasn’t been adopted nor is there, as far as I know, a draft.”
Renowned attorney and media law expert Vesna Alaburic calls for caution in amending legislation which regulates freedom of expression only due to a rise in fake news.
She says the spreading of fake news in itself must not be subject to any restrictions in a democracy if it does not cause serious harm which would justify restricting freedom of expression and punishment.
The fact that spreading fake news which disturb the peace and tranquility of citizens is punishable as a misdemeanor in Croatia is enough, Alaburic adds.
For decades, penal codes included disturbing the public and spreading fake news as offences which were used for score-settling with political opponents or those criticising the authorities, she says, adding that those provisions were removed after strong criticism.
Alaburic says the current legislation is good in principle and she has reservations about the possibility of adopting a law on unacceptable behaviour on the Internet.
Alaburic: Only courts should rule on violations
She says she is not familiar with that initiative and that only courts should rule on violations. “Self-regulation can be used to establish certain rules of conduct but in that case it’s important to ensure judicial oversight.”
Popovac warns about problems if that law is adopted, notably the possible establishment of a kind of Internet police which would oversee “unacceptable behaviour.”
He says it is necessary to be cautious in formulating provisions because freedom of speech, press, publishing and expression is the foundation of a democracy. Once something is banned, when censorship takes hold, there is no going back, he adds.
We should focus more on media literacy and educating new as well as older generations for “driving on the Internet,” and we are doing that, he says, underlining the exceptional importance of journalists and professional media during the coronavirus pandemic as well as the fake news infodemic.
“The commitment of all media employees who constantly reported and are reporting is fantastic. They have always been on the scene, consciously risking infection. Together with the medical staff, whose contribution has been the largest, the contribution of journalists and other media employees was and remains crucial,” says Popovac.