As the crisis of the Croatian economic giant Agrokor unfolds, H-Alter examines the relation between politics, media and business in the country: a key to explain the long lasting “invisibility” of Todorić in the media
The most discussed topic in Croatia during the month of March was the financial crisis faced by Agrokor, food industry and retail giant owned by Ivica Todorić. Although this is a matter of huge public importance, the Croatian public opinion didn’t know anything about the decline of this corporation, which employs around 60,000 people, until the very last moment.
This fact alone says a lot about the current state of journalism in Croatia and, indirectly, about the state of democracy and national sovereignty.
What shook up public opinion was the decision of powerful international creditors to reveal Agrokor’s debts. What still remains in the shadow is the part of Todorić ‘affair’ which concerns massive transfers of public funds to his corporation and, more generally, the role of the state in building his private empire, as well as the provenance of his capital. At the same time, the imperative of saving his company is systematically pushed into the foreground.
How come that during all these years Todorić was almost completely absent from the Croatian media? This question was already raised a year and a half ago, in an interview by H-Alter to Viktorija Car, assistant professor in the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Zagreb and media analyst. “We need to ask ourselves: which topics are not addressed in news coverage? In the Croatian mainstream media there is no trace of Todorić and Agrokor. Even the youngest generations of students ask me who is that Todorić, does he really exist, is he a legend or real person. They simply never get a chance to see him in the media, and we are talking about the most influential entrepreneur in the country”.
According to this political scientist, the answer lies in the fact that media do not reflect reality, but create it, always in accordance with somebody’s wishes. The only question is who is that somebody – a journalist, editor or media owner; what are his moral standards, his understanding of the role of journalism and his true intentions. “As for the claim that the media transmit the image of reality, we must realise that it is rather about media construction of reality. Editors and journalists are those who decide on news content, the angle from which to approach it and discourse through which to present it”.
The financial crisis of Agrokor overshadowed, at least for a moment, the panic caused by the offensive that the Croatian far-right has been conducting against media, cultural institutions, journalists, intellectuals and artists. The symbol number one of this far-right assault on media, which is still ongoing, is definitely Velimir Bujanec, creator and host of a television show called Bujica, in which the most politically obtuse pro-Ustasha establishment takes stage regularly.
The show consists of banal chatting, where answers and questions are nothing but repetition of the same idea, resulting in verbal violence against prominent Croatian antifascists, human rights activists and politicians belonging to the Serb minority. For some years now, Bujica is being broadcast on TV Z1, a local Zagreb television station generously financed by city authorities. Until the end of 2016 another similar show, called Markov trg, aired on this television. Created and hosted by Bujanec’s ideological-political ‘twin’ Marko Jurič, Markov trg was however removed from the program after it repeatedly spread lies about the Serbian Orthodox Church in Croatia, defining it as a Chetnik brood and saluting the guests and audience with the Ustasha salute.
Besides these two shows, Bujica and Markov trg, another trademark of TV Z1 are the programs focused on the work of local authorities, also conceived as in-studio conversations, hosting high-ranking city officials, all members of the “Party of labour and solidarity” called Bandić Milan 365, whose president for life is the current Mayor of Zagreb Milan Bandić. Clientelism is the most salient feature of political philosophy of this former member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), who has been, more than once, arrested and investigated for corruption, but never prosecuted nor convicted.
This means that any good journalist would have a lot of questions to ask him and his closest collaborators. And yet, the programs on TV Z1 that feature them as guests are characterised by totally void dialogues, whose only purpose is to promote city projects, including those completely senseless, draining huge public resources whose amount most probably will never be revealed.
Ownership and funding of TV Z1
According to the information available in the Register of television media service providers kept by the Agency for Electronic Media, the authorised representative of Z1 Television Ltd. is a certain Ana Krivić. Very little information is currently available to the public about her. Very little was known to the public back in 2013, when this TV station was “transferred as a gift” to Krivić by its prior owner, Slobodan Ljubičić Kikaš.
Kikaš was the financial brain of the “state within a state” created by Bandić: for years he headed Zagreb Holding, an umbrella company which includes public utility companies based in the capital, employing around 13,000 people. The same Kikaš ended up in prison together with Bandić, two and a half years ago.
The editor-in-chief of television channel Z1 is Maja Šudić, former Radio 101 journalist. Those with a good memory remember the interview she conducted in 2006 with Rade Dragojević, the then Secretary of the Serbian cultural society Prosvjeta, on the occasion of the Days of Serbian Culture that took place in Zagreb. Šudić incorporated in the interview the statements allegedly made by survivors of the Ovčara massacre, as well as those made by officers convicted for the massacre. Adding adequate screams and other sound effects, the intention of the interview seemed clearly to suggest that Dragojević, Prosvjeta and Serbian culture as such are ontologically predisposed to commit war crimes. In reaction to such fabrication, a group of former Radio 101 journalists wrote an open letter, defining Šudić’s gesture as “montage in Goebbels’ style” and “an example – politically, morally and professionally speaking – of media rubbish of the worst kind”.
At the beginning of March, H-Alter requested, invoking the Law on Access to Public Information, access to all grant agreements signed between the City of Zagreb and TV Z1. In accordance with common practice within the city administration, we didn’t get the information requested, so we will try to obtain them through legal means. In the meantime, while navigating through the official website of the City of Zagreb, we realized that in 2016 alone, TV Z1 received, through a call for tender aimed at financing audiovisual productions, around 2 million Kuna (270,000 Euros), a sum far higher than those obtained by other ten television and radio stations beneficiaries of the same funding program. The average amount of financial aid awarded was, in fact, slightly below 800,000 Kuna.
It should also be added that mayor Bandić is prone to conclude financial agreements avoiding tender procedures, and there are many who know how to take advantage of it, including some media outlets. With this in mind, we should not exclude a priori the possibility that Krivić, Šudić, Bujanec and company received from that same source some funds without due registration, nor that the whole project called Z1 is still managed from the shadow by Kikaš.
The indications of existence of a secret relationship between media owners and political powers emerge every now and then, as has happened in 2013 after H-Alter successfully concluded its campaign aimed at getting the Agency for Electronic Media to make publicly available concession agreements granted to television broadcasters that provide national coverage. Up until then, the Agency has systematically refused to do so, considering media owners’ interest in protecting their “commercial secrets” more important than citizens’ interest in knowing what kind of contracts are being signed on their behalf and to what extent are the contractual terms being respected.
In the end, the regulatory authority responsible for ensuring public access to information, at the time the Agency for Personal Data Protection, took a position in favour of H-Alter’s initiative, requesting that the contracts in question be published. What emerged is that the deviations from agreed terms were truly dramatic. However, that has not prevented members of the Croatian Parliament from unanimously approving the annual report of the Agency for Electronic Media, just like they approved all the previous ones, showing that, for obvious reasons, they care more about the media owners’ interests than about the interests of those whom they should represent.
The ideal media owner
What should an ideal media owner look like? The one who, in the name of professionalism, ethics and independence, would risk conflict with the most powerful entrepreneur in the country and owner of the largest newspaper distribution agency. The one who, in the name of those same values, would renounce public grants worth millions that could have guaranteed him survival and profit. The one who, guided by enthusiasm for journalism, wouldn’t interfere with editorial independence employing editors willing to satisfy his entrepreneurial desires. The one who puts the responsibility to transmit public information ahead of personal profit.
Not even Charles Foster Kane has been able to survive in such a role, although he strenuously wished it at the beginning of the film. At the beginning of his own “film”, Nino Pavić too wanted to be like that, and yet he went from being editor of the legendary weekly Polet in the Seventies to being the founder of EuropaPress Holding, currently the biggest editorial group in the country, recently renamed Hanza Media. The group earned its “first million” during the Nineties, writing warmongering articles for the weekly Globus. There is no substantial difference between the publications of Europapress Holding, owned by ex-journalist Pavić, and the publications of Hanza Media owned by Marijan Hanžeković, whose only relation to journalism rests in his role as a member of the HRT’s legal team.
It seems that not even the legal form of media outlets is enough to guarantee the protection of the public interest. A media outlet belonging to the public sector could, as a result of shift in state power, end up being transformed, within the space of a few moths, from desirable to undesirable, and the case of HRT illustrates that perfectly. The private, profit-oriented sector gave birth to some of the best products of Croatian journalism – two of the most relevant newspaper outlets were in fact registered as commercial companies: Feral Tribune, commonly considered a bastion of free information, and Arkzin, official journal of Croatian Anti-war campaign, often considered a precursor to today’s non-profit media.
On the other hand, there are journalists who, even though they own media operating in the so-called “third sector”, didn’t hesitate to provide public relations services to certain politicians nor to do the dirty work when it came to preparing media prelude to restrictive “media policies” advocated by the extreme right, thus facilitating their implementation.
The battle for true information, as well as the battle to preserve or improve democracy, will always be exactly that – a battle, dynamic process. On one side of the battlefield, we can expect to see those who, for different reasons, want to manipulate public opinion, while on the opposite side should stand those primarily preoccupied with the public interest, which is intrinsically linked to the essence of the journalistic profession: journalists, professional associations, civil society organisations, maybe even political parties and state institutions, as long as they remain immune from clientelism.
The stakes in this battle are huge, because who holds power over information really controls the state and society. And the standards achieved in the field of public information are never irreversible. To begin with, it is important to know who stands behind the media, because that can be the key to understanding what is being written and said.
Declarative commitment to greater transparency
The Action Plan of the Open Government Partnership, approved by the centre-left government (SDP/HNS) for the period 2014-2016, foresaw among other things a number of measures aimed at strengthening the transparency of media, including their ownership structures.
The position of the then government, which later turned out to be purely declarative, recognized the need to improve the normative framework regarding media transparency and independence, first of all through amending the law on the media by introducing new norms aimed at regulating the status of journalists who decide to report cases of censorship that took place in the newsroom; by defining the terms of relationship between advertising concessionaires and media outlets; by ensuring transparency of information related to media owners, even when they are represented by a physical person; and by introducing an obligation for media outlets to make their annual financial statements transparent as well as to publish and make easily accessible certain information, including those regarding “ownership structure with possible shares/liaison in another media outlets or any other type of company (e.g. co-ownership, personal/family relationships, responsibilities in a political party), income arising from the ordinary activities, newsroom statute, contact information”.
In addition to these measures, it was envisaged that the legislative framework would be amended in such a way as to facilitate decision-making process regarding allocation of subventions and benefits to certain media outlets. To this end, the Action Plan foresaw a set of amendments to be introduced to the relevant legislation (law on media, law on electronic media, law on value added tax, etc.).
Furthermore, it was planned to introduce the legal obligation for electronic media to promptly publish on their websites complete and true information regarding program fact sheet, concessionaire’s obligations, concession area and broadcast range, programming scheme, daily and weekly schedule, networking agreement among concessionaires, details of the responsible person, contact information and/or feedback form. Finally, it was envisaged that the Agency for Electronic Media should be responsible for publishing the concession contracts for audiovisual and radio media services, including all tender documentation.
An independent report on progress made by Croatia within the framework of the Open Government Partnership, published at the beginning of 2016, indicates that as far as improving legislative framework is concerned, Milanović’s cabinet didn’t achieve any progress. In other words, the implementation of the obligations undertaken “hasn’t even begun”. The only “almost achievement” was the publication, by the Agency for Electronic Media, of the vast majority of concession contracts for audiovisual and radio services (and this was mostly due to the above-mentioned initiative of H-Alter).
As regards the commitment to increase transparency of media ownership, the two governments successive to the fall of the Milanović cabinet, both arose out of the coalition agreement between Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and Most, demonstrated even less efficiency, to the extent that the Action Plan of the Open Government Partnership for the period 2016-2018 hasn’t even been presented.
A conversation with Saša Paparella, author of the book Gazda (Croatian Center for investigative journalism and media freedom, Zagreb, 2016), that has been adapted into a documentary of the same name about Ivica Todorić and Agrokor
In a country where journalistic attempts to investigate the Todorić ‘phenomenon’ have been rather rare, your book, as well as the documentary inspired by it, represent an exception. What was the reception of the book and the film in the Croatian mainstream media?
On the eve of the film première, that took place last summer, the first to write about it were the film critics of Jutarnji list. Those reviews were published without any problem, but at a certain point some censor realized what has happened, or someone from Agrokor called the newsroom, and everything just disappeared from the website of Jutarnji. Afterwards, the weekly Nacional dedicated to our film the front-page and another six, seven pages of one of its editions, which encouraged other media to give it some attention. The definite breakthrough, as far as the mainstream media are concerned, occurred with the participation of the director of the film Dario Juričan in a popular television show called “Nedjeljom u 2”.
At the end of 2016, Aleksandar Stanković, creator and host of this TV show, invited Juričan to participate in the last episode of the year, meant to bring together the most interesting guests of the season. Unfortunately, HRT executives do not have that kind of courage, so, in spite of petition signed by several syndicates and associations, called “Gazdu na HRT” (Gazda on HRT), the chances that our film will ever be aired on public television are pretty minimal. However, we were prepared for that. While working on the film, we consulted with Italian producer Stefano Tealdi who some time ago made a documentary about Silvio Berlusconi that not a single Italian TV station wanted to broadcast, so in the end a Swiss TV channel, broadcasting in Italian, decided to air it.
As far as the book is concerned, it hasn’t received any review yet and there are only a few places where it can be purchased: in Zagreb movie theatre Europa, where the première of the film took place, through an online store and in a limited number of bookshops. That is the reason why some of the potential readers, especially those not so inclined towards using social media, don’t even know the book exists.
In an interview with H-Alter, Viktorija Car argued that Todorić presence in the Croatian media is substantiated precisely by his invisibility. Do you agree with this observation? How would you comment the fact that the most powerful entrepreneur in the country enjoys such treatment?
I have read that interview and often, when Dario and I are invited to attend première screenings of the film in different Croatian cities, I quote the example mentioned by Viktorija Car regarding how the students think that Ivica Todorić doesn’t even exist. It seems that the country’s most influential businessman has become some sort of mythical creature.
And while some of today’s celebrities invest all of their resources in order to become visible, Todorić is capable of doing a lot more just to remain invisible. After all, he’s a man in the shadow – he doesn’t openly interfere in politics, but far from the spotlights he is corrupting political parties; he never publicly expresses his opinion on national economic policy, and yet continues to place his managers, or at least their spouses, in key positions in government, Central Bank and antitrust authorities. Besides that, he is not particularly eloquent and tends to respond hastily to questions, just as he did in 2000 when, even though he was already the richest entrepreneur in the country, he issued an incredible statement to the daily paper Vjesnik: “If I wasn’t having a salary, if my son and my daughter weren’t working and if my dad wasn’t receiving a pension, I would have a hard time making ends meet”. After this sally, he surrounded himself with PR experts who formed a human shield around him.
How is this invisibility of Todorić related to mainstream media ownership structure?
In a situation in which newspapers cannot live off of selling copies, their survival depends on selling advertising space, so it’s clear how much influence the biggest advertiser in the country can exert over them. Todorić’s position is, moreover, strengthened by the fact that his company Agrokor owns Tisak, the major newsstand chain in Croatia. No matter how much he avoids journalists, at the turn of each year Todorić organizes a lunch at the top of his tower in order to bring together editors-in-chief and representatives of the owners of the major media companies in the country, and it is probably on these occasions that, between two bites, editorial policies of the Croatian media are being decided.
Besides that, the marketing director of Agrokor is Todorić’s daughter, so there’s nothing left to chance. This modus operandi resulted in a situation where media outlets (especially newspapers) are becoming more and more dependent upon the corporations and their advertisements, since many readers, once they realized how cowardly it is to avoid knotty questions related to Agrokor, have lost confidence in newspapers and stopped buying them.
Considering recent changes in ownership structure of Croatia’s major newspaper company, it is likely that Agrokor too will change its advertising strategy. Thus it can easily happen that, after they lost their public, the mainstream media will also lose their advertising revenues.
What do you think about the way the Croatian media treats Todorić now after the news about Agrokor’s debt broke?
Once the glass bubble around Agrokor has been broken, the Croatian newspapers are publishing dozens of articles about this corporation and its owner. It is a shame that they are doing it only now, because if they had started doing it sooner, now we wouldn’t have to deal with all these skeletons suddenly jumped out of a closet, not to mention the fact that retail trade, agriculture, media and other sectors related to Agrokor would stand on a more solid foundation.
Some media are so hypocritical that now they express concern about the way in which Todorić has privatized certain public companies, even though that had happened more than twenty years ago. However, not all of them go so far – some media continue to talk about Agrokor crisis in a very superficial way, without giving proper prominence to the responsibility of Todorić family and it’s managers, mostly friends of the family. Because you never know, the founder of Agrokor might straighten himself up at the last moment and regain control of his giant company.
This publication has been produced within the project European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, co-funded by the European Commission. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso and its partners and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union. The project's page
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