The Rocky Road to Broadcasting Law in Croatia

(National Association of Broadcasters, NAB World, November 1993)

By William Dunkerley

In a dramatic move in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, the opposition party quietly staged a strategic walk-out in Parliament. The issue? Broadcasting law. Croatia, one of the new nations emerging from the ruins of Communism, is developing its first such legislation. But it isn't easy for any of the factions that are involved.

At stake are issues of press freedom, whether independent broadcasting is to be encouraged or discouraged, the extent of political involvement in the licensing process, and the overall structure of a proposed communications regulatory body.

In mid-September, I was called to Zagreb by the American Embassy. They requested my assistance in working impartially with members of Parliament, the Minister of Communications, and the broadcasters. My role was to describe the American model for broadcast regulation and to raise issues affecting the freedom of the press and the commercial viability of independent broadcasters. Strong stuff for any emerging nation!

Croatians have a history of government monopoly in broadcasting. There are some independent or quasi-independent broadcasters now. But without a new broadcast law, the fate of independent broadcasting is unclear.

Of course, I couldn't just recommend that the Croatians simply adopt the American approach. Rather, I presented our model for them to pick, choose, and adapt that which made sense.

I worked with Parliament members of the opposition party, the HSLS. They were impatient that the government had not yet introduced broadcasting legislation. And they viewed the absence of such law as an impediment to the emergence of independent broadcasting. They seemed distrustful of any government statements which did endorse a free and independent media.

The HSLS solution was to draft their own legislation. While they don't have enough votes in Parliament to pass it, they hoped their efforts would bring about a public awareness of the need for a broadcasting law. They firmly believed that their efforts would result in "a big step towards the democratization of Croatia." What prompted their walk-out in Parliament is that based on a procedural disagreement, the ruling party refused to even consider the proposed legislation.

At the same time, when I met with the government's Minister of Communications, he reported his draft legislation was almost complete. It was interesting to observe how his focus differed from the HSLS' perception of it. For example, he said he openly endorsed the concept of a free and independent media. The Minister described how he was engaged in international frequency coordination to identify clear frequencies to assign to new applicants. But he was not optimistic. He pointed out that on a clear day, he could see Slovenia from his office window. And that Hungary was not far away, either. Or Austria or Bosnia. Italy is just across the Adriatic. Imagine the possibilities for interference in that tiny geographic area!

Regarding the practicality of greater independent broadcasting, though, the Minister raised questions regarding investment capital. With his country at war, and suffering from a weakened economy, who besides a political party could come up with sufficient funds? he asked.

When I talked to the third group, the broadcasters themselves, I heard yet another perspective. One group told me that the TV station they had previously operated had been summarily closed down by the government. Another broadcaster listed the difficulties he is experiencing in privatizing his station. And a former operator of a local radio station was exasperated that her frequency had been recalled by the government -- with no new frequency assigned.

I'm sure the government has an explanation for these instances. For example, had the TV station been properly licensed? Was the radio station causing interference? I don't know the answers. But I did notice that all the broadcasters shared a sense of being oppressed by a government they regard as hostile to the idea of a free media. And they feel helpless to bring about any kind of change.

All the people I met -- the HSLS Members of Parliament, the Minister of Communications, the broadcasters -- impressed me as sincere, well-intentioned people. Yet they hold such divergent views on the status of broadcasting in Croatia! While some of this can be explained by their different roles, I don't think that is the whole story. The greatest factor is that there is a lot of misunderstanding all around.

If ever there were a need for a national association of broadcasters, it is in Croatia today. Such an organization would allow broadcasters to work together and present unified views forcefully to the government and to their representatives in Parliament. It would also provide a means for them to study and better understand the government's positions.

But I don't predict that the broadcasters will readily realize their power as a unified group. Their Communist past has left them with no feeling of empowerment, with no sense that they can influence their fate when it comes to the government. I'm not sure that these feelings are entirely rooted in today's reality, though. Old structures that have been swept away have not yet been permanently replaced -- yet it doesn't occur to some of the parties that they can influence what comes next! Croatian broadcasters and legislators will need to look at Western prototypes for ideas they can effectively adapt to Croatia. Hopefully by working together, they will identify their responsibilities -- as well as their privileges -- in the important role broadcasting must play in their emerging democracy.

For now, though, we'll have to wait and see what happens when the government introduces its own proposals for a new broadcasting law!

William Dunkerley is a U.S. publishing consultant with experience in electronic communications media and spectrum utilization. He is a member of two U.S. study groups within the CCIR, a branch of the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union.