Change at the helm of Croatian TV
After many scandals and awful management, Croatian TV's governing body decided to replace director Vanja Sutlic, changing the leadership of Croatia's most important medium...all in the middle of a presidential election campaign.
Vanja Sutlic, described by the media as the “worst director in the history of Croatian TV” was dismissed from his post last Tuesday. Hloverka Novak Srzic, editor-in-chief of the information program, has avoided the same fate for the time being, but only because she is ill. Sutlic’s impending departure concludes the agony that has besieged Croatian TV (HRT), Croatia's most influential medium and a channel that, during the time of first Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, was once called “the cathedral of Croatian spirit”.
The replacement of the HRT director and the imminent removal of the editor-in-chief of the information program are not the results of a political mandate by the government. They simply follow a series of scandals, episodes of corruption, and the unsustainable situation in which the public channel has operated for some time now. Changing the channel's leadership was the only logical measure the Program Council could take. This body, composed of 11 members, “defends and protects the interest of the public opinion by exercising control and improving the program of the radio-television”, according to the Law on Croatian Radio-Television. In addition, it selects and replaces the management of HRT by means of public call.
It appears that the final drop in the bucket was the racist statement of the now ex-director Sutlic, who called a well-known journalist and long-standing HRT correspondent from Belgrade who is married to a Serb “a Cetnik whore”.
When, around mid-October, four HRT journalists spoke about Sutlic's outburst publicly, the public was stunned, as were politicians, and President Stjepan Mesic said that if it were proven true that Sutlic had used such words about the journalist, “he would surely not get off lightly.”
Sutlic launched a counterattack. He said that the statements by the four journalists were sheer fabrication and he moved to fire them as soon as their allegations began to spread. Other journalists began to complain. The culmination of the scandal came when the editor-in-chief of the information program, Hloverka Novak Srzic, fired the host of Dossier.hr for having invited on the program as a guest a political analyst who spoke critically of the links between politics and the mafia in Croatia. This provoked a protest by a dozen journalists who, in front of the HRT building, symbolically put tape over their mouths and held blank sheets of paper to symbolize the channel's censorship.
But these are not the only reasons the HRT leadership had to pack its bags. Croatian TV's AGB Nielsen ratings have noticeably declined and the competition, in particular the private Nova TV, have achieved higher rankings. Even the midday news programme Dnevnik, HRT's bulwark that always had ratings far ahead of the competition's, has come into question.
In 2007, HRT's prime-time news ratings were at almost 44 percent, but they have since declined to a bit more than 34 percent. In the meantime, competitor Nova TV's news program has registered an important ratings increase to almost 33 percent of viewers, closing in on HRT, which was at one time beyond reach.
HRT also faces financial problems. The channel, which employs around 3,600 people, has announced many layoffs. For the time being, no one wants to talk about how many people will lose their jobs, but it could be in the hundreds. Former HRT director and current ambassador to France, Mirko Galic, has said in the past that there are around 1,000 persons in excess employed by the channel. Now, however, the economic crisis and the strong recession in Croatia, in addition to the fall in profits from HRT marketing, have made unavoidable the decision that no previous management felt like taking.
When Vanja Sutlic was at the helm of HRT, financial scandals came one after the other; from the non-transparent purchases of overpriced external productions (in particular, local soap operas) to the fact that some hosts of the most well-known shows had their own companies which collaborated with HRT.
While newspapers were already providing daily coverage of developments at HRT, two more scandals seriously compromised the positions of Vanja Sutlic and Hloverka Novak Srzic. Despite the economic crisis and the announcement of the discharge of many TV Croatia employees, Sutlic bought an expensive yacht. The editor-in-chief of the information program, Hloverka Novak Srzic, instead had the bright idea of hoisting the Ustasha flag at her house on the occasion of her son’s birthday. These two scandals have also contributed to the further tarnishing of Sutlic's and Srzic's images, which had already been visibly smeared.
Although it is true that there is a continuing political attempt to control the editorial course of the channel as much as possible, politics has not influenced Croatian TV near as much as it did during the time of Franjo Tudjaman.
With the removal of Sutlic from the HRT leadership and the imminent firing of the editor-in-chief of the information program, the season has opened for selecting their successors. The departure of the HRT leadership happens amidst the election campaign for president (to be held 27 December). Taking into account the procedure for selecting HRT leaders, it is practically certain that Croatia will have a new president before HRT has new leadership.
This means that the new president will lobby to try to place a person of confidence at the helm of the channel. There is no doubt that current Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, who before entering politics some 15 years ago worked as journalist for HRT radio news, will have the same intentions.