President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic addressed a video conference on freedom of the media, held in the offices of the Croatian Journalists' Association (HND) in Zagreb on Tuesday, saying that freedom of the media was the foundation of every democracy. She was booed by several civil society activists and journalists.
"Freedom of the media is one of the most fundamental freedoms, one of the most fundamental human rights, and the foundation of every democratic society," Grabar-Kitarovic told the conference, involving 16 countries from Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Quoting US President Thomas Jefferson as saying that "where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe," Grabar-Kitarovic stressed that as President she would always advocate freedom of expression.
Her speech was disrupted by boos from Workers' Front (RF) activists and several journalists.
During the President's speech, two RF activists were holding a banner saying "Croatian government is killing the media", and before her speech, freelance journalist Domagoj Margetic asked her who had put a contract out on him.
The President then left the venue, after which RF activists Marko Milosevic and Aleksandar Dolic told the press that the purpose of their protest was to send a clear message about what was going on in the media sector in Croatia.
"The media are being censored not just for ideological reasons, but also because Croatia, if the present government serves its full term, is facing privatisation plunder on a scale we haven't seen since the 1990s. That's why they need obedient media," Milosevic said.
Grabar-Kitarovic later wrote on her Facebook page that she was disappointed that her speech had been disrupted "precisely by those who allegedly advocate freedom of speech and media."
"By not letting me express my opinion, they showed that they are not true advocates of freedom of speech, but obviously engaged activists. I will continue to persevere in advocating freedom of the media and responsibility for public speaking," she said.
The video conference was organised by the HND and the US Embassy to mark World Press Freedom Day.
US Ambassador Julieta Valls Noyes said that journalistic freedom must be paired with journalistic professionalism, fact checking and integrity reporting. "It is fitting that we are meeting just moments after the Croatian Journalists' Association gave out their annual awards to a number of Croatia's most highly respected journalists. (...) They set the high standards to which all journalists, including in the United States, must aspire," she said.
The ambassador said that freedom of the media was important for the health of every democratic society and that her government would encourage the integrity and independence of the media and freedom of the media in the US, Croatia and elsewhere in the word.