Croatia’s new center-left ruling coalition, elected in parliamentary polls on January 3, 2000, has pledged to improve the country’s dismal press freedom and civil- rights record after a decade of abuses by the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).
The newly elected government and president, the latter to be chosen in a runoff presidential poll on February 7, will have their work cut out for them if they intend to reverse the autocratic legacy of the late president Franjo Tudjman, who died of cancer in December.
During his last year in power, President Tudjman clung tightly to his monopoly on national television broadcasting, using the HDZ’s control of Croatian Television (HTV) as a powerful propaganda tool. All key positions at the network were held by HDZ members or leaders. They allowed little or no airtime to the center-left opposition, especially in the months leading up to the parliamentary elections.
While there are about a dozen local private TV stations around the country, HTV reaches around 80 percent of the population and has no competition at the national level. Since 1997, the Croatian Journalists’ Association and Forum 21, an association of HTV employees seeking reforms at the channel, have lobbied to transform HTV into a public television network. The journalists hope the newly elected government will take its cue from this proposal and not simply replace the current HTV management with its own party loyalists.
Last year, the late president and his inner circle used their familiar arsenal of weapons to punish critics in the independent press. Independent newspapers continued to struggle with the heavy financial burden of some 600 civil-libel suits and more than 300 criminal- defamation prosecutions, filed by HDZ officials and relatives of President Tudjman. In 1999, the regime also made its first attempts to use laws protecting state secrets and so-called banking secrets to prosecute journalists investigating official corruption and nepotism.
Journalists are likely to press Croatia’s new government to revise various criminal statutes used to prosecute them for their work and to modify civil-libel statutes. The penal code articles include provisions criminalizing insult and defamation, shielding the president and four other top officials against seditious libel, granting privacy protections, and barring the disclosure of state, military, and business secrets.
The independent Croatian press also suffered from ongoing surveillance and wiretapping carried out by various government security agencies, including the Service for the Protection of Constitutional Order. A number of independent newspapers published articles in late 1998 and early 1999, offering evidence that journalists working for three weekly newspapers, Feral Tribune, Globus, and Nacional, had been under constant surveillance. Some of the journalists were able to view their own dossiers, where they found details about their private lives, politics, and contacts.
Interior Ministry officials claimed that the journalists represented a threat to national security. Lawyers for the Croatian Journalists’ Association filed a complaint with the country’s constitutional court in early 1999, but the court had yet to hear the case by year’s end.
Tisak, the largest newspaper distributor in Croatia, was once again a major source of financial hardship for the independent press. Because of mismanagement and its own insolvency, Tisak continued to owe many newspapers months’ worth of back sales revenues. Tisak, which controls about three-quarters of all Croatian newspaper sales, usually managed to pay pro-government newspapers on time but routinely delayed payment to independent newspapers. Independent papers rely heavily on circulation revenues for their income and were often unable to pay wages and other expenses as a result. In the spring, a consortium of state-owned banks finally took over the failing firm from its owner, Miroslav Kutle. But even under new management, Tisak had not yet paid off its massive debts to local newspapers by year’s end.
Orlanda Obad, Jutarnji List LEGAL ACTION
Obad, a journalist with the independent political daily Jutarnji List, was charged in Zagreb under Article 295 of the Croatian penal code. The Croatian public prosecutor’s office accused her of revealing business secrets by publishing an article about the bank holdings of Croatian president Franjo Tudjman’s wife in the October 17, 1998, issue of Jutarnji List.
Also accused were two officials at the Zagrebacka Bank, who had provided Obad with information about Mrs. Tudjman’s account. This was the second case in which a Croatian journalist was charged under Article 295. A final court hearing was expected in the fall for Ratko Boskovic, a journalist with the independent weekly Globus. Boskovic was accused of revealing the content of bank documents in a 1995 Globus article that examined possible financial improprieties at the Viktor Lenac shipyard in Rijeka. All four trials were still pending at year’s end.
Ivo Pukanic, Nacional HARASSED
Robert Bajrusi, Nacional HARASSED
Police questioned Pukanic, editor of the independent weekly Nacional, and Bajrusi, a reporter for the paper, about the sources of a June 2 article alleging that the Croatian government had fixed the national soccer championships. The two journalists declined to reveal their sources.
Soon afterward, police searched the offices of Nacional, as well as the homes of Pukanic and Bajrusi, in an attempt to find classified government documents that had been quoted and reproduced in the article. Their searches proved fruitless. On June 8, police also searched the home of Miroslav Separovic, a former justice minister, who resigned at the beginning of 1999. Pukanic denied that Separovic was a source for the article.
In their article, the two journalists claimed that Croatia’s intelligence agency SZUP coerced referees to favor the winning “Croatia” team in the national championship tournament. The article also alleged that SZUP had wiretapped sports officials and journalists.
After police interrogated the two journalists, the Ministry of Internal Affairs approached the prosecutor general’s office with a request to launch separate criminal cases against Separovic, for revealing state secrets, and against Pukanic and Bajrusi, for publishing state secrets. In October, the prosecutor general’s office dismissed the Separovic case for lack of evidence. At year’s end it seemed unlikely that Pukanic and Bajrusi would be charged.
CPJ protested the legal harassment of Pukanic, Bajrusi, and Nacional in a June 16 letter to Croatian president Franjo Tudjman.