FOLLOWING THE DEATH OF PRESIDENT FRANJO TUDJMAN in December 1999, the advent of a reformist government brought a better year for the Croatian press. An opposition alliance defeated the late president’s nationalist HDZ party in January 2-3 parliamentary elections and in two rounds of presidential voting over the next five weeks.
During the parliamentary election campaign, state-run Croatian Radio Television (HRT), the main source of news for most Croatians, gave overwhelmingly positive coverage to HDZ officials, while providing limited and largely negative coverage of the opposition. Following the Tudjman party’s resounding defeat in those elections, however, the state-run media changed course. On January 10, HRT director Ivica Vrkic, a high-level HDZ appointee, said he would resign once the new Parliament convened. And during the presidential campaign, the broadcaster’s coverage was considerably more balanced.
After the elections, government officials stopped filing civil and criminal defamation charges against their critics in the independent press, although an estimated 1200 such cases remained from the Tudjman era.
Reforming the state-run media became an immediate priority for the new government. On March 15, Mirko Galic, one of the most respected journalists in the former Yugoslavia, was appointed director of HRT with a mandate to transform the station into a public broadcasting network along West European lines. There were concerns, though, about the government’s failure to pass new laws governing state media regulation by the end of 2000, and about the fact that much of the pro-Tudjman staff at HTV remained in place.
Sasa Milosevic, a Croatian media expert at the Open Society Institute in Zagreb, described the reforms as “tactical and partial,” because the news coverage on state radio and television became more balanced but remained basically pro-government.
Even before the presidential elections were over, the reformist government began dismantling Tudjman’s ailing kleptocracy, which had repercussions for the press. On February 2, authorities arrested the notorious tycoon Miroslav Kutle for fraud that had nearly ruined the country’s largest newspaper distributor, Tisak, along with numerous newspaper publishers to whom Tisak owed large sums of money. In July, Kutle and 12 of his associates were charged with embezzling approximately US$6 million from Tisak, which was once the second most profitable company in the country. Kutle’s trial was still in process at year’s end.
The Croatian Helsinki Committee (CHC) documented three attacks against journalists in the fall, none of which had been prosecuted by year’s end, according to CHC media officer Milena Gogic. On the evening of September 27, Goran Flauder of the Zagreb weekly Nacional was struck over the head with a wooden instrument. Flauder believed the attack came in response to an article about irregularities in the privatization of the regional daily Glas Slavonije, in which he had implicated associates of alleged Croatian war criminal Branimir Glavas. Flauder was attacked again on September 29.
On September 14, Tanja Bozic of the Zagreb daily Vecernji List and several other journalists from the Split weekly Feral Tribune were threatened by a group of angry residents in the town of Gospic. The town is home to the so-called Gospic Group, suspected of executing Serb civilians during the initial stages of the war in Croatia. Also on September 14, Robert Zuber of Obitlski Radio in Zagreb was attacked just after interviewing Miroslav Rozic, head of the far-right Croatian Party of Rights. The attacker, a young man in his late 20s, was apparently irritated by the interview, which touched on the arrest of certain Gospic Group members. He forced his way into the studio, inserted the barrel of a pistol into Zuber’s mouth, and threatened to kill him.