The shaky coalition of reformist parties elected in 2000 after the death of the nationalist President Franjo Tudjman pressed ahead with political and economic reforms in 2001 and pushed to join the European Union. As a result, press freedom conditions in Croatia continued to improve. The government and the Parliament made some tentative efforts to revise media laws and reform state media institutions, though narrow political interests within the ruling coalition and efforts to retain influence over the press led to mixed results.
Tudjman’s nationalist HDZ party fared surprisingly well in local elections held throughout Croatia on May 20, highlighting public frustration with poverty, painful economic reforms, and cooperation with the United Nations war crimes tribunal, which is investigating and prosecuting Balkans war crimes suspects. When it was in power during the 1990s, the HDZ used the police, judiciary, and domestic intelligence services to threaten, harass, and prosecute independent journalists. Out of power in 2001, the HDZ and its right-wing supporters became opportunistic defenders of press freedom.
On May 6, some 20,000 nationalists, war veterans, and HDZ supporters gathered in the Dalmatian city of Split to protest the demotion of Josip Jovic, editor of the state-owned Split daily Slobodna Dalmacija. (Jovic was made a columnist.) The newspaper was known for its aggressive use of ethnic hate speech under Jovic’s editorial leadership, according to local media analyst Sasa Milosevic. Through the management change, the government hoped to discourage the promotion of interethnic hatred in the media.
While physical attacks on journalists decreased overall in 2001, right-wing political activists behaved aggressively toward journalists who reported on war crimes, according to the Croatian Helsinki Committee. On March 1, a group of ax-wielding men surrounded and beat photographer Rino Belan and journalist Damir Pilic, both from the Split weekly Feral Tribune, while they were visiting the southern town of Pakostane to investigate an indicted war criminal.
In many other cases, the HDZ sought to censure individuals who had questioned its policies while the party was in power. On October 1, for example, state-run Croatian Television (HTV) broadcast Storm Over Krajina, a ground-breaking documentary about war crimes committed by the Croatian Army against ethnic Serbs in Croatia in 1995. HTV journalist Denis Latin hosted a televised discussion after the film with both right- and left-wing commentators, but the HDZ was outraged and called for the dismissal of Latin and Croatian Radio Television (HRT) director Mirko Galic.
In late October, Parliament amended the Information Law to require media outlets to disclose their ownership to the government. However, according to the Croatian Helsinki Committee, the amendment does not require public disclosure.
Another piece of legislation passed in October seeks to reform and depoliticize the state-run HINA news agency, which served as an HDZ mouthpiece during the 1990s. Parliament did not, however, revise the Law on Telecommunication, leaving many of the country’s radio stations in the hands of HDZ supporters who received licenses during Tudjman’s reign. Some local media analysts support this conservative approach, arguing that because most licenses will expire in 2002 or 2003, waiting until then to reassess the distribution of broadcast licenses will be the least politicized way to reform the process.
Hundreds of outstanding libel cases filed against independent journalists who criticized the HDZ during the Tudjman regime are still making their way through the overburdened judicial system. A local media analyst noted that judges are no longer under constant government pressure as they were during the 1990s, making it more likely that they will dismiss the cases.
While the number of libel cases has decreased significantly, in late July, Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic sued Ivo Pukanic, owner of the sensationalistic Zagreb weekly Nacional, along with editor-in-chief Sina Karli and reporters Jasna Babic and Berislav Jelinic. The suit was based on Nacional articles implicating Djukanovic in a multimillion-dollar illegal cigarette smuggling operation run by Balkan organized crime groups. The journalists could face up to three years in prison if convicted, The Associated Press reported. In November, Djukanovic sought US$100,000 in damages for the articles, but no progress was reported in the case at the end of the year.
In November, the Interior Ministry finally released some 120 surveillance files on “disloyal” journalists that the notorious Service for the Protection of the Constitutional Order (SZUP) had compiled in the 1990s. The ministry only allowed journalists to examine their own files, under highly restricted conditions. Both the Split weekly Feral Tribune–a frequent target of harassment during the Tudjman regime–and the Croatian Journalists Association called for the former SZUP officials, many of whom still occupy senior positions in the state intelligence service, to be held accountable for their actions, the HINA news agency reported. The current government has resisted pressure to prosecute these individuals.