CPJ protests court rulings against satirical weekly

New York, March 19, 2002—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is very concerned about two recent crippling libel judgments against the satirical weekly Feral Tribune.

The judgments were issued in two separate libel suits filed by Marica Mestrovic, the daughter of a famous Croatian sculptor, and Zeljko Olujic, an attorney and former ally of the late president Franjo Tudjman.

The Zagreb District Court recently upheld two rulings by the Zagreb Municipal Court, which fined the Split-based newspaper a total of 200,000 kunas (US$ 25,000).

“These judgments jeopardize the future of a respected independent magazine and erode the hard-fought freedoms journalists have gained in the post-Tudjman era,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “We call on Croatian judicial authorities to review these unjust and punitive verdicts.”

Tudjman-era libel cases
Mestrovic sued the weekly in response to a 1995 article suggesting she was not competent to manage her father’s foundation. Olujic, a well-known Holocaust denier, sued Feral Tribune after a 1993 article characterized him as “a racist” who “writes stupid things,” according to Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

The Zagreb District Court affirmed the lower court’s decisions that Feral Tribune was guilty of inflicting “sustained mental anguish” on both Mestrovic and Olujic. On March 1, the district court froze the magazine’s bank account. Since then, the weekly has been unable to pay its staff.

Throughout the 1990s, Feral Tribune strongly criticized the nationalist policies of the late president Tudjman, whose allies filed numerous libel cases against the satirical weekly. Many of the cases are still making their way through Croatia’s overburdened court system.

“Six months ago the courts in Croatia—which remain largely unreformed from the Tudjman era—started processing some 70 libel cases pending against us that they hadn’t touched in three years,” Zoran Erceg, director of the Feral Tribune Company, told CPJ on Friday. “If this continues, Feral Tribune is finished.”

Just the facts, please
In a March 4 statement, the editorial board of Feral Tribune pointed out that “the court itself has stated that facts of the incriminating articles were not in question, but that value judgments were ‘presented in an inappropriate manner.'”

The court’s judgment in the Olujic case, for example, found the weekly guilty of “expressing cosmopolitan [i.e., unpatriotic] views and opinions,” the statement said.

Feral Tribune plans to appeal both rulings to the Supreme Court but can only do so legally once the fines have been paid in full, Erceg told CPJ.