Attacks on the Press 2003: Croatia

Gradual political stabilization in the western Balkans and the implementation of political reforms required for Croatia to join the European Union by 2007 have led to greater press freedom and media pluralism in the country. However, rivalries in the ruling reformist coalition, a powerful far-right opposition, politicized media owners, and a judiciary in need of reform continued to prevent more balanced reporting by Croatia’s lively and influential press.

Physical attacks against journalists have become rarer; in 2003, there were only two reported assaults on media executives. On March 1, a bomb destroyed the car of influential newspaper publisher Nino Pavic in the capital, Zagreb. The bombing occurred after several journalists at Pavic’s popular independent weekly Globus received threats following a series of articles about organized crime. The second attack occurred on December 17, when Ivan Caleta, owner of the independent national broadcaster Nova TV, was shot in the leg while entering his car in Zagreb. Some journalists linked both incidents to the victims’ murky business activities. Police investigations remained inconclusive at year’s end.

Croatian Radio Television (HRT) and its two branches–Croatian Television (HTV) and Croatian Radio–made progress in transitioning from a politicized state broadcaster to an autonomous public broadcaster. Economic reforms encouraged greater diversity in the broadcast media, and the commercial success of the independent, national broadcaster NOVA TV and the CCN television network forced HTV’s influential news programs to begin competing for viewers. In September, Germany’s largest private broadcaster, RTL, won the rights to broadcast nationally on HTV’s third channel for the next 10 years.

In 2003, Parliament approved the HRT Law, the Electronic Media Law, the Media Law, and the Access to Information Law, all of which strengthened legal protections for the media and improved access to government information. For the first time, nongovernmental organizations such as the Croatian Helsinki Committee and the Croatian Journalists Association were allowed to comment on early drafts of the laws.

In a misguided effort to curry favor with the United Nations and Western governments, the Croatian government pressured a reporter to provide information about an indicted war crimes suspect. On October 3, just days before a visit to the country by the chief prosecutor of the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, police questioned Ivo Pukanic, editor-in-chief of the independent weekly Nacional, about his contacts with Ante Gotovina, an indicted war crimes suspect who is currently in hiding. Pukanic had published an interview with Gotovina in June.

In July, Parliament approved amendments to the Criminal Code that expanded criminal slander and libel provisions. Journalists face up to one year in prison under criminal libel laws. The amendments, which would have required journalists to prove that published information was either true or that they believed it was true, were set to take effect in December. But Parliament repealed them on October 15, pleasing those who feared that the new requirements would have increased self-censorship.

Frustration with poor economic growth led voters to oust Croatia’s pro-Western, left-of-center ruling coalition in national elections held in November. The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), a nationalist opposition party that ruled Croatia with an iron fist in the 1990s and committed widespread abuses against the press, took the largest share of the vote, forming a minority right-wing government.

Although the HDZ sought to reassure voters during the campaign that it had moved beyond right-wing policies, some journalists were concerned about the future of press freedom. Journalists were particularly alarmed in October when the HDZ’s new prime minister, Ivo Sanaders, threatened a journalist from Croatian Radio at an election rally in the eastern city of Osijek. According to press reports, Sanaders was upset by what he said was biased reporting against the HDZ.