After returning to power in 2003, the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), tried to reassure voters and the international community that it had moved beyond the repressive right-wing policies that marked its ironfisted rule during the 1990s. Senior HDZ officials reasserted influence over state media but kept a looser hold on independent journalists as Croatia bids to join the European Union in 2007.
As part of that ambitious effort, the government pressed ahead with broad legal reforms that establish Western-style safeguards for the media. Still, analysts note that the changes do not decriminalize libel, and they do little to improve access to public information. Government press offices routinely withhold information and ignore journalists’ requests for official records.
When it comes to exerting influence, the HDZ government has not been reluctant to engage the media. In January, authorities reprimanded the state-owned daily Slobodna Dalmacija (Free Dalmatia) after the newspaper exposed an Interior Ministry official’s failure to pay child support. Slobodna Dalmacija reporter Sasa Jadrijevic Tomas received several death threats after writing the story.
Intelligence agencies continued to pressure journalists to extract information and gain cooperation. A national scandal erupted in November when freelance journalist Helena Puljiz accused agents from the Counter-Intelligence Agency (POA) of detaining her, asking her questions about President Stipe Mesic, and trying to force her to become a POA informant. The POA director was dismissed in December after a government panel confirmed Puljiz’s charges.
In some cases, senior HDZ officials tried to discredit the media. In March, Health Minister Andrija Hebrang claimed he had a list of journalists who had taken bribes from the previous government—an apparent attempt to deflect attention from a subordinate who had offered bribes to journalists in exchange for positive coverage.
The government’s relationship with The Hague–based U.N. war crimes tribunal remained tense during much of 2004. Two senior security officials—Franjo Turek, head of the Counter-Intelligence Agency, and Zeljko Bagic, a national security aide to Mesic—were dismissed for allegedly aiding Ante Gotovina, an indicted war criminal who was in hiding at year’s end. Both security officials tried to blame the media for Gotovina’s ability to elude arrest, alleging that journalists were working for foreign security services and publishing misinformation.
More than 800 libel cases against journalists continued to work their way through Croatia’s backlogged courts in 2004, the U.S.-based media training organization IREX reported.
In July, a municipal judge in the coastal city of Split imposed a two-month suspended sentence on Croatian Radio journalist Ljubica Letinic on charges that he slandered a businessman on a popular television talk show in 2002, according to local press reports.
Later that month, former Novi Brodski List (Brod’s New Newspaper) Editor Miroslav Juric narrowly escaped a 70-day prison sentence after Justice Minister Vesna Skare-Ozbolt stepped in and paid his 12,600 kuna (US$2,100) fine. Juric was convicted of criminal libel in a county court in Slavonski Brod after accusing a local judge and prosecutor of corruption, but he refused to pay the fine. It was widely believed that Skare-Ozbolt paid the fine to avoid the negative publicity that would have been generated by jailing the journalist.
Croatian Radio Television, once a mere mouthpiece for the HDZ, continued to make progress in its transition from a state broadcaster to a more autonomous and influential public network. Still, senior government officials and members of Parliament are known to threaten its budget to push for favorable coverage.
No progress was reported in police investigations into two serious attacks against media executives in 2003: a car bombing that targeted influential newspaper publisher Nino Pavic and the shooting of Ivan Caleta, owner of the independent national broadcaster Nova TV.