|The Croatian government stepped up its already vigorous use of criminal
and civil libel suits to keep the independent press in check. By year's end,
independent newspapers including Globus, Feral Tribune, Nacional,
and Novi List were facing more than 600 civil law suits. Individual
claims generally range from about 100,000 kuna (US$15,000) to 4.6 million
kuna (US$750,000), which 23 government ministers are demanding
of Globus for an article reporting allegations of official
corruption. Another 300 or so criminal libel cases have been lodged against
individual journalists. The majority of plaintiffs are government officials
who claim to have suffered mental pain as a result of the articles in
Some good news can be derived from the fact that Feral Tribune
journalists Viktor Ivancic and Marinko Culic were acquitted on December 21
of criminal libel charges in a long-standing criminal libel suit. Following
an initial acquittal in September 1996, the state filed an appeal and new
charges were brought against the two journalists in connection with the article
"Jasenovac -- The Largest Croatian Underground City." While this most recent
acquittal could potentially serve as a precedent in future cases, it is unlikely
to affect those in which newspapers have already been ordered by second instance
courts to pay significant fines. This is the case with Nacional, which lost three cases this year for a total of 614,846
kuna (nearly US$100,000), and The Feral Tribune, which also lost
three cases worth 160,000 kuna (US$27,000). Each of these verdicts has been
appealed to the Supreme Court, although the newspapers could be forced to
pay these fines until the decisions are overturned by a Supreme Court ruling.
The situation was only made worse by the frequent use of Article 25 of Croatia's
Public Information Law, which stipulates that courts must hear these lawsuits
within eight days of the initial filing. This leaves little time for the
defendants to properly prepare a defense.
State-controlled distributors and printers exert financial pressure on the
country's print media. Tisak, the country's largest distributor, allied with
the ruling Democratic Party of Croatia (HDZ), controlled about 70 percent
of all newspaper sales. They routinely withheld payments from independent
newspapers and, to a lesser extent, state-owned newspapers. At one point
toward the end of the year, the amount owed to Nacional exceeded
3 million kuna (approximately US$500,000). Other independent newspapers are
equally dependent on Tisak for payments to employees and to printers, since
the majority of their income comes from sales rather than advertising. On
the other side of the squeeze is the largely state-owned printing house,
Hrvatska Tiskara, which has threatened to stop printing independent newspapers
if they fail to meet payments.
Amidst the legal and financial harassment, which showed no signs of abating
during the year, independent journalists learned in November that the secret
service had been keeping files on many of them. The security forces continued
their more blatant forms of intimidation such as threats and physical attacks.
Croatia's privately owned electronic media struggle to compete with the
state-controlled HTV Television and radio. HTV television, managed at nearly
every level by HDZ operatives, remains the country's most influential station.
But an association of prominent reporters from HTV known as Forum 21 has
been vocal in calling for reforms within the television network, including
greater editorial freedom and balance of political viewpoints.