Croatia: Dissident Paper May Fold

Huge fines could spell the end of newspaper with reputation for scathing criticism of the authorities.

Croatia: Dissident Paper May Fold

Huge fines could spell the end of newspaper with reputation for scathing criticism of the authorities.

Croatia's Feral Tribune, a weekly paper famed for its ferocious attacks on the country's rulers over the past decade, may now have to close under what is seen as a form of backdoor media suppression.

The threat comes not from a direct government order but crushing fines imposed for wounding the feelings of a lawyer and upsetting the daughter of a famous sculptor.

Based in Split, Feral Tribune was a tireless critic of the late hard line nationalist president Franjo Tudjman. When he died, the paper carried on attacking the reputedly more moderate Prime Minister Ivica Racan.

Two recent court rulings found that Feral had inflicted "mental anguish" on people it wrote about. The paper was ordered to pay fines totaling some 200,000 kunas (slightly over 27,000 euros), a sum well beyond its means. The court also blocked the paper's bank accounts, leaving its future in jeopardy.

Feral's management hastily sought ways to keep going. It can bring out the next few editions but the future after that looks bleak, especially as the paper is facing about 70 more decisions on similar charges. Management believes the outcome of these cases will be the same.

Legislation permitting huge fines for "mental anguish" was long a favourite Tudjman government weapon against the press. It was devised as a way of financially crippling awkward media without having to send in police to close them down.

When Racan came to power in January 2000, his government refused to introduce changes to the draconian legislation. Its cold indifference towards the freedom of media clearly speaks of its own vulnerability to criticism.

About 1,200 charges against various media, similar to those brought against Feral, are waiting their turn in the Croatian courts, most of them filed by politicians and public figures.

Media analysts overwhelmingly believe that if Feral is shut down, other Croatian media will be cowed into backing away from criticising the authorities.

One prominent commentator, Jurica Pavicic, from the Zagreb daily Jutranji list, said the Feral case renewed the old policy used by the hardline Croatian Democratic Union's, HDZ, of financially blackmailing media which poked their noses where they were unwelcome.

The fines against the paper followed its defeat in lawsuit brought by lawyer Zeljko Olujic, who was the state prosecutor in Tudjman's time. Olujic sued Feral over an article written by Viktor Ivancic, published in December 1993, which accused the lawyer of anti-Semitism. The article had commented on Olujic suggestions, quoted in the paper Slobodna Dalmacija, that the Jews themselves were to blame for the holocaust because they "plundered and insulted other peoples".

The district court in Zagreb trying the Feral case found the paper guilty of inflicting "mental anguish" on the plaintiff in February. The court said that Ivanic had presented "cosmopolitan opinions" and had criticised Olujic in "an improper manner". Feral now owes the lawyer 53,000 kunas.

After the ruling the paper defiantly re-published Ivanic's original article to remind readers of what Olujic had said.

In another ruling, the Zagreb district court ordered Feral to pay 140,000 kunas to Marija Mestrovic, daughter of the famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, for the sustained "mental anguish" she allegedly suffered from an article written by the prominent art critic and university professor Zvonko Markovic.

Markovic claimed in 1998 that Mestrovic's daughter was incapable of looking after her inheritance. The court acquitted Markovic but found the paper guilty.

Feral editor-in-chief, Heni Erceg said, "The present judiciary is headed by the same people who persecuted us for nine years during Tudjman's regime. I do not believe anyone issued directives to the judges, as was the case in Tudjman's time, but the result is the same. Racan and his coalition have done nothing to reform the judiciary which is the 'cancer' in Croatian society."

Adrian White, Secretary General of the International Federation of Journalists, which has more than half a million members in 106 countries, urged Racan's government to "revise the legislation that has brought Feral to the brink". He said the laws applied by Croatian courts were archaic, intolerant and outdated in any modern democracy.

The head of the Association of Croatian Judges, Vladimir Gredelj, dismissed complaints against the judiciary. He accused Feral management of whipping up "mass-hysteria" against judges. "Feral and its arrogant, irresponsible reports are to blame for this, not the judiciary," he said.

Prominent institutions such as the Croatian journalists' association, the country's Helsinki human rights committee and its PEN Centre have spoken up in Feral's defence. About 10 NGOs organised a meeting in Zagreb on March 9 to collect donations for the paper. Even President Stipe Mesic visited the meeting and donated 100 kunas (approximately 13.5 euros). He also bought two books sold by publishers supporting Feral.

Unlike Mesic, Prime Minister Racan has made no public comment on the Feral case. He ignored a letter from Rapporteurs Sans Frontiers, an international association for media freedom, calling for Feral to be allowed to exercise its right to inform the public. The head of the organisation, Rober Menard, said such draconian court rulings "crush all hope for greater freedom of information in Croatia after the Tudjman era".

Racan's aloof attitude could be caused by his resentment at being frequently criticised in Feral's fiercely satirical articles. When asked why he had been refusing to be interviewed by the paper, Racan replied, "There's already too much of me in Feral as it is."

Many Croatians regard it as absurd that Feral could be shut down under a new regime regarded by Europe as democratic while it managed to stand up to all the pressures under Tudjman's regime which the West saw as a dictatorship.

Dragutin Hedl is IWPR's project editor in Croatia.

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