Croatian Minister Pays Up to Keep Journalist Out of Jail

Justice minister’s controversial decision to stop a journalist from going to prison has put the country’s libel laws under the spotlight.

Croatian Minister Pays Up to Keep Journalist Out of Jail

Justice minister’s controversial decision to stop a journalist from going to prison has put the country’s libel laws under the spotlight.

"In this country journalists will not go to prison for libel," Justice Minister Vesna Skare Ozbolt said last week, announcing that against his will, the former editor of a now defunct bi-weekly, Novi Brodski List, had been spared his two-month jail sentence.

It soon emerged that the minister, leader of the Democratic Centre party, a junior partner in Croatia’s right-of-centre government, had personally paid Miroslav Juric’s 12,600 kuna (1,800 euro) fine.

The unusual gesture has not reassured journalists that they no longer face the threat of intimidation, however.

These pressures were highlighted when Juric elected to be the first journalist since independence in 1991 to go to jail rather than pay his hefty fine, imposed for libelling a local judge and a prosecutor.

Juric protested against a court decision in June 17, 2003, which found him guilty of defamation when on July 5, 2000 his newspaper reprinted an article from a national tabloid weekly, Imperijal, accusing the two of corruption.

The latest legal furore comes at a time when Croatia faces increasing pressure to bring its libel laws into line with European norms.

The “green light” Brussels has given Zagreb to proceed with talks aimed at joining the European Union has increased pressure on Croatia to make libel a purely civil offence, in which prison has no place.

For the time being, however, Croatia is one of the shrinking band of mainly Balkan states where libel remains a criminal offence and jail is a possibility.

Anyone whose reputation has been violated by an item of public information can bring a private criminal, as well as a civil, law suit.

Declaring her embarrassment over this, Skare Ozbolt said new legislation, due to take effect in October, would see libel in Croatia decriminalised.

But legal experts are only partly satisfied with the planned changes. Vesna Alaburic, a media law expert, told IWPR the changes were “positive but incomplete”.

On the plus side, the burden of proof would shift to the prosecution, whereas now the defendant has to prove his innocence, she said.

It would also be necessary to show that the journalist in question intended to damage someone’s reputation, whereas an earlier draft of the bill left out the aspect of intent. Editors would also no longer be automatically responsible for their employees’ libellous writing.

On the minus side, in spite of the international recommendations that libel should be removed altogether from the penal code, remnants of the former system remain in the draft legislation.

Alaburic says although the changes will “reduce the number of criminal procedures against them [journalists] and make their conviction more difficult”, the possibility of jail remains, directly for libel or in the event of non-payment of a fine.

Non-payment of a civil fine, on the other hand, would result in measures such as seizure of property, rather than actual imprisonment.

Although the planned amendments will introduce a more liberal libel law system to Croatia than exists in many EU countries, the legal culture in which they operate is not, according to Alaburic.

“While criminal law provisions on libel and defamation are rarely if at all used in practice [ in the EU] in Croatia that is not the case,” she said.

Oliver Vujovic, secretary-general of the South East Europe Media Organisation, SEEMO, told IWPR that there were still far too many prosecutions for libel going through the courts in Croatia.

“Though the situation is much better than it was under [former president Franjo] Tudman, the rate of prosecution for libel is still too high,” Vujovic said.

He blamed the country’s “political culture” for the fact that the judiciary remained “very active” in resorting to criminal provisions.

Zrinjka Perusko, a media expert at the Zagreb Institute for International Relations, said pressures on the media now came more from the private sector than politicians.

“Before, the majority of cases were brought by people in political power as a way to pressure journalists,” Perusko said. “Now, most are private, and relate to business interests.”

In the last three years, at least five journalists have received jail sentences for libel. Tihomil Jovanovic, Ljubica Letinic, Damir Pilic, Ivo Pukanic and Boris Raseta all had their sentences suspended on payment of fines, however.

Vujovic said in many more cases prison terms had been imposed in the first instance, but had been overturned after appeals to higher courts. “The protracted nature of these processes also constitutes a form of pressure on the media,” he said.

A 2003 Media Sustainability Index report from IREX, the US-based media development body, reiterated its opinion that the media faced excessive use of libel actions.

“Libel persists as one of the crucial legal problems facing the media: more than 800 cases against Croatian journalists are still pending in the courts,” it said.

Many are old, dating back to the Tudjman era of the Nineties. Some are particularly questionable; one relates to the satirical Split-based weekly Feral Tribune, charged with inflicting "moral damage" and publishing "cosmopolitan opinions and views”. The case, concerning two articles from 1993 and 1995, brought the paper to the brink of closure after its bank accounts were frozen in March 2002. It was fined 200,000 kuna, approximately 28,500 euro.

Dragutin Lucic, president of the Croatian Journalists’ Association, HND, told IWPR that the Juric scenario could easily re-occur, under which a journalist might end up in prison if his or her fine was not paid.

That threat now hangs over Slobodna Dalmacija editor Ilija Marsic, who has refused to pay a fine imposed for defaming an official from the Split-Dalmatia region. As in the Juric case, he is refusing to pay the equivalent of 20 days’ wages in order to go to prison.

On July 12, a week before Juric’s reprieve, Split journalist Ljubica Letinic was also found guilty of libelling a Split businessman in a 2002 report for the TV political programme Latinica, and given a two-month suspended sentence.

Lucic said the Croatian judiciary wanted to keep prison sentences as a reserve option for offences against dignity and repute.

“The slightly more liberal provision in the proposed amendments to the criminal code… will bring little change to established judicial practice,” he claimed.

Peter Semneby, head of the OSCE Mission to Croatia, told IWPR that Skare Ozbolt’s “unusual and exceptional measure” to keep Juric from jail highlighted “the need to ensure journalists should not face criminal charges for what they write”.

Semneby confirmed that the OSCE had urged the government to remove libel and defamation from the criminal code altogether, or scrap prison as a punishment for such offences.

OSCE spokesman Alessandro Fracassetti, meanwhile, has expressed concern that the possibility of jail terms in the Juric and Letinic cases “may have a chilling effect on the freedom of the media”.

This seems unlikely in the current emboldened media climate, in which editors and reporters have become highly sensitive to pressure from politicians and quick to issue vocal complaints.

Attempts by Prime Minister Ivo Sanader to dictate what questions he would be asked on a news programme were publicly aired and caused great embarrassment. There was a similar outcry from the media when health minister Andrija Hebrang’s attempted to force a news broadcast to issue a denial of a report.

Overall, media freedom in Croatia is now the healthiest in the Balkans and Eurasia, according to the IREX 2003 report.

Lucic told IWPR that the media was now more capable of dealing with pressures than before. He characterised most political interference as exceptional acts by “uncontrolled people”, rather than a deliberate attempt to control information.

“The main threats today come from business and the ownership aspects of the media sector,” he added, describing the media’s situation today as “heaven” in comparison to the 1990s.

A recent Croatian Helsinki Committee report also pointed out that lack of professionalism in the media had become a greater problem than political pressure on journalists.

IREX’s own report admitted that one reason why libel remains “a serious issue” in the Croatian media was “because of low ethical standards and blatant privacy violations on the part of the media”.

The report went on to state that “a large number [of news reports] are either partially fact-based or pure fabrications and journalists do not always verify available information or properly quote their sources”.

Complaints about the media to the Helsinki Committee’s Media Council rose by 50 per cent in 2003 compared to 2002, especially relating to hate speech, intolerance, disinformation and lack of professionalism. Many complaints concerned treatment of ethnic minorities and homosexuals.

Some analysts suggest Juric’s and Marsic’s desire to convert their fines to prison sentences does not constitute a real issue of press freedom, as neither was originally given a prison sentence, but are using the provisions of the penal system to draw attention to court decisions they protest.

In Croatia, even a 1,000 kuna parking ticket can be converted into a few days’ imprisonment. This has proved so popular that the prisons were finding it difficult to host all the takers, and the law is now being changed to rule out this option.

These latest legal twists and turns have therefore highlighted the need for continuing legal reform. In the meantime, as more cases like Juric’s line up, the justice minister could again have to reach into her pocket to spare Croatia the embarrassment of journalists in jail.

Anna McTaggart is IWPR Balkans development officer.

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