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Newspapers Risk Contempt of Court Charges

Croatian newspapers warned to halt publication of Mesic statements

The Croatian weekly Globus and the daily Slobodna Dalmacija could face contempt of court charges following their publication of statements by Croatian President Stipe Mesic during a closed tribunal hearing in 1998.

The statements were given by Mesic in April 1998 during the trial of former Bosnian Croat commander Tihomir Blaskic. Mesic was provided protected status and allowed to testify in a closed session.

On December 1 the tribunal judges who originally heard the Blaskic case issued an order requesting the Croatian papers to stop publishing statements by protected witnesses. The order warned, "any publication of these statements and testimonies shall expose its authors and those responsible to be found in contempt of the tribunal."

The court also asked the Croatian authorities to take steps to halt further publication of the statements and to provide any information relating to the sources and authors of the information.

But on December 6 Slobodna Dalmacija published another transcript from a closed court session involving the Croatian president. In his introduction to the story, the newspaper's editor in chief, Josip Jovic, said he had disregarded the tribunal's order because "there is an understandable public interest in The Hague testimony of the current head of state."

"The institution of keeping secrets does not apply to newspapers," Jovic added.

As yet the tribunal has not reacted to the Slobodna Dalmacija article.

Tribunal spokesman Jim Landale said publication of protected material was "foolish and irresponsible". He reiterated the publication of such material could constitute contempt of court. "It is up to the trial chamber to take what measures it thinks necessary," Landale said, adding this could include summoning a person to The Hague to respond to contempt of court charges.

On December 7 the Croatian government announced it had no information on how the newspapers got hold of Mesic's testimony. The announcement said the government did not have cited minutes of Mesic's court appearance and did not know who the sources of such disclosures could be.

Immediately after Mesic appeared at The Hague material relating to his testimony leaked to the Croatian press. The reappearance of stories two years on, and well into Mesic's presidency, suggests the revelations have more to do with Croatian domestic politics than anything else.

Criticism in Croatia that the tribunal court order amounted to "censorship" and "interference with the freedom of the media" met short shrift from prosecutor's office spokeswoman Florence Hartmann.

"Publishing information given to the Tribunal through testimonies is not a problem - their content will be known to the public through the court sentences in any case," Hartmann said. "But the problem is when a witness who gave them is identified because that will affect the readiness of other witnesses to make a statement before the Tribunal.

The publication of protected witnesses' names only makes harder the work of prosecutors in collecting information on crimes, and hence in establishing the truth and administering justice."

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