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Croatia: Media Laws, Government Indifference Draw Fire In Case Against Weekly

Croatia's "Feral Tribune," a decade-old dissident weekly famed for its attacks on the country's rulers, may now be forced to close after being slapped with hefty court fines. In two recent rulings, Croatian courts found "Feral" had inflicted "mental anguish" on two people it wrote about in the mid-1990s. The ruling has triggered an outpouring of domestic and international criticism. Free-press advocates say "Feral's" case reflects the lack of media freedom in Croatia.

Prague, 28 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Based in Split, the "Feral Tribune" is a widely read weekly paper known for its often irreverent criticism of Croatia's rulers.

The editors of the weekly were often harassed during the nationalist regime of late President Franjo Tudjman in the 1990s, and were slapped with dozens of lawsuits and court fines.

Yet the paper soldiered on, offering news and commentary that proved to be in great demand throughout Croatia and other former Yugoslav republics.

But now, in an ironic turn of events, the plucky weekly that survived the oppressive Tudjman regime may soon become extinct. Two lawsuits pending against the paper since the mid-1990s have surfaced in Croatian courts. In both cases, the courts ruled that "Feral" had inflicted "mental anguish" on the people it wrote about. The court blocked the paper's bank accounts and ordered it to pay fines totaling over 27,000 euros ($23,600) -- a sum that will render "Feral" bankrupt.

Press advocates say "Feral's" pending closure is all the more troubling because the paper has not been found guilty of libel. The rulings instead were based on an unrevised Croatian law that forbids the media from causing "anguish" to its subjects, whether or not the allegations are true.

The fines against the paper followed its defeat in a lawsuit brought by Zelijko Olujic, who was a state prosecutor under Tudjman. In 1993, Olujic sued "Feral" for an article accusing the lawyer of anti-Semitism. In the article, Olujic was cited as referring to the "so-called Holocaust" in a separate piece published in another newspaper. He also wrote that the "Jews drove some nations crazy through insults and robbery, after which Hitler and Mussolini came."

In response, the article's author, Viktor Ivancic, called Olujic "a racist" who writes "stupid things."

Ivancic was not accused of libel. Instead, the court found the journalist presented "cosmopolitan opinions" that reflected a lack of patriotism.

"Feral" Editor in Chief Heni Erceg said the court's ruling was based on which of the two parties was the more "nationalistic." "The judge wrote that Ivancic's writing has a note of cosmopolitanism and a lack of nationalist feeling. In the case of Olujic, he found in his writing a nice dose of nationalism and, as he said, a good way of thinking."

In the second case, Marija Mestrovic, the daughter of renowned Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, sued "Feral" for "mental anguish" she allegedly suffered when the paper ran an opinion piece by a prestigious art critic and university professor, Zvonko Markovic. In 1998, Markovic wrote that Marija Mestrovic was not competent to manage her late father's estate. The court acquitted the author but found the paper guilty for publishing the article.

Erceg says the rulings reflect the need for reform in Croatia's judicial system. But, she says, the government is reluctant to revise its media laws because ultimately it does not support the idea of an independent and critical media.

"We are critical toward [the current government] as we used to be toward Tudjman's regime, and they don't like the criticism. This is normal for ex-communists -- they don't like critical voices."

Erceg does not believe the government was directly involved in the court rulings against the "Feral Tribune." But she does hold some leaders responsible for not objecting to the cases. Croatian President Stipe Mesic has staunchly supported the weekly, even going so far as to contribute to a benefit drive to help the paper stay afloat. But Prime Minister Ivan Racan, a frequent target of the weekly's satire, has remained noticeably silent on the issue. Erceg says that Racan has a public duty to get involved.

"[It is their job] to know what is going on with independent media -- especially with 'Feral Tribune,' because we were there 10 years, and we were suffering a lot of things from Mr. Tudjman at a time when Mr. Racan and the so-called opposition was, in fact, very quiet."

The head of the Association of Croatian Judges, Vladimir Gredelj, has dismissed complaints regarding the court rulings. He says "Feral" is whipping up "mass hysteria" against Croatian judges and that the paper's "arrogant, irresponsible reports" are to blame.

The rulings have sparked outrage among international media activists. Joel Simmon is the deputy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists. He says that if the "Feral Tribune" closes, independent media in Croatia will be compromised.

"It's very alarming, because the amount of this fine and the way in which it is being applied is jeopardizing the very survival of the 'Feral Tribune', which of course has blazed a trail for press freedom in Croatia and I think sets the tone [for press standards in Croatia]. The perception is that [the paper] probes the limits of what's tolerated. So if the 'Feral Tribune's' in trouble, then press freedom is in trouble in Croatia."

Simmon says that his organization questions the validity of the charges against "Feral" for criticizing prominent public figures. He says that there should be a judicial review of the cases and the verdicts should be overturned.

"There are two essential reasons that lead us to this conclusion. One of the articles was critical of a prominent figure in Croatia and criticized him for his apparent anti-Semitic remarks. That is political speech, the most protected kind of speech in any kind of democratic society. If people are not able to express ideas and debate ideas than there's no hope for democratic discussion. The other allegation regards the daughter of a well-known sculptor. The article questioned her ability to manage a foundation being operated in the public trust. So that certainly is an issue of legitimate public concern and is an issue that has to be debated in the public press."

Biljana Tatomir is the director of the media program at the Open Society Institute in Budapest. She says the cases against the "Feral Tribune" demonstrate the Croatian government has done little to reform restrictive Tudjman-era media laws.

"In general, I would say that the reform of the media legislation is not [taking place with] appropriate speed. If there was the necessary political will, many of those restrictive provisions could have been [eradicated] earlier."

But Tatomir says many countries in Southeastern Europe have unreformed media laws that limit freedom of expression. She cites as an example cryptic licensing regulations in Serbia that were formed during the regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The regulations, which control which broadcasters are given operating licenses, are still in effect today.

"In the case of Serbia, which is still struggling with broadcasting laws, [you] have the pending issue of the moratorium over the issuing of licenses to electronic media. And it is a very difficult situation for electronic media to be in a kind of legal gap. But this legislation is still pending and it is not known when it will be passed in the parliament. And in other countries in Southeastern Europe, you can also find similar examples of [the government] postponing, for various reasons, [having] to deal with this kind of legislation. And all of this really does have a serious impact on the freedom of expression."

But for now, Tatomir says she still has faith the "Feral Tribune" will manage to continue publishing. She says the cases against the weekly have triggered an enormous outpouring of public criticism, which may trigger some kind of government action such as a judicial review.

"The public is not ready to accept the results of the court rulings that obviously restrict freedom of expression. Freedom of expression was a very sensitive topic for a whole decade in Croatia. The freedom that the media and the whole civic scene gained was not easily done. And people do not want to give that up."

Even if the paper fails to have the rulings reversed, all is not lost, however. The weekly has many sympathizers in Europe. Editor in Chief Erceg says she's already received offers for alliances with European media companies, which would bring in the cash needed to keep "Feral" running. And Tatomir says the case may be brought before the European Council of Human Rights.