Tudjman tries to silence accusers

 

As far as two Croat journalists were concerned, they had enough of appearing in court to face accusations of libelling President Franjo Tudjman. The editor of Feral Tribune, Viktor Ivancic, and reporter Marinko Culic told the court in Vukovor they would not be appearing any more and would be working instead.

The two journalists, the court was told, considered the proceedings a farce. In a statement they said they were no longer going to be "hostages of these proceedings which are evidently politically motivated, particularly when the court does not have the will, or competence, to unmask such motives".

The judge ordered an adjournment and said the journalists would be brought to court, even against their will, when the case resumed - probably in September.

Ivancic and his newspaper have been the subject of dozens of libel suits and criminal charges levied by government officials. It was even sued by Dr Tudjman's daughter, who was reported as saying that anyone who "untruthfully attacks the Tudjman family does not fight for press freedom but against the freedom of the Croatian people".

The case goes back to 1996 when Feral Tribune published an article by Culic entitled "Bones in the Mixer" beside one of its photomontages, "Jasenovac - the Biggest Croatian Underground City".

The article attacked Dr Tudjman's plan to move the remains of Nazi soldiers and bury them alongside second World War concentration camp victims at the Jasenovac death camp, where they would be laid beside Jews, Serbs and Romanies killed by the Nazi puppet regime of Ante Pavelic.

Dr Tudjman wanted to create a monument to Croatian victims of the second World War and of communism at the site of the camp, which was operated by the proNazi Ustashe party. Some 100,000 victims are believed to be buried at Jasenovac. In May 1996 the two journalists were charged under a Press Libel Act adopted by the Croatian parliament two months earlier, under which individuals who publish criticism of the president can be jailed for up to three years.

Feral Tribune is not the only newspaper that has been harassed. Novi List had to raise its cover price and reduce journalists' salaries after being fined $2.5 million. This was for using printing equipment from Italy which the government claimed was reserved for Italian minority newspapers in Croatia. In another high-profile case, Davor Butkovic, former editor of Globus, was acquitted on charges of criminal libel brought against him by 23 government ministers, no less. Until 1993 Feral Tribune was a weekly satirical feature in Slobodna Dalmacija, published in Split. Dr Tudjman was its main target, especially for what the journalists claimed was his attempt to rehabilitate the wartime Ustashe regime.

When the government gained control over Slobodna Dalmacija, Feral Tribune became a separate newspaper. Attempts were made to kill it at birth. It was refused permission to have access to certain newspaper kiosks and it had to pay a levy on its newsprint similar to that levied on pornographic magazines.

Feral Tribune is a mix of satire, hard news and serious comment. It has been aided financially by some western sources, such as the Soros Foundation.

The offending article compared Dr Tudjman's efforts at reconciling Croatia's fascist past with the present to Franco's attempts to unite Spain under totalitarianism. It was part of Feral Tribune's longterm exposure of links between the Nazi collaborators, today's ethnic nationalists and Croatia's rulers.

Two years ago Ivancic and Culic were acquitted but the prosecutor appealed the case to a higher court. An expert on Croatian politics and law from the University of Split is to be called to explain the accuracy of the opinions expressed, and his view of the truthfulness of the article will probably determine guilt or innocence.

The two journalists want Dr Tudjman in the witness box, a call rejected by the court.

Although attempts have been made recently to improve Croatia's international image, including handing over suspects to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, the Council of Europe has voiced concern that the largest state-owned newspaper and Croatia's radio and television remain under the control of Dr Tudjman's ruling Democratic Union Party. The Feral Tribune case has received world support, headed by American essayist Susan Sontag. Last year Ivancic won a press freedom award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Under a revised penal code journalists may be prosecuted for reports considered insulting, even if factually correct.