SAT, 08 FEB 1997 00:09:15 GMT
AIM ZAGREB, 31 January, 1997
One of the preconditions for admitting Croatia to the Council of Europe was the adoption of a new Law on Public Information, and according to general opinion of both European as well as domestic experts, and what is most important journalists, this test has been successfully passed. True, there were objections concerning the title of the law which were rejected so that it is entitled "The Law on Public Information", while some other "triflings" on which the Croatia Journalistic Association insisted as it was from the very beginning included in the drafting of the law, did not pass, but nevertheless it is an act that could be said to be on the European democratic level. The Croatian authorities have therefore ardently boasted of it as yet another crown proof of wide media freedoms that exist in Croatia, which has thus proved that it belongs in Europe.
Recently, Dr.Zarko Domljan, head of the Croatian delegation at the session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, was radiant with pleasure because, concerning the media, Croatia was not tarred with the same brush as FR Yugoslavia, while the case of "Radio 101", which was finally granted a concession, was presented as a key argument that everything was in order.
Still, it seems that this is just a democratic make-up and that the true situation with the freedom of the media in Croatia is somewhat different from that which the ruling party likes to describe. It should not be forgotten that "101" got its frequency only several days before the Assembly session in Strasbourg, and again with a nine months waiting period until the alleged internal conflicts within the Radio are resolved. Back in December the Telecommunication Council thought differently because of which 150,000 Zagreb denizens took to the streets which even Tudjman, with the additional foreign pressure, could not turn a blind eye to or easily disregard.
The conflict between the Italian Union and the "New Paper" (Novi list) concerning the printing-works is not over yet, although it is crystal clear that an attempt to impose an enormous tax on the first Rijeka independent daily is nothing but exertion of pressure and blackmail, as the Ministry of Finance itself admitted that printing houses "Herald" (Vijesnik) and "Free Dalmatia" (Slobodna Dalmacija) have committed the same violation. After the Zagreb communal court rejected public prosecutor's charges against "Feral" for alleged defamation and slander of Dr.Tudjman, an appeal was announced meaning that the President of the Republic has not given in. At the same time, in several of his most recent speeches Dr.Tudjman fiercely attacked the independent media that they are partly financed by "Judas' silver coins", while the Soros Foundation is under special scrutiny, while indictments against several prominent men have also been announced. And all this is happening at a time when the Croatian Television has become so selective that it is now nothing more but a HDZ propaganda machine.
To this one should add the Law on the Protection of Secrecy of Data adopted in December, which is so restrictive that it is practically unclear what is secret and what is not, as well as the draft Penal Code, which recently passed the so called first reading. If adopted in their present form, these two laws, particularly the latter, will turn the existing rather liberal Law on Public Information into nothing more than a decoration of democracy. The well known Zagreb attorney-at-law, an expert on the media, Vesna Alaburic claims that Croatia could easily join the dishonourable list of countries (such as Turkey, Ethiopia, China, Kuwait, Algeria, Vietnam, Nigeria, Indonesia...) in which journalists and editors languish in prison for months and years.
According to that draft not only the author, but also the editor-in-chief will be answerable for the criminal offence committed through an information, because by "failing to properly supervise the work, he did not prevent the publication of an information whereby the criminal offence has been committed". Six times longer prison sentence is envisaged for him than for the author of the information which constitutes, for example, a criminal offence of spreading false news or slander. It is both interesting and indicative that editors-in-chief are the only "official" or "public" persons who are, according to the Law, duty bound to supervise the work of their employees.
The question arises why similar responsibility is not envisaged for, e.g., managers of public enterprises, ministers or the President of the Republic, when one of their subordinates commits and offence? It is evident that such a solution aims at introducing censorship, or better said self-censorship, since in the future editor-in-chief will answer for every information which constitutes a criminal offence, and consequently for information contained in authorized interviews, statements or speeches of politicians, so that there will be nothing else he could do but censor them also. This reminds of the times when a high party official, also a former journalist, stated: "Everyone can say what he wants, but it is up to a journalist to decide which of it is nonsense".
The draft Penal Code prescribes sanctioning of publishing or broadcasting of untruths which can bring harm to honour and reputation (slander). But if we compare draft Penal Code with the Law on Public Information it can be concluded that for the same piece of information a publisher may be acquitted of a charge of inflicting material damages, while editor-in-chief and journalist may end up in prison. In accordance with the European norms journalists and publishers are not responsible for damages caused by an information if it represents a true and full report of discussions held at sessions of public authorities or if the information is an authorized interview or statement. However, if statements of Assembly deputies, ministers or President of the state are untrue, and can bring harm to the honour and reputation, a journalist and editor shall be punished for slander.
The Law on Public Information adopted the principle that the protection of privacy of public figures is much more restricted than that of other mortals, but the draft Law recognizes that democratic achievement only when it introduces a rather dubious legal term "personal secret". Journalists are thus placed in an unenvious position that they can be acquitted if they prove their innocence in court and, not as it was till now, when the prosecutor proves them guilty.
This bunch of boobytraps actually fully annuls the Law on Public Information so that there is an impression that it was written for foreign public and the Penal Code for the domestic use. It is therefore evident that this is an attempt to revoke most of the freedoms laid down in the Law on Public Information. Judging by all, legal experts will have again their hands full, while the Croatian Journalistic Association will undoubtedly take an active part in the final adoption of the Penal Code as it is impossible to agree to "novelties" which represent a major step backward. Although in the end everything will depend on the judicial practice and manner in which individual judges will "read" the Law, it would be extremely negative if they get a chance to interpret the Law any way they choose.