BUDAPEST — MANY Croatians - whose new democracy was virtually born in uniform last summer and remains one-third Serb-occupied - feel besieged. So does the country's remaining independent press.
Observers say that heady euphoria over independence, the threat of renewed war, and lingering authoritarian methods have resulted in a nationalist attitude that equates dissent with disloyalty. The government of former Gen. Franjo Tudjman threatens or closes critical publications. The mostly state-owned media - much of it controlled by close Tudjman supporters - dubs opposition writers subversive or "ethnically impure."
Ask Zagreb businessman Emil Tedeschi, who says his first journalism venture died after three months due to "ugly situations beyond any reasonable business politics."
By last June, Croatia's state-owned newsstand network had long been selling Mr. Tedeschi's imported paper, candy, and chewing gum, but not - despite a new contract - his new magazine, Novi Danas ("new today"), a fact that sped the demise of what many saw as the country's most outspoken political magazine. Magazine riles leaders
Critics such as opposition member of Parliament Bozo Kovacevic call the move Croatia's "most famous example of government media manipulation." Mr. Kovacevic is worried by the state's TV monopoly - and by the fact that the multipartisan Television and Radio Council he sits on does not meet. Croatia's mostly state-owned national media, he says, are peddling "an ethnic conception of citizenship" to a volatile young state "with none of the democratic experience of Western countries."
Novi Danas's writers had come straight from its immediate predecessor, Danas ("today"), which went bankrupt this summer after 10 years of controversial news coverage. The state-owned weekly's calls for free elections and economic reform had riled Communist leaders in the past to such an extent that they once fired its editorial board.
Danas maintained its independent line after Tudjman came to power in May 1990. It was the first Croatian publication to cover "ethnic cleansing" by Croats (most "ethnic cleansing" has been carried out by Serbs). It criticized the Tudjman government's slow progress toward privatization. Two months before August's national elections, the state suspended the magazine's operations.
Milovan Sibl directs the state news agency (HINA) and Glasnik, the weekly magazine of Tudjman's ruling Croatian Democratic Union (CDU). He also sits on a government-picked board charged with privatizing the state's newspapers, printing house, and virtual newsstand monopoly. Mr. Sibl denies any government anti-media campaign. "We know totalitarianism," he says. "We know what it's like to have only one voice."
Sibl is one of Croatia's two key media officials, along with CDU vice president Autun Vrdoljak, who is director of Croatian Radio and Television - a post he kept during his successful parliamentary campaign this summer.
Danas's closure was a "purely financial" matter, says Sibl. The magazine's mounting losses deterred investors, he says, so publication was suspended.
"I think it highly cynical to make debts and then to turn around and claim you're being denied freedom of the press," he says. "Everyone can write what he wants, but for his own money - not at the state's expense." By June, Danas was about $372,000 in debt, he says.
The national daily Vjesnik, however, owes some $1.24 million but is still subsidized, according to Sibl. "It doesn't make any sense, economically," he concedes. But he sees the two as editorially incomparable.
Danas was "against the Croatian state"; most of its writers were "children of Yugoslav People's Army officers, children of mixed marriages, or children of Communist Party members," Sibl says, suggesting a reporter check with the personnel department "to look up their biographies."
To close the national daily, however, "would be a public scandal," he says. "There is a feeling there should be a newspaper that reflects the views of the Croatian government," and "the prime minister and his predecessors think Vjesnik would be the right vehicle."
Eighteen staff members from the defunct Danas joined Tedeschi's private Novi Danas. The state claimed the magazine's name was a copyright violation but lost its lawsuit. Then the state-owned printing house would not print it. Nor would the state's newsstand network - which owns about three-quarters of the country's news kiosks - distribute Novi Danas, despite a contract.
Sibl maintains that Novi Danas owned its predecessor's debts, despite the court's ruling that the two magazines are legally distinct. That is how things stand "to the judge, yes," says Sibl, who says he is "deeply convinced" the judge was bribed.
Tedeschi says that after six more issues, the costs of printing the magazine abroad and improvising distribution set in. The CDU's weekly, Glasnik, questioned the magazine's loyalties, and Tedeschi's mainstay book and catalog clients said they would investigate other suppliers unless he dropped the magazine, he says.
"We are not fighting for independent journalism," says Tedeschi. "We are businessmen. We wanted a profitable magazine close to our main activity." But with "no guaranteed respect for court rulings or contracts," and the logistical strain, "this is not a long-term business." Novi Danas folded Sept. 3.
Observers think something similar may befall the Split-based national daily Slobodna Dalmatia, which many liberals consider one of Croatia's few remaining thoughtful and critical publications.
Its Oct. 19 masthead sported a black mourning band: A state management board nominally appointed to appraise and privatize the paper had warned its staff against writing "negative commentaries about this board," a caveat the editors then published. (The paper had already courted trouble in June with a photo montage comparing Tudjman with Hitler and Stalin.)
The board's letter, Sibl says, was not state policy but the work of "private individual members." In early November the prime minister censured the board in an open letter in the press "because so many foreign papers paid attention to what happened." Loyalty `litmus test'
On Dec. 2, Slobodna Dalmatia's editors lost their suit to remove the board. The paper's future, says International Helsinki Watch director Lise Lotte-Leicht, remains "a very open question."
While one-third of the country remains under Serbian occupation, Croat journalists face what a diplomat in Zagreb calls a "loyalty litmus test." The state-owned Vjesnik accused author and journalist Slabenka Drakulic of "Yugoslav patriotism" when her editorial against Croatian nationalism ran in the Oct. 27 International Herald Tribune. When essayist and literary critic Dubravka Ugresic wrote a piece with a similar theme in the German weekly Die Zeit on Oct. 23, the CDU weekly Glasnik asked, "What nation ality is Dubravka Ugresic?"
"You can't be a little bit pregnant, and you can't have a media that's a little unfree," says a Zagreb diplomat. "There are a lot of people in government who don't understand the role of the media, who were born and bred under a repressive regime. It would be unrealistic to expect any overnight conversion."