Croatian journalists win free speech case

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The Independent Online
President Franjo Tudjman's efforts to restrict media freedoms in Croatia suffered an unexpected defeat yesterday when a Zagreb court acquitted two independent journalists of defaming him. Viktor Ivancic and Marinko Culic, editor and leading writer at the satirical weekly Feral Tribune, were found not guilty in a case that European governments viewed as a test of Croatia's civil liberties record.

The judgment should enhance Croatia's chances of joining the Council of Europe, which promotes democracy and human rights in former Communist countries. Admission to the council serves as a stamp of international approval for a country's human rights performance, and is an essential condition for membership of the European Union.

The council put Croatia's application on hold earlier this year, partly because of Mr Tudjman's harassment of independent news organisations.

Mr Tudjman's detestation of Feral Tribune boiled over when it compared him with Ante Pavelic, Croatia's Fascist leader in the 1940s, and the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

State prosecutors brought defamation charges against Mr Ivancic and Mr Culic under a new clause in Croatia's criminal code that is intended to muzzle public criticism of the President and other high- ranking state officials.

Judge Marin Mrcela at the Zagreb municipal court said that the journalists had merely exercised their right to voice criticism of some of the President's activities. Croat human rights activists described the judge's verdict as courageous.