Six reporters are facing charges of publishing ``false information," ``disturbing the public" and ``offending the state president," Franjo Tudjman.
Members of the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) are said to want to take over the country's leading independent newspaper, Slobodna Dalmacija, which has been consistently critical of the Zagreb [Croatian capital] leadership.
Three of the paper's staff are being investigated by the state prosecutor, Vladimir Seks, for designing a photo montage in the satirical weekly insert Feral Tribune, comparint Tudjman to Hitler and Stalin.
Under the banner headline ``One school, one class, one pupil," the offending page featured juxtaposed photographs of the three as students.
The journalists responsible have a reputation for upsetting the authorities. During the Communist period, they were investigated 10 times and twice appeared in court, but the charges were dropped on each occasion.
The Feral Tribune team said Tudjman, a former Communist army general, is increasingly assuming the autocratic style of the late Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, and filling key government positions with figures from the old regime.
``Tudjman is trying to be a new Tito here," said Boris Dezulovic, one of the three journalists threatened with prosecution. ``He has the power to dissolve parliament. he is also creating a personality cult."
``He and the others have changed their suits but they are still Bolsheviks. it is difficult to expect true democracy in time of war, but a war cannot be an excuse for the things that are happening."
Journalists at Slobodna, which has a circulation of nearly 140,000, said Tudjman and his party are datermined to take it over.
At an HDZ meeting in Split last week, one local official, Dr. Smilja Grgurev, reportedly said the party would need to gain the control of the paper to win the forthcoming elections, expected in July. She called its reporters bandits and accused them of never publishing a line oabout the HDZ.
``We are applying for private company status, but the authorities are taking a long time to consider our request," said Dezulovic.
``If they reject it, there is nothing to stop the government moving in and appointing its own editorial team."
Slobodna journalists, who have received support from readers and opposition parties, say they will set up another newspaper if forced to bow to the government.
While the press has been the main target of the state prosecutor, he has also brought court proceedings against two political thorns in the government's side.
Dobroslav Paraga, the right-wing leader of the Croatian party of Rights, is threatened with prosecution for stating that the president [Tudjman] gave up part of eastern Croatia during European Community-sponsored negotiations in the Hague.
Milorad Pupavac, leader of an alliance of moderate Croatian Serbs seeking to forge links with liberal members of the government, is under investigation for claiming that up to 11,000 Serbian children in Croatian schools, generally Ortodox Christians, are being pressured to take Chatolic catechism and convert to Catholicism.
Pupovac, a professor of linguistics at Zagreb university, said that many Croatian Serbs are being expelled from the republic while those who remain behind will have difficulty gaining Croatian citizenship.