On 2/10/92, the entire Board of Directors of the Split daily ``Slobodna Dalmacija" was replaced by a board appointed by the State Agency for Restructuring and Development, on the grounds that it failed to carry out actions necessary to achieve complete privatisation. The papers editorial staff said the move represented unwarranted interference with the freedom of a paper known for its independent and critical stance. Its journalists were reportedly instructed by the new Board not to discuss the changes within the pages of the paper. Staff responded by publishing a black ``Mourning" band across the paper's front page, defying instructions issued by the new Board for its masthead to be changed from traditional red to blue
On 3/8/93, journalists at ``Slobodna Dalmacija" went on strike in protest at a government decision to impose a new editorial board on the newspaper. On 3/11/93, the new government-imposed board dismissed a number of the paper's leading editors and writers including editor in chief Josko Kulusic, and the paper appeared without its usual satirical supplement ``Feral Tribune" on 3/17/93. A new board of directors had been imposed in October of 1992.
The Reuter Library Raport, 3/17/93, Zagreb, Croatia
Journalists at Croatia's only independent national newspaper say the government is trying to take it over in a campaign to stifle a free press.
The right-wing government has imposed a management board on SLobodna Dalmacija (SD) to amend what it says was the fraudulent privatisation of the paper in 1990, when Croatia was still a part of Yugoslavia. It denies trying to muzzle it.
But U.S. embassy spokeswoman said Washington had told the government it was concerned about ``the appearance of a politically motivated takeover" of the daily.
Staff at SD, founded by anti-Nazi Yugoslav partizans during World War Two, contend the board's purpose is to turn the paper into a government lapdog to choke off criticism over economic mismanagement as war with rebel Serbs continues.
``Our post-communist political elite has no awareness of the importance of a free media in developing democratic culture," Slaven Letica, a former adviser to president Tudjman, told Reuters.
``The government is using the patriotic frustrations of Croatians to crack down on Slobodna Dalmacija. But this approach to the press has caused major damage to Croatia's profile abroad."
SD's editorial staff shut down the paper with a three-day strike last week in a bid to pre-empt the appointment of two new pro-government chief editors by the board and state bank shareholders' meeting to ratify the transition.
Both steps were carried out anyway and the journalists returned to work after being assured that none of their senior colleagues would be sacked for political reasons.
SD's critical editorial tone has diminished perceptibly since the paper returned to news stands.
Some journalists have resigned themselves to accepting the change and are staying on, fearing the alternative of unemployment.
At least 30 others have said they will start a new independent daily if SD's editorial integrity is further undermined, apparently unfazed by the fact that newspaper distribution in Croatia remains a state monopoly.
All beleive the best solution is the supervision of the privatisation process by Western media watchdog groups and have appealed to several for help.
Press freedom advocates from West have come to Croatia for a first-hand look. The U.S.-based International media Fund has written to Tudjman urging him not to strangle SD under ``the guise of a privatisation efort."
``It will reflect poorly on the reputation of Croatia in the world community," said the Fund chairman marvin Stone. ``It could serve to discourage foreign investment because Croatia would be viewed in the category of ... oppressors of press freedom."
SD - the name means Free Dalmatia - is based in Split, Croatia's second city on the Dalmatian Adriatic coast.
It claims a circulation of 100,000 in this republic of 4.7 million people - down from 160,000 in old Yugoslavia - and another 20,000 among Croats living in Germany and Austria.
Although under ultimate state control in former federal Yugaslavia, SD achieved considerable editorial independence.
It gained reputation for exposing corruption and incompetence in the old communist federation and under Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) after Croatia's secession in mid-1991 sparked war with Serbs.
In 1990, SD parcelled out most of its shares to employees under a loose privatisation law passed by Yugoslavia's last functioning federal government.
After independence, Tudjman's government said it had found major irregularities, including under-valuation of assets, in the privatisation and ordered a total overhaul of the process.
Zlatko Matesa, head of the government privatisation agency, said SD employees were offered 55 per cent of the paper's stock but bought just 25 per cent. the rest was turned over to three state owned banks for eventual sale by public auction.
``The government of Croatia has no reason or interest to control SD. The point is simply that newspapers must go through the same process of privatisation as other Croatian companies," said Matesa.
But Zoran Erceg, SD's Zagreb [Croatian capital] news editor who lost his post in the changeover, said the paper was being punished for not being a government cheerleader at a time whan Serb forces still occupy a third of Croatia.
Croatian television, the sole source of information for the vast majority of Croats, is run by HDZ functionaries.
The two big Zagreb dailies, 70 per cent state owned, echo HDZ line and brim in lurid, scarcely substantiated report about Serb control of four enclaves in Croatia.
Croatia has sought acceptance in the European Community by contrasting itself with Serbia, ruled by nationalists widely blamed for Yugoslavia's bloody brakeup.
Critics say Serbian state talevision is being used to misinform its viewers about who is to blame for the war and to attack government opponents. The press restrains itself to avoid annoying the authorities.
Croatia's media are not much better off, diplomats say.
SD staff fears the fate of Danas, a Zagreb weekly noted for its crusading against official abuses in old Yugoslavia.
Danas was forced to close last year, a victim of its dependence on state subsidies and distribution networks. A new Danas with new writers does not challenge Tudjman.