Media ignores opposition in Croatian election

April 8, 1997

By Mark Heinrich

ZAGREB, Croatia - Croatia's state-dominated media have called into question or virtually ignored the main opposition parties campaigning for elections Sunday, a human rights group said Tuesday.

``Without free and equal access to all media, the basic precondition for holding democratic elections does not exist in Croatia,'' the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights (CHC) said in a statement faxed to news agencies.

Croatians and minority Serbs in an ex-rebel enclave due to return to central government rule soon will vote for county and municipal councils as well as the upper House of Counties.

The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) of authoritarian nationalist President Franjo Tudjman has lost popularity over perceived corruption and indifference to the poor.

Analysts say opposition parties hope to end total HDZ domination of regional governments ahead of presidential elections later this year and the next parliamentary vote in 1999.

But they say the opposition's chances may have been hurt both by its failure to form large coalitions and the mainstream media's pro-HDZ bias or disregard of rival campaigns.

State television (HRT), sole source of news for most people in the former Yugoslav republic of 4.7 million, has nominally honoured fair-play rules by devoting pre-set blocks of coverage to each of several dozen opposition parties.

But although about five are well known and capable of hurdling the 5 percent threshold required to gain seats, they have won no more air time than any others on television.

A CHC survey of HRT's prime-time 7:30 p.m. news in three selected weeks since March 7 found that 60 to 75 percent of the coverage was reserved for HDZ activities and candidates.

Leading opposition parties, including the Social Liberals (HSLS), Peasants Party (HSS) and Social Democrats (SDP), garnered no more than 2 percent throughout, although they rate more than 15 times as much together in most popularity polls.

In the week of March 29-April 4, HRT ignored the SDP but simultaneously aired an HDZ campaign commercial denouncing it as a cabal of unreconstructed old Communists who allegedly opposed Croatia's secession from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Much of HRT footage has involved droning statements of bland academics or unknown, rumpled political amateurs.

HRT's unattractive format was intended to make voters more apathetic and reduce turnout, a scenario advantageous to the HDZ because its core voters are the most enthusiastic, independent domestic analysts say.

Croatia's national newspapers have tried to ``stigmatize the entire opposition,'' the CHC added, by portraying them as ``Yugo-nostalgic,'' incompetent or disloyal to the state.

Tudjman and the HDZ defeated communists in Croatia's first free elections in 1990 and waged a successful war for independence from Serbian-led federal Yugoslavia a year later.

The HDZ enacted a democratic constitution and privatized the economy but has resorted to legal loopholes, intimidation and disinformation to impede the growth of independent media and marginalize political foes, Western monitors say.

HRT was also accused by the U.N. human rights investigator Tuesday of stirring up old national resentments to fan fears of revenge among Eastern Slavonia's Serbs and make them flee before former Croat neighbors return.

State television has repeatedly run documentaries of the devastating 1991 siege of Vukovar and expulsion of Slavonian Croats by Serbian forces. Local Serbs agreed later to be reintegrated in Croatia with minority guarantees.