A Croatian journalist went on trial at the U.N. war crimes tribunal Tuesday on contempt of court charges for publishing the name of a protected witness.
Josip Jovic’s trial is seen as a test of the limits of journalistic freedom and the reach of the international court outside its primary purpose to prosecute war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. His arrest triggered protests from media and human rights groups.
If convicted, he could face up to seven years in prison and a EUR100,000 fine.
Jovic, 56, acknowledged violating a court injunction against publishing the witness’s name. But he pleaded not guilty, arguing that his identity was common knowledge, and as a prominent political figure, he should never have been allowed to testify anonymously in the first place.
The witness was Stipe Mesic, currently Croatia’s president and the last president of Yugoslavia in 1991-1992 before it descended into civil war.
Mesic testified in 1998 in the trial of former Col. Tihomir Blaskic, a Bosnian Croat, on the condition he be allowed to testify in secret. Blaskic was convicted and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment.
“As a prominent politician, person, everything he does is bound to arouse interest from Croatia’s citizens,” said defense lawyer Kresimir Krsnik. “When this man testifies, he does not testify as a victim. He can’t be subject to the sort of manipulation, threats or whatever reasons there are for granting protective measures as a witness.”
But prosecutor Steven Akerson said that wasn’t up to Jovic to judge. If reporters don’t respect such court injunctions, witnesses who fear retaliation may not come forward in future war crimes cases, he argued.
Akerson said the contempt case against Jovic was airtight.
“Your honors, this is one of the simpler contempt cases you will encounter, and at the same time one of the most egregious,” he said.
As editor of Slobodna Dalmacija – one of Croatia’s largest newspapers – in November and December 2000, Jovic published both the court order and Mesic’s unabridged testimony.
This was “across 22 issues, in brazen violation of the court order and in utter and open contempt of this tribunal,” Akerson said.
Jovic’s lawyer responded that prosecutors were wrong to bring the case. Krsnik said that as early as 1997, long before appearing in court, both Mesic and prosecutors had said or suggested that he would testify.
Jovic, when on the stand in his own defense, said other major Croatian media had published Mesic’s testimony before his paper did, so there was no point in trying to maintain the illusion it was secret.
“It was obvious by that time (December 2000) that the name of the protected witness was widely known,” Jovic said.
The prosecutor said that all these questions were irrelevant. “Perhaps they could be considered mitigating factors at sentencing,” Akerson said.
Jovic was arrested and brought to The Hague in 2005 after refusing to appear for his arraignment. He pleaded not guilty and was released pending Tuesday’s trial.
“I was not certain, nor indeed am I now, whether the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia) can issue orders to me that affect my right to enjoy freedom in informing my readership,” he said, using the court’s acronym
Reporters Without Borders, which supports Jovic, said it is preparing a special report on contempt of court prosecutions by international tribunals against journalists based on the Jovic prosecution.
“Some of these prosecutions are arbitrary and that the alleged need to protect a witness could prove to be spurious and could cloak political interests,” the Paris-based organization said.
The tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, dropped charges against three other journalists in June, citing “the interest of justice and judicial economy.” She is under pressure to conclude all cases by 2010.