The Turbulent Times of Croatia’s ‘Feral Tribune’

Sven Milekić
Autor/ica 5.7.2018. u 12:30

The Turbulent Times of Croatia’s ‘Feral Tribune’

In the first of a two-part series, BIRN looks at the founding 25 years ago of ‘Feral Tribune’, a magazine that fought constant battles with Croatia’s 1990s regime and remains a symbol of independent journalism.

Author: Sven Milekic BIRN 

On the third floor of a building at 10 Bacvice Promenade in Split, loud rock music echoes into the night through the empty corridors. In the building, where a number of NGOs and marginal political parties are located, local painter Pave Majic has his studio.

Standing amid his artworks with their colourful geometric shapes, wearing a once-white coat covered in paint, Majic says that he is sorry that Feral did not manage to survive.

The Feral that he is referring to is the legendary anti-establishment satirical weekly Feral Tribune, which started operating 25 years ago in the very room in which Majic is standing, as well as occupying most of the rest of the third floor.

Feral’s old newsroom is now an art studio. Photo: Sven Milekic/BIRN.

Feral kicked off its first issue with the headline “Ante Pavelic Found Alive”, announcing an “exclusive interview” with the leader of the World War II-era fascist Ustasa movement who had passed away more than 33 years earlier. The article ironically suggested that his spirit was back in Croatian political life.

The front page also showed a hand taking a police baton from the hand of another person, with the title “Relay of Youth”. It was a reference to an annual event held for Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito’s birthday – but in Feral’s version, this more brutal version of the relay race was to mark the 71st birthday of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.

Feral was one of very few media outlets in Croatia that opposed Tudjman’s administration during the 1990s, when the majority of media was under government control. With its satire, as well its investigative journalism, Feral represented a space for journalistic freedom, offering an alternative to the dominant narratives of the state.

Until it closed in 2008 due to a lack of advertising, crippling lawsuits and financial problems caused by state interference, Feral was important because it offered space for many distinguished journalists, editors and thinkers who had been fired or marginalised elsewhere and were seeking a freer environment in which to express themselves.

Feral Tribune – an idea born of necessity

Feral Tribune‘s first issue; original Feral logo hand-created by Boris Dezulovic. Photo courtesy of Leo Nikolic/Sven Milekic/BIRN.

Feral began life in the summer of 1988 as a satirical supplement in the weekly Nedjeljna Dalmacija, founded by editor-in-chief Viktor Ivancic and his colleagues and friends Boris Dezulovic and Predrag Lucic, a trio who became known collectively as ‘Viva Ludez’, an amalgamation of parts of their surnames.

The new publication quickly received publicity: “After a month we were banned,” Dezulovic said with laughter.

The reason for the ban was a satirical piece that ridiculed the nationalist and anti-establishment protests organised by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who then dominated the Yugoslav political scene.

“A month before that, we were students who were partying, and now we were in all the newspapers, depicted as the wreckers of Yugoslavia and of socialist brotherhood and unity,” Dezulovic explained.

They were acquitted in court, with judge Branko Seric justifying his verdict by saying that satire has its “freedom of opinion guaranteed”.

‘Viva Ludez’ – Ivancic (left), Lucic (centre) and Dezulovic – in the early 1990s. Photo courtesy of Leo Nikolic.

Feral moved to daily newspaper Slobodna Dalmacija, in which it was also a weekly supplement, but after a takeover by a businessman who was a member of Tudjman’s ruling party, the trio decided to go it alone.

On June 1, 1993, with the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina already under way, Feral launched as an independent publication – a huge endeavour in an otherwise unfree media scene that was largely under the influence of the ruling Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ.

“This idea was born out of necessity; we didn’t dream of having our own newspaper, but when Slobodna Dalmacija fell, there was no other place to go; there was no media space in which we could even write,” Ivancic told BIRN.

“Then the idea was born – ‘let’s try something’ – and if not, then we can go abroad to wash dishes,” he added, laughing.

Split – a 1990s ‘Casablanca’

The Rafael Boban Croatian Defence Council unit on parade in Split in 1995, chanting that they are Ustasa and praising Ustasa leader Ante Pavelic.

In order to cover the cost of printing of the first issue in June 1993, the trio borrowed money.

“We had no idea how big this ‘illegal’ audience was,” Ivancic said.

He added that the first issue’s run was some 30,000 copies, which were sold virtually immediately on the first day.

At that time, there was a wartime atmosphere in Split – although the city was not on the frontline – and local residents did not take kindly to Feral.

“We were in that little newsroom at 10 Bacvice Promenade, like in some asylum or atomic shelter, separated from that horror around us… Back then, classic Ustasa, in black shirts with [Ustasa] ‘U’ on their caps and with Kalashnikovs were walking around Split,” Dezulovic recalled.

“In Split, we have always felt as if we had fallen from Mars into that city; we didn’t have anything in common with it,” said Ivancic.

“There was a dark atmosphere in Split. It was a version of [Hollywood classic] ‘Casablanca’ – you’re not on the front line, but there are arms and drug-smugglers, a dark demi-monde dragging around the war. Besides that, you have the massive theft of military-owned flats, with an aggressive right-wing atmosphere,” he added.

Part rock band, part ‘Monty Python’

Feral’s newsroom, from left to right: Lucic, Heni Erceg, Rino Belan’s middle finger, Nebojsa Taraba, Leo Nikolic, Dezulovic and Ivancic. Photo courtesy of Leo Nikolic.

The hostile atmosphere in the city and the country as a whole did not cause defeatism in Feral‘s newsroom.

“We have never worked as a super-professional magazine where everybody knows their own work and no one is involved in other people’s work or they don’t have any contact except a professional one. We hung out together, every day after work we went to bars or Miro’s joint [their favourite bar] together. We were really like one family,” Dezulovic said.

“It wasn’t like a classic newsroom; it was more like a rock’n’roll band,” he added.

What Feral did not lack was creativity.

Feral was a serious creative machine from the very beginning… The three of us, when we were doing satire, we were mutually deprived of our own vanity. If one told the other that something ‘isn’t good’, the other wouldn’t ask why,” Ivancic explained.

The magazine developed a unique, hybrid style of reporting, combining satire, serious investigative journalism, as well as more literary forms.

Damir Pilic, who started working for Feral in 1994, remembers the funny and creative editorial meetings led by the trio.

“The three of them, besides being excellent journalists and editors, are also some of the funniest people I know. And when you had [journalists] Ivica Ivanisevic and Cico Senjanovic beside them, I always had a feeling of watching ‘Monty Python’,” Pilic told BIRN.

“Also, all of them were top intellectuals. Victor used to tell us: ‘You have to read the newspapers to be informed, but you have to read the books, to have a dictionary.’ That’s never been said to me anywhere again,” he added.

Feral and Tudjman – David and Goliath

Tudjmans as ‘Franjo 5’ – a reference to Hollywood classic ‘Jaws’;Tudjman’s fictional testimony before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, saying “Honourable court, I am not alive”. Photo courtesy of Lupiga.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, government and HDZ officials criticised Feral, accusing it of anti-Croatian reporting at a time when the country was at war.

Although President Tudjman spoke positively about the magazine in 1990, he soon changed his tone, speaking of “some kind of Feral disgrace” that “shames Split and Croatia”.

In 1996, the State Attorney’s Office initiated a lawsuit against Ivancic and journalist Marink0 Culic for an article claiming that Tudjman modelled his concept for post-war reconciliation on that of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco.

Although the process was initiated by the State Attorney’s Office, Tudjman, as the president, signed his agreement for it to commence.

In later media appearances, Tudjman’s advisor for interior politics, Ivic Pasalic, who characterised Feral as “ultra-leftists and anti-Croatian”, said that Tudjman was actually disappointed in Feral‘s attitude to him, but that he never intended to ban the magazine.

Ivancic believes that Tudjman was simply a man without a sense of humour and had “personal problems with satire as such” – and thus became a suitable subject for satire.

“On the other hand, it was an era of autocratic power. It was normal that Tudjman decided on everything – from football to the economy to war – and in that sense, it was normal that we focused on him as a symbol of government,” he added.

Tudjman-Milosevic montage brings global renown

The infamous Tudjman-Milosevic front page from 1993; a later version with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic – Feral‘s reaction to the Dayton Peace Agreement. Photo courtesy by Lupiga and Leo Niikolic.

Feral became known for its front-page satirical photomontages, which often had wordplay titles. Its front pages, along with references taken from popular culture and everyday politics, usually featured montages of officials and other powerful people.

Because Feral’s satire dealt with the toughest social and political issues, the editorial staff of the legendary French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo twice visited its newsroom in Split in 1994.

Leo Nikolic, Feral’s graphics editor and designer from the first edition to the last, recalled how the magazine’s most famous cover was published on December 28, 1993, showing Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic’s hugging each other, half-naked in bed.

The headline was “Is This What We Fought For?” – a reference to a famous Partisan veterans’ slogan after World War II. It was an ironic reflection on peace talks over the Bosnian war in Geneva, in which Tudjman and Milosevic took part.

Nikolic explained that a picture of the bodies of Ivancic and Dezulovic in bed in Lucic’s apartment were PhotoShopped for the legendary cover.

“The redesign of this photomontage has been repeated several times, and something similar has been done recently with [Croatian President] Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic and [Serbian President] Aleksandar Vucic. This cover page has become commonplace in the region and also in the wider eastern European area,” Nikolic said.

The cover gained the attention of world media, and a framed copy was put up in the New York Times newsroom, but the Croatian state’s reaction was fast and fierce.

The first duel with the state

Feral‘s cover with the message “Watch Your Back” to Ivancic as he was mobilised, with the editor-in-chief pursued in the montage by HDZ official Drago Krpina, a vocal critic of Feral; “Feral Sets You Free”, paraphrasing the Nazi concentration camp slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei”. Photo courtesy of Mediacentar Sarajevo and Leo Nikolic.

On New Year’s Eve, military officers arrived at Feral’s newsroom to hand over army call-up papers for editor-in-chief Ivancic. They said they would wait in front of the office for him to finish work.

“I didn’t like even the thought of spending New Year’s Eve in a barracks. They waited in front [of the office], but in agreement with a photojournalist, I sneaked out and went to Zagreb because I wanted this thing to be made public. I had a bad feeling, because I saw that this was a penalty for me,” Ivancic explained.

Ivancic hid himself away in Zagreb for several days, while Feral informed the international community, then he returned to Split and told the military police to come and pick him up.

They arrested him, sent him to a military prison for a few days and took him to the Dracevac barracks near Split where he did a short military training course and was allowed to leave soon afterwards.

Dezulovic explained that Ivancic’s mobilisation was contrary to an agreement that the Defence Ministry had made with media houses.

“It was out of all normal practice, and ultimately, out of line with Croatian publishers’ direct agreement with the Defence Ministry, according to which editors and journalists were actually spared mobilisation, since we as journalists were, in the end, on the front line without being called up,” Dezulovic explained.

“Besides that, that was the easiest way to remove an internal enemy. You mobilise him and he gets shot on the front line and you’ve solved the problem. It would be difficult for someone to convince me that they didn’t think about this in Viktor’s case,” he added.

However, Ivancic’s relatively swift exit from the barracks was only a temporary victory for Feral, as the state soon began even more direct attempts to destabilise the magazine, using both financial and legal pressures – pressures that would, in the end, lead to the magazine’s demise.


Sven Milekić
Autor/ica 5.7.2018. u 12:30