The Witches From Rio Case


The case of the media ostracism of Jelena Lovrić, Rada Iveković, Slavenka Drakulić, Vesna Kesić and Dubravka Ugrešić, known as the “Witches from Rio”, was one of the greater media scandals of the early 1990s. The case was brought to the public’s attention by a more-or-less identical article published on December 5, 1992 in Vjesnik, Slobodna Dalmacija and Večernji list. They were published to mark the holding of the P.E.N. International Congress in Rio de Janeiro and where the mentioned women - as the anonymous author reports - had lobbied against the organization of the next P.E.N. Congress in Croatia. 

However, the article published in Večernji list and headlined Dud bullet in Rio lists Branka Kamenski as the author of the article and next to it stands the “commentary” Lobbyists have lost their voice without a by-line. The five Croatian intellectuals were called “the dissident stars” that sent a distorted image of Croatia to the world. 

The first reaction to that, as it was later found out - fabricated report, appeared on December 8, 1992 in Slobodna Dalmacija where Boris Dežulović in his article “Dr Prosperov and Mr. Novak” revealed the identity of the author of the series of articles - nobody else than the Croatian P.E.N. president Slobodan Prosperov Novak himself. He sent his Rio report on the alleged attempt to “undermine the 59th P.E.N Congress in Dubrovnik and the magnificent fight against this attempt” to HINA (Croatian News Agency) which then distributed it to the Croatian press. An interview with S. P. Novak by Renato Baretić headlined The Congress Cannot Be Undermined was published in Nedjeljna Dalmacija on December 9, 1992 as a response to Dežulović’s article. In the interview S. P. Novak reveals his side of the coin and states that he has “fought fiercely in Rio to hold the next P.E.N. Congress in Dubrovnik” and that he is just the author of the “information” about the events after which a press release was created at the Croatian P.E.N. Centre and that newspaper editors “could do whatever they wanted with it”. S. P. N. also revealed his concept of the next Dubrovnik Congress where “Croatian writers from Franjo Tuđman to Boris Dežulović could speak in front of the international public”. S. P. Novak, in response to the reporter’s direct question on whether his information was responsible for the claim that the attempt to undermine the congress in Dubrovnik was the direct result of the actions of a few Croatian feminist and left-wing female journalists and writers, said: “I could not even imagine anything like that,” further stating that: “…the importance of the singled out ladies largely goes beyond the borders of Croatia, and it is a pity that Croatia doesn’t see it. It’s a pity that Croatia doesn’t recognize that Dubravka Ugrešić and Slavenka Drakulić are the most widely recognized Croatian authors on the international literary market...
- Regardless what and how they write?
Regardless of that. The other issue is whether the market is malicious, to what it has the full right to be. As to why it is malicious, this needs to be investigated.“I do not believe that either Dubravka or Slavenka created that image, they did not even help to create it, they are just floating above it, trying to use its services.”

Writer S. P. Novak might have believed that he had distanced himself from the information he had given and which had led to the attacks on the five journalists and writers but his cynical commentaries are certainly not the appropriate counterpoint to the information he launched. Vesna Kesić reacted to his interview in her article Slobodan Prosperov to Rio, Ostap B. Novak from Rio... published on December 13, 1992 in Slobodna Dalmacija. Milan Ivkošić then responded to her mere mention of his name in his article The “yat reflex” and nuclear bomb published on December 15, 1992 in Večernji list.

Already on December 11, 1992 a notorious article entitled Croatian feminists rape Croatia appeared in the weekly paper Globus. This article is known for being the most compromised article of Croatian journalism of the recent period. The author/s is/are hidden under the collective by-line “the Globus Investigative Team”. The Croatian public did not know for a long time who stood behind the by-line. The general public only found out after some time and after the “witches” had already pressed charges for slander. It was then that Tanja Torbarina, a Globus columnist, revealed the true identity of the writers who proclaimed themselves to be the “investigative team” in one of her columns. She was moved, as she said, to disclose them because she felt pity for Globus editor-in-chief at the time Denis Kuljiš who was superfluously asked to testify in court. Namely, Kuljiš as the editor-in-chief defended the “investigative team” at court for years (Denis Kuljiš’s court testimonies). The Zagreb Women’s Lobby reacted to the Globus article with a protest press release List of women to be eliminated published on December 13, 1992 in Slobodna Dalmacija.

Željko Žutelija in his article “Croatian brotherhood and non-unity” published on December 16, 1992 in Slobodna Dalmacija, among other things, wrote: “We would hardly be able to defend even every other inch of the homeland with this kind of brotherhood and non-unity if war should flare up again since the mobilization factor will not be equally powerful as when the war broke out”. Žutelija’s arguments for such a stance are: “The ladies of the Croatian postcommunism have the right to their own thoughts, attitudes and feelings in general, where because of the enormous love for themselves they have always missed feelings for others and especially for something so abstract for them as the homeland...” “Feminist writers assume special importance through media discussions and they don’t have that importance despite their indisputable professional abilities. However, the crude attack on them and allusions about their lack of femininity only reveal the anonymous author who wrote the mentioned lines. My colleagues should be granted the right to their egocentric self infatuation without room for patriotism, for cosmopolitanism while their peers are being killed on the fronts of the widely degraded and scorned homeland, for time to cry over the removal of books by Aleksandar Šantić from library shelves while Dubrovnik or Zadar are recovering from their own ruins and healing the wounds of Serbian aggression and while Vukovar still hasn’t written the last pages of its bloody war diary.”

The article New glitz for Croatian feminists by Branimir Donat was published on February 19, 1993 in Globus and the article Flying Dutchwomen rape Croatia by Dunja Ujević was published on March 2, 1993 in Večernji list. The Zagreb Women’s Lobby reacted to it in the article Production of enemies published on March 15.

On April 17, 1992 an article by Jasen Boko headlined “Limonov on a tank and ‘witch’ hunters” was published in Slobodna Dalmacija’s “Forum” where the story about the Croatian P.E.N. Centre, the “witch” affair and the 59th International P.E.N. Congress in Dubrovnik continue with their imposed coexistence. We have found out that the Dubrovnik Congress, although not an official regular international congress but just the gathering of international P.E.N. members is, nevertheless, the “most important gathering of this year in the world”. Official participation was first cancelled by the German P.E.N. and followed by other P.E.N. Centres: American, Japanese (“suddenly well-knowledgeable of local happenings”, J. B.), Serbian. “The International P.E.N. doesn’t have balls anymore” Jasen Boko, in the spirit of literary machismo, subtly notices and concludes that: “Even though it has been a long time since there have been Hemingways in world literature and there are more and more office clerks who remain indifferent to the arrival of Russian writer Limonov in Vukovar on a Russian tank, they are not the only ones to be blamed for everything that is going on with the Dubrovnik Congress. To those who are indecisive, we have helped with “the witches” in foreign media (who took the liberty of being the only opposition to the government), and then with the shameful “witch hunt” set in motion by some local “investigation teams”.

The vampire ball over Croatian intellectuals started to change its direction with an article by J. Pavičić headlined “Witches over Congress”, published on April 24, 1993 in Slobodna Dalmacija: “The appearance by Slovenian Boris A. Novak was greeted with a frenzied welcome, who attacked the concept of equal guilt but he also said, using Aristotle’s motto, ‘I like my friend Plato but I like truth more’, adding that the well-known Globus article about the “witches” had an impact on the Congress organization and that the named women (Ugrešić, Drakulić, Kesić, Lovrić and Iveković...) should certainly have been present in Dubrovnik. He also said that he is aware that the “witches’ case” is an alibi for many not to attend, but that he distances himself from Carl Gustav Stroehm who paints a rosy picture of Croatian media. At times a rather heated debate that included various speakers (Vera Čičin-Šain, Željka Čorak, Mate Meštrović, Alain Finkielkraut, Annie Le Brun, Nedjeljko Fabrio, Mirko Mirković...) followed. They discussed the “witches” affair and the issue of the cancellation of some national P.E.N. Centers, e.g. the French one. The moderator (Ivo) Banac tried to avoid these issues by putting it down to an internal French problem, but the French and French speaking Swiss debate participants did not agree with Mr. Banac. Even though everyone agreed on the disgracefulness of the Globus articles and that the scandalous conduct of a private weekly newspaper cannot be a barometer of the freedom of press, the question of the media was not opened.”

Branimir Donat, one of the leading exorcists, reacts again in his article Old women haunt Croatia published on May 9, 1993 in Večernji list.
Media debate continued with the article Confession of a Croatian witch by Vesna Kesić published on May 5, 1993 in Nedjeljna Dalmacija. In her article Kesić analyses the woman question, the appearance and presence of feminism in the former and present state and the case of the Witches from Rio.
An article by Zdravko Zima headlined Witches from Croatia was published in Danas on May 14, 1993 where he reacts to the article by Vesna Kesić. This was followed by one more reaction by Zlatko Gall in the article How to burn the witches? in Slobodna Dalmacija from May 16 where the author compares the situation in Croatia and Serbia with regards to the treatment of feminists in society, and where he studies the term “witches” in the context of time and space.
Even though these two articles represent a certain turning-point in the perception of witches in Croatia, attacks and public smear campaigns continued.
Gojko Borić in an article published on July 5, 1993 in Slobodna Dalmacija mentioned Drakulić, Kesić, Lovrić and other oppositional thinkers and activists saying that: “Croatian society over time should develop something called political hygiene. Neither the ruling class nor the writers should be allowed to stain society. Even the big democracies do not allow intellectual extremists to be a part of decent society.”
In Hloverka Novak Srzić’s Danas two articles about the witches’ case were published on July 2, 1993: Edo Popović’s “Merry iconography of evil” and “What will Jelena Lovrić do now?”
The “Witches from Rio” case, even today serves as a metaphor for malicious journalism from the time of government-run nationalism in Croatia when even the state and so-called free and independent media sustained their existence and profit on the coexistence of nationalism, sensationalism and sexism. The case is closely related to war rapes.
The witch hunt and debates around the “Witches from Rio” case lasted for nearly a year in the Croatian media and also had repercussions in the international public.