Conservatives stage anti-abortion march, counter-protesters carried away by riot police
On 4th April, a comprehensive report by the Croatian Ombudsman was published, looking at the human rights situation in the country over the past year. The report addresses several areas, including the right to health, issues related to discrimination and problems in the judicial system. Discrimination against marginalised groups such as the Roma population is an important issue, with a focus on the segregation of Roma children in education. The report also addresses the use of fascist symbols and stresses the importance of consistent enforcement of penalties for such acts. The report contains a comprehensive analysis of human rights issues, covering over 60 topics and sub-topics, as well as recommendations for possible improvements.
Despite fierce opposition from the right-wing opposition, the governing majority in the Croatian parliament tabled urgent amendments to the Law on Offences against Public Order and Peace on 19th April. The amendments provide for tougher penalties for disturbing public order by displaying symbols that express or incite hatred, such as the salute associated with the Ustasha regime. The debate focuses on the controversial “Za dom spremni!” salute and its impact on Croatian veterans. The amendments aim to curb hate symbols, but the effectiveness of the proposed penalties remains to be seen.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
In the Croatian city of Osijek, the religious conservative group “In the Name of the Family” organised an anti-abortion “Walk for Life” march on 13th March. Participants, including Catholic priests, marched through the city centre with the slogan “Don’t stop my heartbeat, just give me love” and sounded the heartbeat of an unborn child. Riot police carried away counter-demonstrators who had sat on the ground before the procession and attempted to block the march. The group advocates for the protection of human life from conception and opposes what it calls the “imposition of gender ideology on children.” The organisation, which is closely linked to the Catholic Church, holds such events in several Croatian cities and advocates against what they see as various social problems. This year, the city of Zagreb did not approve the organisation's request to hang the flags of the Walk for Life in public places.
Numerous Croatian judges have gone on a “white strike” or “warning strike” over inadequate pay starting on 8th May. This strike has led to the suspension of court proceedings in various areas involving civil, commercial, misdemeanour and criminal courts. The judges are demanding a salary increase of EUR 600 for first-instance judges and a 20% increase for all other judges. The strike is organised by the Association of Croatian Judges, in which many judges participate.
Hundreds of nurses, technicians and non-medical staff from all parts of Croatia organised several protests in Zagreb, Split and Dubrovnik in early May, demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Under the slogan “We are the health sector too,” they are demanding an increase in their salary coefficients by at least 10 per cent. They said they were disappointed with the government's attitude towards them and if nothing changed and their demands were not respected, they were ready to strike.
The 78th anniversary of the escape of the remaining prisoners from the Jasenovac concentration camp was commemorated at the Jasenovac Memorial on 23rd April. The ceremony was attended by the Croatian leadership, representatives of various victim groups, religious leaders and diplomats. Previously, the Jewish community and Serb and anti-fascist representatives had held separate commemorations, but this year all groups came together. The Prime Minister stressed the need to remember the genocide perpetrated by the NDH (Independent State of Croatia) and to raise awareness of the Holocaust and the victims of totalitarian regimes. Similar commemorations took place in other Croatian cities. During a Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration at Zagreb's Mirogoj cemetery on 19th April, the coordinator of Croatia's Jewish community, Ognjen Kraus, expressed concern about Holocaust denial in Croatian society and the country’s education system, even among high-ranking officials, and called for sanctions against Holocaust denial, welcoming higher fines for hate symbols.
Other smaller peaceful protests also took place during the reporting period, such as the protest of farmers from Klakar municipality because of their dissatisfaction with the distribution of state land rent, and the protest of beekeepers against the municipality’s alleged poor treatment of the beekeeping service. Smaller environmental protests also took place, such as the protest of the citizens of Kutina against the construction of a waste incinerator in the city and the protests of the citizens in Split and Brdo against the deterioration of air quality.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
In the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index 2023, Croatia has moved up six places to 42nd, indicating progress in press freedom. The index highlights Croatia's positive development while pointing out challenges faced by other countries in the region, such as increasing hostility towards journalists and state control. Despite the improvements noted in some countries, the overall picture highlights the continued importance of protecting press freedom and independent reporting.
Croatian journalists have objected to claims by the Croatian Minister of Culture and Media and the Director General of the Croatian Broadcasting Corporation (HRT) rejecting accusations of censorship within the national broadcaster. On 18th May, the parliamentary media committee met to discuss the allegations after a former employee gave an interview about his experience of censorship at HRT. During the discussion, the station’s director claimed that although HRT had often been accused of censorship, there had never been a court ruling confirming such allegations, and the minister agreed, claiming it would be “fake news” to claim otherwise. This is in reference to a court ruling from February 2022, when HRT sued journalist Hrvoje Zovko for defamation after he had spoken publicly about censorship at HRT. The court ruled in Zovko's favour, recognising the restriction of the employees' freedom of expression. At the end of the committee’s discussion, a deputy from the opposition Social Democratic Party proposed a conclusion that there was a “reasonable suspicion" of censorship and self-censorship at the television station. However, this proposal was rejected by the majority of the committee members.
An analysis by Croatian CSO GONG published on 3rd May, World Press Freedom Day, highlights the problem of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) in Croatia. A recent survey conducted by the Croatian Journalists' Association revealed that over 945 lawsuits are pending against the media and journalists, mainly for defamation. Croatia faces a particular challenge as judges often initiate SLAPP lawsuits and make disproportionately high claims for damages. The government has established a working group to combat SLAPPs and to consider mechanisms for early recognition and dismissal of such cases.
On 27th April, it was reported that the Croatian CSO Rainbow Families, which brings together families of same-sex couples and offers them support and advocacy in the event of possible discrimination, won its discrimination case against the ultra-conservative group Vigilare. The CSO also announced that it has taken further legal action against the group for failing to comply with an earlier court ruling which confirmed that Vigilare had incited discrimination and harassment against LGBTQI+ people and their families. We are awaiting the response of the Croatian Prosecutor's Office, which provides for possible penalties in the Criminal Code for non-compliance with court decisions. This case reflects ongoing efforts to promote LGBTQI+ rights and combat discrimination in Croatia. According to the latest ILGA-Europe Rainbow Europe Map and Index, Croatia has moved up one place with the introduction of adoption for same-sex couples, but hate speech has continued to increase this year.