Protests raise awareness of women’s rights, demand stronger protections against domestic violence
The Croatian Ombudsman has released survey findings that reveal a rise in perceived discrimination, particularly within the healthcare sector. The survey respondents also highlighted work and employment, the judiciary, media, and police behaviour as the areas where they feel most discriminated against. Factors such as nationality and political beliefs were cited as significant contributors to discrimination. Many respondents did not take action against discrimination because they feared it would be ineffective or make the situation worse. Although some progress has been made in reducing prejudice, the awareness of existing anti-discrimination laws among the general population remains low.
The European Civic Forum's Civic Space Report 2022 highlights the erosion of democratic processes and the rule of law, impacting civil society organisations across the European Union. Gong, a Croatian NGO, contributed to the report and identified key obstacles to civil society development in the country. The report also emphasises the diminishing participation of civil society organisations in political decision-making, as seen in changes to the Council for Civil Society Development. Per the report, a chronic lack of political will to support civil society is also evident in the absence of updated national strategies and programmes.
The latest report on LGBTQI+ human rights in Croatia, prepared by the Zagreb Pride Association, highlights the lack of action by institutions to protect and promote the rights of this community. It also mentions an increase in hate speech and hate crimes. The report does mention positive developments in the judicial system and the growing activism and empowerment of the LGBTQI+ community in Croatia. However, these improvements are not the result of institutional efforts or societal changes, but rather the result of community activism. The report covers the period from 2018 to 2022 and acknowledges legal victories and increased awareness of rights within the community. However, it also emphasises the need for further work in areas such as healthcare for transgender individuals and education at the secondary and tertiary levels.
Freedom of peaceful assembly
CSOs call on government to allow protests in front of key institutions
In March 2023, a collective of 24 civil society organisations led by transparency watchdog Gong called upon the Government of the Republic of Croatia, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and Minister of the Interior Davor Božinović to allow public access to St. Mark's Square, the area where key democratic institutions, such as the Parliament, the Government of the Republic of Croatia and the Constitutional Court are located. The square has been secured by police barriers for over two years, hindering citizens from gathering there. The public has not been adequately informed about the specific security threat justifying these measures. The organisations have stressed the importance of upholding the Croatian Constitution and ensuring that any limitations on freedom of assembly are proportionate and minimal. In response, the Croatian Ministry of Interior Affairs (MUP) has rejected Gong's request for information regarding the present threat level and the ongoing closure of St. Mark's Square. MUP justified their refusal by classifying the information as “confidential”, suggesting that disclosing this information could potentially compromise the security of government institutions.
Od listopada 2020., vrh države se ogradio od nas barikadama. Osim što svoj rad zatvaraju od očiju javnosti, i fizički su se ogradili od nas i javni prostor pretvorili u privatno parkiralište.— Gong_hr (@GONG_hr) March 25, 2023
Demokracija na parkiralištu, građanke pred barikadama - #otvaraj Markov trg javnosti! pic.twitter.com/0z3NHsokRU
Multiple protests for workers’ and social rights
On 2nd February, the two largest health unions in Croatia organised a protest in front of the relevant ministry building, expressing their concerns about the health administration's disregard for their demands, unilateral decision-making and lack of respect for workers' rights. The union leaders refused to engage in discussions with representatives of the Ministry of Health, claiming that they lacked decision-making power. As a result, a meeting did not take place and the unions requested a meeting with Minister Vili Beroš instead.
On 2nd March, delivery workers staged a protest outside the main office of the Wolt delivery platform in Zagreb, demanding a 30% increase in pay. They also called for amendments to the Labour Act related to digital platform work and the Act on Restriction of Undeclared Work, as well as better regulation of the conditions under which foreign workers are employed.
On 26th March, the Croatian Parliament rejected proposed amendments to the Law on Social Welfare that aimed to expand benefits for parents caring for children with disabilities. Specifically, the amendments sought to provide full benefits to caregiver parents for a period of six months after the death of their child. In response to the Parliament's decision, parents gathered outside the Parliament building to express their discontent, strongly criticising the MPs and stating that they should be ashamed of themselves. The strong reactions from the parents had an impact, as shortly after the Parliament's decision, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković announced an increase in the amount of benefits and an extension of the period of eligibility, even after the death of the child.
Furthermore, on 29th March, Croatian doctors held a protest in Zagreb expressing their dissatisfaction with the Ministry of Health's failure to address their demands and resolve the accumulated problems within the healthcare system.
Women’s rights protests and counter-protests take place across Croatia
Since October 2022, groups of men have been gathering in Zagreb and other major cities in Croatia to pray for women’s modesty and for men to have “spiritual authority” in the family. The initiative came from “Be Manly”, an online portal for Catholic men aiming to “reaffirm the Biblical concept of manhood”, which openly advocates for a return to “traditional family values” and against abortion and divorce. They were inspired by similar events in Poland organised by the ultra-conservative Ordo Iuris Foundation. These prayers happen on the first Saturday of each month in public spaces across Croatia and have drawn criticism and counter-protests from feminist and other rights groups.
On 4th February 2023, the Croatian Women's Network held a counter rally against one of these protests. The counter-protesters voiced their disagreement with the men's call for women to submit to them and their discriminatory views, calling for a ban on further prayer gatherings. Participants displayed rainbow flags and messages in support of women's freedom to make choices about their own sexuality and attire. Artist Arijana Lekić-Fridrih, who organised a performance entitled “Silent Mass” as part of the counter-protest, drew attention to the fact that one of the groups behind the prayer initiative has direct ties to Ordo Iuris, who were instrumental in the push to ban abortion in Poland. Both gatherings passed off peacefully and no incidents were reported.
On 8th March 2023, demonstrations were held in Croatia and throughout Southeast Europe as part of the annual March for Women's Rights. Thousands of people joined these protests to advocate for various causes including gender equality, reproductive rights and an end to gender-based violence. In Croatia specifically, participants emphasised the importance of stronger legal protections against domestic violence and discrimination, as well as improved access to healthcare and reproductive rights. The rallies aimed to raise awareness about women's rights issues and promote a more inclusive and equal society.
Additionally, on the same day, a group of women workers from the now defunct Orljava textile factory held a protest in Zagreb. Taking advantage of International Women's Day, they drew attention to their labour rights and demanded the payment of overdue wages following the company's bankruptcy.
Citizens of Rijeka stage anti-violence protest
On 8th February, a protest took place in Rijeka with the slogan Security, not violence. This protest was prompted by the police response to a recent violent altercation at the well-known Platak ski resort, where a group of young men attacked members of the Mountain Rescue Service. The protest organisers, the Možemo party and the Union of Kvarner, called upon the people of Rijeka to come together and send a strong message that the acceptance of violence in society should not be tolerated.
Environmental protesters oppose medical waste incinerator in Croatia’s capital
On 27th February 2023, CSOs Green Action and the Citizens' Initiative “Stop the Rebro Incinerator” came together to protest against the construction of a medical waste incinerator in Zagreb's Clinical Hospital Centre. The protest was organised with the aim of urging the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development to halt the project. The main concerns raised by the protestors were the environmental impact of the incinerator and its failure to comply with spatial planning documentation.
In response to the protest, the Ministry clarified that it does not have the authority to approve or stop the project. They stated that the Ministry of Health is the relevant authority responsible for making decisions regarding the incinerator.
On 24th February, a similar protest took place in Split, where citizens opposed the city government's decision to install press containers, which would serve as a waste transfer station for emptying waste from the city centre and transporting it to the landfill daily.
Croatian journalists call for an independent investigation into colleague’s death
On 6th February, Croatian journalists rallied in Zagreb to demand an independent investigation into the death of investigative journalist Vladimir Matijanić. Matijanić had died six months previously from complications related to COVID-19, and suspicions have been raised that he did not receive adequate medical assistance. At the rally, held under the slogan "Sorry to bother you, I can't breathe", the protesters demanded the resignation of Health Minister Vili Beroš and presented the Government with a petition with 5,000 signatures calling for a probe into the circumstances of Matijanić’s case.
Freedom of expression
Proposed legal changes to criminalise leaking information from investigations
In February 2023, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković announced that leaking information from judicial investigations would become a criminal offence. Explaining the rationale behind the proposed amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code and Criminal Code, he stated it would prevent information from being released to the media in an "uncontrolled, deliberate, political, selective and arranged" manner. The Croatian Journalists' Association (HND) has sharply criticised the proposal, saying that these statements by the Prime Minister represent a direct attack on the freedom of the media, and thus on democracy and the public's right to know. The HND has notified international organisations, including the European Federation of Journalists and the World Federation of Journalists, and plans to engage with parliamentary representatives and government officials to oppose the changes. Critics of the amendments see them as an attempt by the government to keep potentially embarrassing information out of the media.
Concerns over closed-door selection of media oversight council
In March 2023, the Croatian NGO Gong published an article criticising the secrecy in the selection of the new members of the Electronic Media Council (VEM), the country’s broadcasting watchdog. The Council’s three members (two of whom had also been on the previous Council) were selected behind closed doors, in a private Government session. The full list of candidates who had applied for membership in the Council had also not been made public, and Gong petitioned the Government for the list through an access to freedom of information request. However, the Parliamentary Committee for Information, Informatisation and Media contacted Gong and asked for the article to be corrected. The committee said that the Government had provided the committee with the full list of all 26 candidates, along with their CVs. The committee also clarified that the Croatian Parliament does not oversee the public announcement of candidates for the VEM, as this is the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture and Media. The lack of transparency in the selection process has raised concerns about public access to information.