Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, and the government generally respected this right. An independent media and a functioning democratic political system combined in most cases to promote freedom of expression, including for members of the media, but judicial ineffectiveness at times delayed resolution of cases.
Freedom of Expression: The law sanctions individuals who act “with the goal of spreading racial, religious, sexual, national, ethnic hatred, or hatred based on the color of skin or sexual orientation or other characteristics.” A conviction for internet hate speech is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The law provides for six months’ to five years’ imprisonment for those who organize or lead a group of three or more persons to incite violence or hate via print media, radio, television, computer system or networks, during public gatherings or in other way against certain categories or groups. Under the law, libel and insult also represent criminal acts and are punishable by a fine. Insults shall not be criminally prosecuted if committed in the conduct of journalism, in a public interest, or for other justifiable reasons. Although the laws and recent Constitutional Court decisions technically impose restrictions on symbolic speech considered “hate speech,” including the use of Nazi and (the World War II [fascist, pro-Nazi] regime) Ustasha-era symbols and slogans, NGOs and advocacy groups complained that enforcement of those provisions remained inadequate, and that courts’ jurisprudence remained inconsistent.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Restrictions on material deemed hate speech apply to print and broadcast media. On October 1, parliament amended the Electronic Media Law to make providers of electronic publications responsible for the entire content published including user-generated content only if providers fail to register a user or fail to warn users in a clear and visible way concerning the rules regarding online comments. The amendments regulate the rights, obligations, and responsibilities of legal and natural persons that provide audio or audiovisual media services and services related to electronic publications and video platforms, transposing several EU directives into national legislation. The amendments also define mechanisms to determine jurisdiction over various providers of media services and increases transparency in the publication of information outlining the ownership structure of media service providers. The law was amended in cooperation with the Croatian Journalists’ Association (CJA) and the Association of Newspaper Publishers of the Croatian Employers’ Association.
The law bans inciting violence or hatred against groups or a member of a group on grounds of race, gender, language, religion, political or other beliefs, national or social origin, property status, trade union membership, education, social status, marital or family status, age, health, disability, genetic inheritance, gender identity, expression or sexual orientation, and anti-Semitism and xenophobia, ideas of fascist, Nazi, communist and other totalitarian regimes.
Violence and Harassment: NGOs reported intimidation and threats, especially online threats, against journalists. Organizations including the CJA, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), the Union of Croatian Journalists (SNH), and the Croatian Political Science Association condemned verbal attacks on the country’s media and called for more government engagement to address the issue. In May the EFJ joined their affiliates in the country, including the SNH and the CJA, in condemning President Milanovic’s calling journalists who work for public broadcaster Croatian Radio and Television (HRT) “tricksters,” “mercenaries,” and “an embarrassment to the country.” The EFJ also condemned remarks regarding media by Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Members of the press reported practicing self-censorship due to fear of online harassment, lawsuits, upsetting politically connected individuals, or possible adverse employment effects for covering certain topics.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes libel, but no criminal penalties were imposed. The country has both criminal and civil laws against libel. According to results of an annual survey conducted by the CJA, at least 924 lawsuits were filed against journalists and media, with claimed damages of almost 79 million kuna ($13 million). Of the 924 lawsuits, 892 were for civil alleged violations of honor and reputation against publishers, editors, and journalists, while 32 were criminal lawsuits. The CJA was defending itself against three active lawsuits. The HRT had active lawsuits against 36 of its own journalists, including the president of the CJA, Hrvoje Zovko, and the president of the CJA branch at the HRT, Sanja Mikleusevic Pavic.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
f. Protection of Refugees
The government sometimes cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee status and subsidiary protection status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees and asylum seekers. Despite restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of the Interior reported it continued to work with asylum seekers and persons granted international protection, and it provided access to the asylum procedure in accordance with epidemiological measures and recommendations adopted by the European Commission.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: As in previous years, national and international NGO reports accused the country’s border police of violent pushbacks and abuse of irregular migrants.
The television network RTL released news footage on October 6 appearing to show masked men in Croatia forcefully pushing back migrants into Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The footage was taken in collaboration with a consortium of European journalists associated with Lighthouse Reports as part of an eight-month investigation. The video showed masked men in vests and wielding batons used by Croatia’s riot police. Head of the Border Police Zoran Niceno said the Police Directorate formed a task force to investigate the incident, which reportedly took place in June, and emphasized that such physical violence had no place in police procedures, a sentiment echoed by Minister of Interior Davor Bozinovic. Prime Minister Plenkovic stressed the country’s duty to protect the border and to prevent illegal migration but noted everything must be in accordance with the law. Police Director General Nikola Milina said on October 8 that authorities suspended three police officers in connection with the incident and added that police were in close contact with the state prosecutors and the country’s Independent Monitoring Mechanism.
In the first half of the year, the NGO Danish Refugee Council alleged there were 3,629 pushbacks from Croatia to BiH, and 144 pushbacks from Croatia to Serbia, as well as 275 chain pushbacks from Slovenia, Italy, and Austria, through Croatia, to BiH. A significant increase in the number of alleged pushbacks from Croatia was recorded in the second quarter and mostly involved Afghan, Pakistani, Syrian, and Moroccan nationals. During the same period, the Croatian NGO Center for Peace Studies, an advocate for the rights of migrants, stated it received 224 inquiries from 178 groups of potential asylum seekers (including 82 that included children) and other migrants, involving at least 658 persons, requesting legal advice or other assistance.
In April media reported that an Afghan woman alleged that a border police officer sexually assaulted her, holding her at knifepoint and forcing her to strip during a search of a group of irregular migrants on the border with BiH. The Guardian newspaper reported the woman said she tried to cross the Croatian border with a group of four others, including two children, but they were stopped by an officer who allegedly pointed a rifle at them, and tore up their papers when they requested asylum. The European Commission described the reported incident as a “serious alleged criminal action” and urged Croatian authorities “to thoroughly investigate all allegations and follow up with relevant actions.” In response, the Ministry of Interior stated police would investigate the allegations but that based on preliminary checks there were no recorded dealings with “females from the population of illegal migrants” on the day in question.
On June 8, the Interior Ministry concluded an agreement to establish an Independent Mechanism for Monitoring the Conduct of Police Officers of the Ministry of the Interior in the Field of Illegal Migration and International Protection (the Mechanism). According to one of the implementers, the agreement was concluded with professional associations in medical and legal sciences, national societies dealing with humanitarian aid and protection, associations for the protection of human rights and promotion of a culture of dialogue, and prominent scholars dealing with the protection of human rights of migrants and seekers of international protection, who will conduct the monitoring.
The purpose of the Mechanism is to monitor the treatment of irregular migrants and seekers of international protection through announced and unannounced observations in police stations, shelters for foreigners, and announced visits to “other appropriate places” such as Croatia’s green border with BiH. In addition to individual observations, the Mechanism has the right to inspect final case files on complaints regarding the conduct of police officers. Reports on observations and other materials and documentation on the work of the Mechanism shall be consolidated in a semiannual and final report, which shall be made public. Some NGOs criticized the Mechanism for a lack of public information on the details of the agreement and insufficient oversight at the green border where they alleged most human rights violations occurred.
Durable Solutions: The government continued to participate in a joint regional housing program (RHP) with the governments of BiH, Montenegro, and Serbia. The RHP aimed to contribute to the resolution of the protracted displacement situation of the most vulnerable refugees and displaced persons following the 1991-95 conflict. As of September the RHP increased the number of assisted families and provided housing to 332 families (786 individuals) in the country.
In March the country offered to participate in the EU’s scheme to relocate unaccompanied minors from overcrowded reception centers in Greece. The Ministry of Interior reported 19 Afghan nationals affiliated with the EU delegation in Kabul arrived in Zagreb for resettlement on August 28. The group included three families (including 10 children), and one single person.
Temporary Protection: The country also has a mechanism for subsidiary protection for those who do not qualify for asylum, but no one was granted subsidiary protection during the year.
g. Stateless Persons
According to UNHCR, at the end of December 2020, an estimated 2,900 stateless persons lived in the county. Many of these persons were Roma who lacked citizenship documents. The Ministry of the Interior is responsible for granting stateless individuals who fulfill legal requirements residency and eventual citizenship.