Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined in most cases to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. NGOs reported, however, that the government did not adequately investigate or prosecute cases in which journalists or bloggers received threats, and the Croatian Journalists’ Association (CJA) reported that lawsuits against journalists and media outlets were used as a form of censorship.
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.” The law provides for six months’ to five years’ imprisonment for conviction of such “hate speech.” Conviction for internet hate speech is punishable by six months to three years’ imprisonment. Although the law and recent Constitutional Court decisions technically impose restrictions on symbolic speech considered “hate speech,” including the use of Nazi- and (the World War II regime) Ustasha-era symbols and slogans, NGOs and advocacy groups complained that enforcement of those provisions remained inadequate.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. Restrictions on material deemed hate speech apply to print and broadcast media. Many private newspapers and magazines were published without government interference. Observers said, however, that information regarding actual ownership of some local radio and television channels was not always publicly available, raising concerns about bias, censorship, and the vulnerability of audiences to malign influence.
Violence and Harassment: NGOs reported that intimidation and threats, especially online threats, against journalists had an increasingly chilling effect on media freedom and that the government insufficiently addressed this problem.
On March 7, Office of Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media Harlem Desir expressed concern about a March 6 police visit to the online news portal Net.hr, ostensibly to verify the identity and home address of journalist Djurdjica Klancir. Ivo Zinic, the head of Sisak County and a member of the Croatian Democratic Union, had previously filed a private defamation lawsuit against Klancir, and Desir alleged the police visit was conducted to intimidate Klancir. Zinic denied having anything to do with the police incident.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Members of the press reported practicing self-censorship due to fear of online harassment, being sued, upsetting politically connected individuals, or losing their jobs for covering certain topics.
On September 16, Gordan Duhacek, a journalist for the online portal index.hr, was detained by police and later fined at Zagreb’s Misdemeanor Court for a July 2018 Twitter message that discussed police treatment of those arrested and contained an antipolice message. Duhacek also faced a court judgment for another tweet, a satirical rewrite of the lyrics of a patriotic song. The CJA labeled police treatment of Duhacek as intimidation. On September 17, OSCE representative Harlem Desir expressed concern about the case and stated, “Such treatment of journalists for their views is unacceptable. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and should be respected as such.” Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, said the arrest and fine for Duhacek “amount to pure intimidation of the press” and called on authorities to protect media freedom and avoid undue pressure on journalists.
Libel/Slander Laws: The country’s public broadcaster, Croatian Radio Television (HRT), filed more than 30 lawsuits against its own and other journalists, including HRT journalist and CJA president Hrvoje Zovko, who complained of censorship at the HRT and was later dismissed from his position as HRT editor. On October 29, the Zagreb Labor Court found the HRT’s dismissal of Zovko illegal and ordered him reinstated. On March 2, several hundred journalists rallied in Zagreb against the curbing of media freedoms in the country. The CJA reported there were more than 1,000 ongoing lawsuits involving journalists or media outlets. The CJA viewed these lawsuits as attacks on the independence of the media. Responding to the CJA’s claims on February 6, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said, “Croatia is a free country with free media and free media ownership structure,” and “to say today that there is no media freedom in Croatia means that the person making this claim is neither reading the papers, listening to the radio, nor watching television.” On March 6, the OSCE’s Desir expressed his concern about the high number of lawsuits filed against journalists and outlets, claiming that defamation laws were being misused to intimidate journalists.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: International and domestic NGOs and international organizations outside of the country such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported police pushbacks of migrants, some of whom may have been asylum seekers, attempting to enter the country illegally, particularly on the country’s border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, and alleged border police subjected migrants to degrading and abusive treatment, including theft and destruction of migrants’ property during pushbacks. Human Rights Watch claimed that reported police pushbacks of migrants into Bosnia and Herzegovina were illegal under international law. Amnesty International also reported police abuse of migrants and pushbacks. Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic denied reports of migrant abuse. According to Bozinovic, the Ministry of the Interior received more than 200 complaints of alleged illegal and violent pushbacks of migrants, but, following investigations, found no evidence to support the allegations.
In March the ombudsperson received an anonymous complaint by a border police officer alleging that illegal mistreatment of migrants was ordered by police superiors. The ombudsperson notified the State Attorney’s Office and requested an independent investigation. In the absence of a response from the State Attorney’s Office, in June she notified parliament. The Ministry of the Interior ultimately dismissed those claims as unsubstantiated and inaccurate.
In November there were reports of two separate shootings of migrants by police, both resulting in injuries. In the first incident, police reported an Afghan migrant was shot accidentally when a police officer fired a warning shot. The officer evacuated the migrant, who was in critical condition, to a hospital. In the second incident, police reported a migrant was accidentally shot while resisting arrest. The investigation into the first shooting was completed in December and it was found to have been an accident. There was no additional information on the status of the victim. The investigation into the second shooting was ongoing at year’s end.
Interior Minister Bozinovic said the country encouraged and promoted strengthening legal pathways for persons in need of international protection and carried out an EU resettlement program for Syrian refugees from Turkey.
The government in most cases cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and 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 asylum seekers. NGOs reported authorities at the borders between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina prevented some migrants from applying for international protection, although officials denied these reports.
Durable Solutions: During the year the government received 98 refugees and asylum seekers under the EU Resettlement Program, for a total of 250 refugees and asylum seekers since the program began in 2015. In accordance with decisions of the Council of the EU to relocate migrants from Italy and Greece, the government received an additional 81 asylum seekers and resettled 250 Syrian refugees from Turkey.
The government continued to participate in a joint regional housing program (RHP) with the governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 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 had provided housing to 289 families (674 individuals) in the country.
Temporary Protection: The Ministry of Interior reported that from January to December 11, the government provided asylum to 153 refugees who had a well-founded fear of persecution if they returned to their home country. The country also has a mechanism for subsidiary protection for those who do not qualify for asylum and granted protection to one person during the year.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. State prosecutors continued to prosecute several major corruption cases involving mayors, politicians, and public figures, and the judiciary generally imposed statutory penalties in cases in which there was a conviction. High-profile convictions for corruption, however, were frequently overturned on appeal. Corruption remained a problem, and significant numbers of high-profile corruption cases were underway.
Corruption: Several corruption cases against former high-level government officials reported in previous years were still pending. On May 23, the Supreme Court increased the corruption sentence of former prime minister Ivo Sanader to six years’ imprisonment, after prosecutors appealed an earlier four-and-a-half-year sentence from a lower court. Sanader was found guilty of assisting former Croatian Democratic Union member of parliament Stjepan Fiolic in a 2009 real estate deal that provided Sanader 17 million kuna ($2.6 million) in proceeds. Separate trials continued against Sanader on other corruption-related charges. On December 30, in one of these, the Zagreb County Court sentenced Sanader to a first instance appealable ruling of six years’ imprisonment for accepting a bribe of approximately $11 million during 2009 negotiations with Hungarian energy firm Hungarian Oil and Gas Public Limited Company, which was seeking management control of Croatian energy firm Oil Company, Public Stock Company.
The Office for the Suppression of Corruption and Organized Crime launched an investigation into former administration minister Lovro Kuscevic, who, while mayor of a municipality on Brac Island, was suspected of initiating an unlawful change in the municipality’s urban plan as well as enabling his brother-in-law to buy a government-subsidized flat. He resigned as minister in July and returned to parliament, which later stripped him of immunity from prosecution. The investigation covered three other officials suspected of abuse of office, incitement to abuse, and giving false depositions. The case was ongoing at year’s end.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires that public officials declare their assets and income, and government officials generally complied with this requirement. This information was available to the public. Fines are the penalty for noncompliance. During the year the Commission for Dealing with the Conflict of Interest fined two members of parliament, Ivan Sincic and Anka Mrak Taritas, and one state secretary, Zeliko Uhlir, for irregularities in their financial disclosure forms.