In September 2021, Human Rights House Zagreb (HRHZ) prepared a contribution to the call for inputs by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on report on good practices and challenges in using the UN Guidelines on Participation. Regarding Croatia, HRHZ listed certain challenges noted in several areas of its focus and expertise, such as civil society participation in public life and decision making, freedom of assembly, work of human right defenders and media freedoms.
The objective of the call for inputs was to collect information about good practices and challenges faced by States in using the guidelines on the effective implementation of the right to participate in public affairs which are to be presented to the 49th session of the Human Rights Council. Regarding the implementation of the right to participation in Croatia, Human Rights House Zagreb submitted the following main observations:
- Civil society participation in public life and decision making
Negative trends in 2020 and 2021 were visible with respect to the civil dialogue and participation in decision making. The Croatian Government did not maintain a dialogue with civil society with respect to adoption of emergency measures related to the COVID-19 epidemic. There were also no Government consultations in that regard with the Council for Civil Society Development, an advisory body to the Government. In April 2020, the Croatian Government did not include the civil society sector in the recovery measures when it announced mitigation measures for the consequences of COVID-19 epidemic intended for beneficiaries of EU funds. In addition, some continuing issues such as the short-term format of public funding for CSO projects negatively affects the work of CSOs engaged in long-term advocacy and watchdog activities.
In the past years there were no public initiatives or policies adopted that would aim at strengthening civil society development in Croatia. Since the National Strategy for the Development of Civil Society expired in 2015, Croatia has been without a defined public policy for creating an enabling environment for the development of civil society for six years now. The drafting process of the new National Plan for Creating an Enabling Environment for the Development of Civil Society from 2021 to 2027 is ongoing.
In addition, the overall quality of civic participation in processes of legislation and policy development is not on an adequate level. Online public consultations are available, but the quality of participation is hampered by the fact that citizens’ inputs and recommendations are often not genuinely welcomed and taken into consideration by public authorities. Citizen participation in the decision-making process is relatively weak, with most institutions relying exclusively on consulting online and no longer combining consultation methods such as round tables, panel discussions, etc. Civil society is often involved in consultations only as a formality.
There is still a negative trend of illegal decisions on denying the right of access to information. The frequent use of the provisions of the GDPR to deny requests for access to information continued in 2020. In more than 60% of cases, public authorities unjustifiably withheld information on the basis of personal data.
- Freedom of assembly and work of human right defenders
Since March 2020 and depending on the epidemiological situation caused by the COVID-19 crisis, various measures have imposed restrictions on public gatherings, but at the same time several exceptions from those restrictions allowed for certain gatherings to take place. By allowing certain assemblies to take place, other forms of gatherings were placed in an unequal position while the constitutional right to public assembly should be available to everyone under equal conditions, regardless of the category and motive of the assembly.
Cases of criminalisation of humanitarian and human rights work as well as cases of intimidation, harassment and disciplining of human rights defenders active in organisations who provide help and support refugees and other migrants have been present in Croatia for the past few years.
- Media freedoms
Media freedoms in Croatia are being challenged. Many factors have a chilling effect on journalists and development of a pluralistic media landscape which hampers broad public debate on controversial topics. With that regard, frequent lawsuits against journalists and editors for defamation, insult and shaming are continuously concerning, and so are the attacks, threats, and intimidation of journalists, especially those investigating controversial topics such as war crimes, organized crime or corruption. The fact that claimants include politicians, local self-government units and judges is especially concerning. Additional matters of concern are the Government’s interference in the work of public television as well as lawsuits by public television against its journalists seeking large damages. The work of non-profit media in Croatia has been seriously hampered since the Ministry of Culture made sharp cuts to public funding schemes for independent media in 2016. The absence of domestic public funding in combination with delays in the EU funding scheme is putting non-profit media in a difficult position by forcing them to reduce their work.
According to the European Commission Rule of Law Report 2021 for Croatia, strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) targeting journalists continue to be a serious concern. A survey by the Croatian Journalists’ Association in April 2021 counted 924 active lawsuits against journalists and the media in Croatia. The association highlights that these lawsuits have a strong impact on the concerned media outlets, threatening the existence of smaller, local media outlets and freelance journalists. Croatian authorities have set up an expert group to advise on policy initiatives to counter SLAPPs. The expert group intends to exchange expertise and good practices as well as establish initiatives to improve the position of journalists facing SLAPP lawsuits.
HRHZ will continue to closely follow the presentation and adoption of the abovementioned Report to the HRC and will make use of the findings and recommendations in domestic human rights advocacy.
The whole report is available at this link.
Photo: Universal Rights Group
Project A NEW BEGINNING – Sectoral Innovations for a Proactive, Progressive and Influential Human Rights Civil Society is supported with €199,909.82 of financial support from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway under the EEA and Norway grants. Project is implemented by Human Rights House Zagreb, Center for Peace Studies, Youth Initiative for Human Rights, Center for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights – Osijek and Human Rights House Foundation.