The Annual Rule of Law Report is the cornerstone of the European Commission’s mechanism to promote the rule of law in Member States and prevent problems from occurring or deepening. The report consists of comparable data on independence, quality, and efficiency of the national judicial systems of the Member States. So far, two reports have been published, for 2020 and 2021 and the report for 2022 is currently being prepared. In this process, the European Commission relies on relevant sources and, among others, conducts targeted annual consultations with stakeholders involving various EU agencies, European networks, national and European civil society organizations and professional associations. Information obtained through these consultations is used as a source of factual findings on changes in the Member States and are considered in making the Commission’s assessment.
In January 2022, Human Rights House Zagreb participated in targeted consultations for the preparation of the forthcoming report on the rule of law and presented the problems and challenges facing Croatia in four areas covered by the report: justice system, anti-corruption framework, media freedom and pluralism and other institutional issues related to checks and balances.
In the field of justice, we highlighted problems related to the quality and efficiency of the justice system, which negatively affects the right to access to court. We especially pointed out long-standing problems faced by the free legal aid system: insufficient funding of primary free legal aid, lack of a multiannual funding scheme for primary free legal aid providers – civil society organizations and university legal clinics, insufficient awareness of the public about the right to free legal aid as well as uneven territorial coverage of free legal aid providers in different counties. Digitized access to courts is available only to a few actors in court proceedings, such as lawyers, but not to citizens. The length of court proceedings has a negative impact on citizens’ perceptions of the efficiency of the judiciary. The unavailability of case law indicates the non-transparency of the Croatian judiciary and prevents citizens from using existing case law in their cases. Also, the problem of non-implementation of ECtHR judgments against Croatia was expressed. The overall number of Croatian cases which remain pending before the CoE Committee of Ministers for the supervision of the execution of ECtHR judgements is 79 cases, in which Croatia has not implemented appropriate reforms in domestic legislation and practice, many of which concern the area of the judiciary.
The institutional framework capacity to fight corruption is characterized by a lack of transparency and impartiality. The biggest shortcoming of the new Act on Prevention of Conflicts of Interest is that it did not incorporate provisions on violations of the operating principles, including sanctions as one of the tools for combating corruption. Furthermore, the problem of illegal decisions on denying the right of access to information is ubiquitous, and a significant problem represents the issue of not resolving requests for access to information within the prescribed period. The anti-corruption framework also includes a new proposal for the Act on Protection of Persons Reporting Irregularities, whose main shortcoming is the insufficient framework for the protection of whistleblowers, primarily because whistleblowers are not provided with access to psychosocial support. Since the possibility of reporting irregularities is unknown to most citizens and they are often discouraged from reporting due to fear of consequences, additional emphasis should be placed on promotional activities to raise awareness, inform and encourage the reporting of irregularities.
In the area of media freedom, the continuing trend of frequent lawsuits against journalists and editors for defamation, insult and shaming is worrying. Of particular concern is the fact that claimants are politicians, local self-government units’ officials and judges. The Croatian Journalists’ Association points out that these lawsuits strongly impact the existence of smaller, local media outlets and freelance journalists. The work of non-profit media in Croatia is seriously affected by the lack of domestic public funding combined with delays in EU funding. The process of electing members of the Electronic Media Council is also worrying, as members are elected by a simple majority instead of a two-thirds majority in the Parliament.
Other issues we highlight are related to institutional checks and balances. The quality of civic participation in law-making and public policy-making processes is not at 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 welcome and taken into consideration by public authorities. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the trend of submitting draft laws for the adoption in urgent procedures has increased, which is problematic because public consultation is limited in urgent legislative procedures. Exceptional circumstances pose an increased danger to the functioning of the checks and balances system due to the tendency to strengthen executive power to the impairment of other branches of government. The foremost problem is the retroactive application of the law, i.e., the post-facto parliamentary legitimacy of epidemiological measures preliminarily introduced by the Headquarters of the Civil Protection as an extended arm of the executive branch without a concretized legislative basis.
There is a constant lack of public initiatives or policies for the development of civil society that would foster conditions for the work of civil society in Croatia. There is still no policy framework for civil society, and the National Strategy for Creation of an Enabling Environment for Civil Society Development expired in 2016. The development of a new strategy has begun, but it has not yet been drafted or adopted. The National Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights expired in 2016, and a new one has not been adopted either. In addition, since 2015 Croatia has not had a valid policy in the field of gender equality after the expiration of the National Policy for Gender Equality from 2011 to 2015. Although in 2020 the preparation of the National Plan for Gender Equality for the period from 2021 to 2027 started, it has not yet been adopted. Civil society organizations continue to have a high level of distrust towards domestic institutions that allocate funds from the state budget and the European Structural and Investment (ESI) funds. One of the reasons for this is the quality assessment method based on the order in which project applications are received (the so-called ’fastest finger first’). Short-term forms of project financing negatively affect the work of organizations engaged in long-term policy advocacy and watchdog activities. Moreover, civil society organizations that aid migrants and asylum seekers find it difficult to work and access information. At the same time they are being criminalized for assisting asylum seekers, as was the case of Dragan Umičević, who was fined in late 2021 for “assisting in illegal border crossing” of the Hussiny family. In this regard, it should be noted that there are numerous indicators of institutional coordination and a systematic approach in maintaining and covering up inappropriate treatment of migrants.
You can access the HRHZ’s contribution to the European Commission’s Rule of Law Report at the link.