The Republic of Croatia is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. Legislative authority is vested in the unicameral parliament (Sabor). The president serves as head of state and nominates the prime minister, who leads the government, based on majority support of parliament. The latest presidential election was held in 2015, and the president was elected by a majority of voters. Domestic and international observers stated that the presidential election and parliamentary elections held in 2016 were free and fair, and the State Election Commission reported no major irregularities during the May European Parliament elections.
The national police, under the control of the Ministry of the Interior, have primary responsibility for domestic security. The president is commander in chief of the Armed Forces. In times of disorder, the prime minister and the president may call upon the armed forces to provide security. The armed forces report to the Ministry of Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: intimidation and isolated instances of censorship of journalists; reports of acts of unjustified police violence targeting irregular migrants, some of whom may have been asylum seekers; corruption; and discrimination and violence towards members of ethnic minority groups, including Roma and Serbs.
The government took significant steps to prosecute and punish individuals who committed abuses of human rights.
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.
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
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
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.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups sometimes operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Domestic NGOs working on migrants’ rights issues, however, reported police pressure. Two NGOs claimed their contracts to provide refugee services in asylum seeker reception centers were terminated due to their public criticism of police for alleged violence against migrants (see section 2.f.). Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The country has an ombudsperson for human rights who investigated complaints of human rights abuses, as well as three additional ombudspersons for gender equality, disabled persons, and children. The law stipulates that parliament cannot dismiss the ombudsperson for human rights because of dissatisfaction with his or her annual report. Parliament may dismiss the other three if it does not accept their annual reports. Ombudspersons admitted that this limited their ability to do their jobs thoroughly and independently and imposed political influence over their work.
The law authorizes ombudspersons to initiate shortened procedures in cases where there is sufficient evidence of the violation of constitutional and legal rights.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form or join unions of their choice, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and allows unions to challenge firings in court. The law requires reinstatement of workers terminated for union activity.
Some limitations exist. There are restrictions on strikes and union activity for civilian employees of the military. Workers may strike only at the end of a contract or in specific circumstances cited in the contract, and only after completing mediation. Labor and management must jointly agree on a mediator if a dispute goes to mediation. If a strike is found to be illegal, any participant may be dismissed, and the union held liable for damages.
The government and employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. The government generally enforced laws effectively. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations. Judicial procedures were lengthy in the country overall and could hamper redress for antiunion discrimination.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Through July 31, the state prosecutor reported one case of criminal charges for forced labor, which remained pending at the end of the year.
Penalties for conviction of forced labor were sufficiently stringent to deter violations, if enforced, but the government did not effectively enforce the law. The government collaborated with several NGOs on public awareness programs.
There were isolated reports that Romani children were at risk of forced begging. Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age for the employment of children is 15, the age at which compulsory education ends for most children. Minors between ages 15 and 18 who have not completed compulsory education may work only with prior approval from the government labor inspectorate and only if they would not suffer physically or mentally from the work. Children younger than 15 may work only in special circumstances and with the approval of the ombudsperson for children. In 2017 (the last year for which data were available), there were 233 such requests, of which 183 were approved, usually for children to act in film or theatrical performances. The law prohibits workers younger than age 18 from working overtime, at night, or in dangerous conditions, including but not limited to construction, mining, and work with electricity. The Ministry of Labor and the Pension System, the ministry’s Office of the State Inspectorate, and the ombudsperson for children are responsible for enforcing this regulation and did so adequately.
There were isolated instances of violations of child labor legislation. Labor inspectors identified 34 violations involving 21 minors in 2017. Violations involved minors working overtime or past curfew and occurred mainly in the hospitality, retail, services, food service, and tourism sectors. Some children were reportedly subject to early marriage that could result in domestic servitude. The government effectively enforced the law. Penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations (see also section 7.b.).
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation. Nonetheless, sporadic discrimination in employment or occupation occurred on the bases of gender, disability, sexual orientation, HIV-positive status, and ethnicity, particularly for Roma. According to the ombudsperson for gender equality, women experienced discrimination in employment, including in pay and promotion to managerial and executive positions. Women generally held lower-paying positions in the workforce. A World Bank Group report in February stated that, overall, the country made progress on promoting gender equality into its policy agenda. Eurostat reported the wage gap was higher among older employees. The government did not effectively enforce the law and the penalties for discrimination were not sufficient to deter violations.
According to the 2018 annual report of the ombudsperson for disabilities, legislative changes strengthened the system for professional rehabilitation to facilitate employment of those with disabilities. The ombudsperson for disabilities noted progress in 2018 in the employment of persons with disabilities but said the government should take additional steps to reduce workplace discrimination and barriers to employment. NGOs noted discrimination and harassment against LGBTI employees in the workplace, particularly in the health and hospitality sectors. According to the NGO Freedom House, although legislation protects LGBTI employees against discrimination at the workplace, employers did not have adequate policies and procedures in place to provide protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. NGOs reported LGBTI persons sometimes refrained from publicly expressing their sexual orientation or gender identity because they were vulnerable to termination of employment or demotion.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The government effectively enforced wage laws, and penalties were sufficient to deter violations. The minimum wage was slightly above the official poverty income level. The law limits overtime to 10 hours per week and 180 hours annually.
Responsibility for identifying unsafe situations remains with occupational safety and health experts and not the worker.
Some employees worked in the informal sector without labor protections. There were instances of nonpayment of wages, as well as nonpayment for overtime and holidays. The law allows employees to sue employers for wage nonpayment and provides a penalty sufficient to deter violations, although the law exempts employers who fail to pay wages due to economic duress. Workers may sue employers who do not issue pay slips to their employees to bypass mandatory employer contributions to social insurance programs. During 2018 inspectors filed 122 reports (down 14 percent from 2017) seeking criminal proceedings against employers for nonpayment of wages or for not registering employees properly with state health and pension insurance.