Public Ombudswoman Lora Vidovic has said that the radicalisation Croatians have been witnessing is nothing new, and she dismisses the government's claims that she is picking topics in an arbitrary manner and notes that she keeps receiving complaints about the police treatment of migrants.
Asked in an interview with state agency Hina if the October 12 attack on the government building could have been predicted, Vidovic, who has been Public Ombudswoman since 2013, sad that the perpetrator's motives are yet to be determined but that judging by his posts on social networks one can conclude that he was surrounded by an atmosphere of intolerance and hatred, which is nothing new in Croatia.
"Some analysts say that that started when Croatia joined the EU in July 2013, because until then we did our best to show ourselves in a good light and adopt the required standards. Looking back, in 2015 we witnessed the lining up of an SSS guard in black shirts outside the Croatian parliament, a year later there was a march in (Zagreb's) Savska Street in which a parliament deputy speaker participated and whose organisers later visited the Electronic Media Council to give a Chetnik cap to its chairwoman.
"I issued an appeal in 2017, warning about incidents that foment intolerance and hatred and asking the competent institutions to take action to change that. In the report for 2019, my office described what happened that year, from Serb athletes jumping into the sea (to save themselves from attackers in Split), attacks on (Serb) seasonal workers on the island of Brac to a coach who encouraged boys to shout 'For the homeland ready' after a football match against a club from Serbia at a tournament in Barcelona. In 2018 we warned about growing revisionism, at the time the HRT public broadcaster each morning ran a commercial for a revisionist book about (the WWII concentration camp) Jasenovac. Graffiti glorifying the Independent State of Croatia and Nazi Germany and spreading intolerance and hatred has become common. What happened in St. Mark's Square should not have happened but the seeds were sown quite a while ago," Vidovic said.
Asked where she saw the roots of radicalisation, Vidovic said it was the lack of education about human rights, the lack of reasoned and respectful public dialogue and the inconsistent punishment and prosecution of situations that represent hate speech and hate crimes, as well as the use of aggressive rhetoric to score political points.
Asked how much the current war of words between the president and the prime minister contributed to the culture of moderate dialogue, Vidovic said that she could not comment on it as it was a matter of political speech but noted that politicians should use their messages, activities, power and influence to enhance freedoms, rule of law and equality before the law, as well as to help deal with citizens' real-life problems.
Asked about amendments to the Electronic Media Act, under which media outlets will be responsible for the content of comments under online articles to prevent hate speech, and asked if that was the only way to fight hate speech, Vidovic said that it was not the only way but that it was an important one.
"I think that the responsibility of the media is an important element and one should legally regulate hate speech on the web in a better way, taking care that a balance is found as regards freedom of speech. That is not an easy task, but the current situation is untenable. It is important to define responsibility, media outlets are not the only ones who are responsible, others are too, but the media cannot disclaim their responsibility."
Asked about the Council of Europe's having recently again called on the Croatian government to stop violence against migrants, over which she had already criticised Croatian police, and asked why she did not trust the police, Vidovic said that she would be glad if allegations of violence against migrants were investigated thoroughly and by an independent body.
She noted that she believed that a vast majority of police officers did a difficult job in difficult circumstances and lacked the necessary support but noted that the very similar, consistent and well-argumented complaints about the conduct of some police officers towards irregular migrants required a detailed investigation.
Such an investigation should not be carried out by the Ministry of the Interior but by the Office of the Chief State Prosecutor as an independent institution, she said.
Asked about the government's criticism that she was picking topics in an arbitrary manner, Vidovic said that she regretted the government's not having said which of the topics she was dealing with should not be in her reports.
"Is that the issue of discriminatory speech and hate speech in the public sphere, the issue of work and employment discrimination or discrimination in the health system, the issue of social security, migrants? Aren't those problems that burden Croatia and its citizens? My reports are prepared based on information from a number of sources, but mostly based on citizens' complaints. Also, we send requests to ministries, agencies, local government units, universities and nongovernmental organisations, asking them to submit any information they consider important for human rights from their own perspective. Apart from meeting the legal requirements, my reports also describe the state of human rights in Croatia and they are both a mirror as well as a message to decision-makers on what can be done better, including through our recommendations."
Asked what citizens have mostly complained about this year, Vidovic said that complaints have been the same for years, referring to the work of the judiciary, the health system, discrimination, labour relations.
This year complaints about the health system and labour relations have been absolutely dominant, and the coronavirus crisis has additionally worsened the already existing problems, she said.
As for the health system, along with the previous problems, such as long waiting lists for specialist examinations, citizens have been complaining about having problem reaching their general practitioner, having to wait outside their offices in the sun and rain and about not being allowed to have someone to escort them when going to an outpatient clinic, Vidovic said, noting that the last complaint was made mostly by elderly people.
This year has best revealed the importance of the public health system and of the need to invest in it, she said.