Deterioration of free speech against the government continues in Croatia

Marko Starčić

On last Wednesday, August 23, prosecutors filed misdemeanor charges against the Croatian teenager, according to local reports. Marko Starčić, a 18-year-old, yelled "HDZ burglars!" at Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković (also a member of ruling HDZ party), during giving a statement to the press in Istria's coastal town of Poreč. A few seconds afterwards, two policemen in civil clothes approached Starčić and told him to keep calm. He offered his identity card to them, but they refused and assured him everything is fine.

According to his own statements given to local media outlets, Starčić was at his working place when he received a call from a friend two hours later, and the next thing he knew was that the police were looking for him. He didn't take the warning seriously and interpreted it as a friendly joke, along with following anonymous call from a police officer who asked him for his address. A few minutes later Starčić was visited by policeman who gave him a subpoena of a Misdemeanor Court, charging him with disturbing public peace and order.

Shocked, Starčić revealed everything to the media, exposed official documents on his Facebook profile and described his case as "sad, but true, and a little unbelievable". He emphasized that the main reason for his outbreak is the emigration of many young colleagues due to huge economic problems, caused by current government acts. Ruling politicians obviously disagree not only with his opinions, but also with his right to express it publicly. "The law needs to be implemented," Prime Minister Andrej Plenković told the media, thus supporting charges against Starčić.

However, invoking this law is quite contrary to the Article 38 of the Croatian Constitution, which clearly state "freedom of thought and expression of thought shall be guaranteed, it shall specifically include freedom of the press and other media of communication, freedom of speech and public expression". If Starčić expressed something favorable towards ruling party, no matter how loud he shouts, charges for disturbing public peace and order would be highly unlikely.

Prosecuting a teenager is far from being an isolated case. Only two months earlier, a court in city of Split sentenced seven young men (aged 17-27) to five days in prison, again with the same charges for disturbing public peace. Reason for their arrest were verbal insults against Janica Kostelić, a former Olympic alpine skier and current State Secretary for Sports, while she was traveling in car to the island of Brač. Ironically, after insults they further chanted "(we want) sports law!", thus demanding stronger measures against widespread corruption and organized crime in Croatian sport.

Earlier this month, a man has been reported to the State's Attorney Office for protesting with a banner that proclaimed ironic political message. An upsetting trend is also present on Facebook and similar social networks. In 2017, at least three people have been arrested for sending highly critical remarks against the Prime Minister and the government. When critics are ordinary people and insults or verbal attacks include high-ranking government officials, reaction of the police and justice system is very swift and penalties are pretty strict, in contrast to verbal attacks against other groups in society. This different approach reminds of the Yugoslav past, itself highly unpopular in modern Croatia.

Interestingly, all mentioned cases are largely unreported in Anglophone and other foreign mainstream media. This should not surprise anyone, considering Croatia is a member of the European Union and NATO, not some "disobedient" country in Asia, Africa or Latin America. There are no negative international reports, objections of highest officials, or international outcry. Since we're speaking about the country which is a faithful obedient to the directives of Brussels and Washington, things are more easily overlooked.