Croatian society is polarised which hampers dialogue and dialogue is key to protecting the most vulnerable groups, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks said on Friday after talks held earlier this week with Croatian government officials and non-governmental organisations, about which he will write a report. 

By calling on political leaders to build a tolerant and inclusive society and send an unequivocal message against violence, discrimination and intolerance, Muiznieks summarised the results of his first visit to Croatia, which was part of his regular tour of 47 member states of the pan-European organisation.

Muiznieks' visit focused on media freedoms, migrations and judiciary in Croatia, a transition society which is strongly polarised due to the 1990s war.

Polarisation in a post-conflict society has a different meaning than it does in a society that did not experience such a conflict, the Commissioner told Hina.

He recalled Croatia's very complex history with minorities and neighbours, saying that this was why people were far more concerned about polarisation in that context than elsewhere.

He is concerned about reports of "ethnic intolerance, hate speech and other forms of hate crime targeting members of national minorities, in particular ethnic Serbs, members of the Jewish community and Roma."

That threatens social cohesion and pluralism and the authorities are urged to initiate and engage in an open dialogue with all stakeholders in order to protect pluralism and avoid further polarisation, he said.

Muiznieks commended Croatia's legislative framework for the protection of national minorities, saying that it could serve as a model in Europe, however, he expressed concerned about an 11% cut in public funds for ethnic minorities. That decision needs to be changed, he said.

I was received very well, he said in a comment on his talks with Deputy Prime Minister Bozo Petrov, Justice Minister Ante Sprlje, Culture Minister Zlatko Hasanbegovic, Chief State Prosecutor Dinko Cvitan, Human Rights Ombudswoman Lora Vidovic, representatives of numerous non-governmental organisations and civil society groups and others.

He welcomed regional cooperation in the prosecution of war crimes and efforts to improve and strengthen it. An issue of concern, however, is that more than 2,800 persons, mostly Roma, remain stateless or at risk of statelessness, he said.

This has to be a "matter of priority" that the government has to resolve, said the Commissioner, who will prepare a report after his tour with recommendations to the government.

Croatia is going through a difficult economic period and reforms are necessary, however, it is necessary to take into account inequalities, he said with regard to social rights being threatened.

Inequalities are bad for the economy. Inequalities will additionally burden plans to build a sound economy, he said and called for monitoring which of the most vulnerable groups was most affected, for example women, children, the elderly or minorities.

Croatia has a firm structure for the respect of human rights in the form of the Office of the Human Rights Ombudswoman, the Commissioner said, expressing satisfaction that funding for that institution had not been cut but in fact increased, which he said gave rise to hope because the Ombudswoman raised the alarm when the rights of the most vulnerable groups were threatened.

One of the ways to ease the impact of austerity measures is through dialogue between all groups in society, however, dialogue is difficult in a polarised society, he said.

Commenting on media freedoms, he said that two aspects were concerning: the "abrupt changes in management and editorial positions in the public service media", and cuts in budget funds for non-profit media.

These changes are not just related to professional standards, they are also politically motivated, he told Hina, adding that he would continue following possible other changes as well as the editorial policy of the public broadcaster.

"Pluralism of the public media service and the independence of the broadcast regulator are key elements for media pluralism and freedom of the media," Muiznieks said. 

As for cuts in budget funds for non-profit media, Muiznieks said that Culture Minister Hasanbegovic had told him that "that was an experiment and we have stopped it" and that he expressed his concern to Hasanbegovic over that decision.

That was a good practice and I am not sure why it is being stopped. This is a pattern according to which other events are happening that cause concern with regard to preservation of pluralism, Muiznieks told Hina.

When you cut funding to civil society organisations, minorities, culture and independent media, the question is why is that being done. Often the explanation is the budget, however, that causes concern, he said.

If pluralism is being eroded, if the atmosphere in society is polarised, if ethnic intolerance is growing and hate speech and hate crimes are present, that makes people withdraw into themselves and become afraid, Muiznieks said, expressing hope that the government would repeal the said decisions. 

During his talks with Hasanbegovic, Muiznieks expressed concern over "reported cases of physical attacks, death threats and intimidation against journalists," describing them as attacks on democracy that needed to be addressed seriously.

"Public discourse which justifies attacks against journalists is dangerous and detrimental to media freedoms and democracy,” he said, adding that the minister was responsible for promotion of tolerance and inclusion of all groups and for taking a firm stance against hate speech.

Muiznieks said he was aware that a part of the intellectual and cultural milieu did not accept Hasanbegovic, but noted that he could not judge his work as a historian.

He added that he was, however, concerned that debates about history were beginning to frighten minorities, which, he said, affected social cohesion, minority rights and tolerance in general.

As for the human rights of immigrants, Muiznieks, who has been Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights for four years, expressed concern about the "criminalisation of provision of humanitarian assistance to migrants" and urged dialogue between NGOs and border police chiefs.

Muiznieks visited the Jezevo and Porin migrant reception centres and called on "authorities to accommodate migrants in the new building in Jezevo to ease overcrowding in the old building there."

He also called on Croatian authorities "to review and end the practice of obliging migrant detainees subject to deportation to pay for the costs of their accommodation and deportation."

Even though only a handful of people have requested asylum in Croatia, Muiznieks urged the authorities to develop a long-term policy for the integration of migrants, saying that as a member of the European Union, Croatia had accepted a refugee relocation quota.

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