In this pre-election period, and ahead of the official commencement of election campaigning, the first of three expected this year, as the head of the national human rights institution and the national equality body, the Ombudswoman reminds of the importance of political discourse during this period and the influence it can have on human rights, equality, and the rule of law in the Republic of Croatia.

The time of elections is a specific period marked by political contention and even more intensified political speech than usual, aimed at attracting voters. However, it can produce both short-term and long-term effects on citizens.

The freedom of expression is one of the fundamental human rights, protected by the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The opportunity for the free expression of various ideas and opinions is crucial for democracy and is therefore of the utmost importance, especially during elections.

The freedom of expression is not absolute and can be limited, but only while respecting the guarantees of fair proceedings and the principle of proportionality, in accordance with the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

Unfortunately, over the years, political communication has been shaped to include various messages of intolerance, offensive and derogatory statements, as well as those undermining the rule of law.

It is particularly dangerous when such messages are used by politicians because their words reach a large number of citizens, and this kind of rhetoric spreads more quickly. Their words can act as a “lit match” further fueling intolerance towards different groups, especially on social media and in the webportal comments.

Thus, politicians’ speech can spread and encourage prejudice and stereotypes, lead to discrimination, hate speech, and even hate crimes, as well as undermine the rule of law.

In the upcoming period, the Ethics Commission of the State Election Commission will play a role in terms of monotiring the actions and messages of politicians.

In accordance with the role defined by the Constitution and the laws, as an independent and impartial institution, during the period from the announcement of the elections to the moment of their holding, the Ombudswoman does not comment on individual statements by politicians and does not participate in the debates that are part of the election competition. However, this does not apply to extreme cases of abuse of political speech, i.e., situations where hate speech may be involved.

With the present statement the Ombudswoman calls on political parties and politicians not to spread intolerance with their posts and statements during discussions on the key issues faced by the citizens and on the challenges the society is facing, reminding at the same time that when the elections are over, the rhetoric remains and continues in public, thereby still endangering human rights, equality, and the rule of law. Therefore, although the aim during this period is to attract the voters, the effects of such rhetoric are much broader and long-lasting.

Additionally, the Ombudswoman calls on the media, as well as experts who will analyze the pre-election campaign in public, to critically address examples of intolerant speech.

Finally, when it comes to this topic, recommendations from international bodies and organizations regarding politicians’ communication represent useful respurces:

General Recommendation No. 15 of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) of the Council of Europe on Hate Speech

The theme of migration and asylum in election campaigns and its consequences on the reception of migrants and their rights

Recommendations for combating discrimination and hate speech in election campaigns by the European Network of Equality Bodies (Equinet)

Council of Europe Toolkit on combating hate speech during electoral processes