ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croatian police have detained and questioned web activists who are criticizing or ridiculing the government, media and the opposition say, accusing authorities of violating basic civil rights.
Media said on Tuesday police had detained organizers of a group on Facebook, the online social networking site, which called an anti-government rally in several towns, including the capital Zagreb, for December 5. The group has over 80,000 members.
“For the first time since the 1990s, Croatia is starting to enforce repression against its citizens who want to freely express their political stands,” Nacional weekly said.
It said police had arrested a coordinator of the protests in the Adriatic city of Zadar. Business.hr news website said police had detained and questioned another activist in Zagreb, who had been posting protest posters on billboards in the capital.
A police official confirmed to Reuters a Facebook activist had been detained in Zagreb, but denied the other arrest.
Government spokesman Zlatko Mehun said the government had no reason to fear criticism on the web.
“Our focus is work on the fundamental issues for this country - the economic crisis and the European Union membership talks,” he said.
Within a few years, the Internet has become the most widespread medium in this small EU candidate country for citizens to vent their discontent with Prime Minister Ivo Sanader’s conservative government.
When Sanader, quoting the global financial crisis, called last month for belt-tightening and a wage freeze and abolished Christmas parties and presents in state institutions and companies, a new group popped up on Facebook.
It called itself Sanader Grinch - a reference to the green-faced character from the movie ‘How Grinch Stole Christmas’. The group’s activities were widely reported in local media, but provoked no reaction from the government or police.
The police first turned on Facebookers last week, after Niksa Klecak, a member of the main opposition party, the Social Democrats, launched a group called “I bet I can find 5,000 Facebookers who dislike Sanader.”
In a matter of days, the group grew to almost 12,000 members compared to 27 members of two groups that support Sanader.
Police detained and interrogated Klecak last Friday. It said they had acted “not because of his party affiliation” but because he posted a photo montage portrait of Sanader in a Nazi uniform — which violated Croatia’s law banning Nazi propaganda.
“Facebook is a great thing... and everyone has a right to show their discontent but if you promote hatred, a totalitarian regime, that is not good, that is not satire. That is against democracy in Croatia,” Sanader said.
Opposition and the media dismissed the explanation, saying the police had until now never acted against Nazi propaganda.
“This is a fundamental violation of the constitutional right to freedom of expression,” Social Democrats leader Zoran Milanovic said on Monday.
An editorial in wide-selling Jutarnji List daily, entitled “Stop Facebook,” said the authorities were acting in a manner similar to Yugoslav communists, who distrusted the media and wanted to control them.
Reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic, Editing by Ralph Boulton