Report from Croatia: Facebook causes political firestorm

A 22-year-old Facebook member created the controversy by starting a group for people who do not like the country's prime minister.

ZAGREB, Croatia – Online criticism of Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader through the social networking site Facebook turned into a real-world political storm here last week with opposition figures levying charges of police repression.

The events began Nov. 28 when police raided the Dubrovnik home of 22-year old Facebook member Nikša Klečak, who started a group named “I bet I can find 5,000 people who don’t like Sanader.” Police say a photo montage of the prime minister in a Nazi uniform prompted the raid, which lasted three hours while they questioned Klečak and searched his computer. While Nazi propaganda is illegal in Croatia, the law against it appears ambivalent and enforced unevenly.

After that, matters escalated. A new Facebook group searching for 10,000 detractors of the prime minister has gathered, at the latest count, more than 13,600 members. Its anonymous founder identifies his location as “the farther away, the better,” and has raised his goal to finding 15,000 supporters. Another group called “Enter my apartment Gestapo gang, Croatia is not a police state!” has gotten about 5,100 members.

Critics of the main, left-wing opposition party haven’t been silent. They've created a closed Facebook group that a local news Web site says depicts the Social Democratic Party leader Zoran Milanović as a pedophile. Open Facebook groups supporting the prime minister have few members.

Real world events heated up just as quickly, with Milanović demanding a government apology for the police raid, calling it  “a fundamental violation of the constitutional right to freedom of expression."

On Dec. 1, the prime minister said he wasn’t responsible for the police action but defended it, calling the original Facebook posting an “attack against democracy” and accusing it of “spreading fascism.”

The Croatian government might have overreacted to the Nazi depiction of Sanader because they’re unfamiliar with Internet culture, said Julie Germany, director of the Washington-based George Washington University Institute for Politics Democracy and the Internet. Nazi comparisons are a common online trope. The medium “is immediate, people feel like it’s kind of anonymous – it’s not like insulting people to their face,” she said.

“For people who aren’t familiar with Facebook or with the Internet, this sort of thing can be incredibly offensive and scary, but it’s basically just a bunch of people who feel strongly about something, playing online and mashing up images,” she added.

By Dec. 3, the level of political tension increased significantly following the arrest earlier in the week of a Zagreb activist who was posting placards for a planned multi-city anti-government protest. The group, called “Tighten Your Own Belt, You Gang of Thieves” also uses Facebook as an organizing tool and had almost 60,000 declared supporters by the end of last week. Commentators speculated the government might be systematically cracking down on opposition activity.

Sanader then sought to calm matters by stating that “no one can be detained or arrested because they think differently,” and adding that the government will investigate and take action if it finds wrongdoing. The nationwide chief of police apologized later that same day for the Zagreb arrest, adding the activist’s detention wasn’t politically motivated. The activist plastered posters in areas where posting is forbidden and fled when police told him to stop, the police chief said.

Meanwhile, Sanader joined the ranks of many world public figures satirized with new subtitles added to a scene from the 2004 German film Downfall, which depicts the final 12 days of Adolf Hitler in his bunker.

Not amused by Nazi-based satire is the Brussels-based Rabbinical Center of Europe, which released a statement over the weekend of Dec. 5 that condemned  “using humor in the Nazi genocidal murder of 6 million Jews.”

The planned anti-government protest went forward as planned Dec. 5, attracting far fewer participants than its 60,000 online supporters. In all, only approximately 3,500 people turned out across the nation.

Activists should never confuse large virtual support with equally big real-world turnout, Germany said. Many Facebook users joined the anti-government virtual groups as a sign of their affinity, not necessarily because they plan to protest in the streets, she said. Social networking is trendy; successful protests require people willing to spend more effort than just clicking a link, she added.

By this week, the Facebook affair appeared to fizzle out, save for a handful of politicians in the ruling Croatian Democratic Union Party who told local reporters they’ll consider suing protest leaders for calling them “thieves.”

Perera (www.dperera.com) is a freelance reporter.
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