Concerns After Slovenian Interior Minister Suggests Police Use Social Media to Find Anti-Govt Protesters

By , 28 Apr 2020, 19:07 PM Politics
Part of the protest in Ljubljana last Friday Part of the protest in Ljubljana last Friday YouTube screenshot

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STA, 28 April 2020 - A day after low-scale anti-government and anti-lockdown rallies were held across the country, Interior Minister Aleš Hojs has expressed expectation police would follow his "guidelines" about tracking down the protesters through social media. The police meanwhile highlighted its autonomy and independence.

Hojs tweeted on Monday that the police had ID'd a number of people at the rallies in Ljubljana and Maribor, who will be fined. He said the police will also press charges against protest "organisers and participants, because this is a criminal act of endangering health".

In a second tweet, he said he expected the police to use "all publicly posted photos and media reports or social media" to identify the participants of rallies held yesterday and on Friday "against whom criminal charges must be pressed".

Today, Hojs told Slovenian correspondents in Brussels that the government decree clearly banned gathering and movement in public places due to the epidemic. He said he could not agree with the protesters removing the police tape placed in a public place.

He was referring to a group of protesters accessing Republic Square in Ljubljana by removing a segment of the police tape.

"I also don't accept that the interior minister is a silent observer of police actions. It's fact that the interior minister is the one giving guidelines to the police."

He also clarified what he meant by photo identification of the participants, remembering how he, Defence Minister Matej Tonin and President Borut Pahor had been criticised for ignoring social distancing rules during a recent visit to a border area. He believes that same rules should apply to everybody.

If the editor-in-chief of the left-leaning weekly Mladina, Grega Repovž, can be recognised in the photos, as well as a number of other persons, than they have to be processed accordingly, Hojs said. "I don't see a problem with that. Rules apply to everybody."

Releasing details about yesterday's protests, the General Police Department said in a press release that the police "is autonomous in handling these kinds of events, follows legislative and professional guidelines, and handles cases individually".

"It does not rely upon public opinion or possible opinions of persons from the public and political arenas. It coordinates the prosecution of criminal acts with the prosecution, while in terms of violations, the relevant bodies are autonomous and independent also within the organisational hierarchy."

The police also said that it had not suspected anybody committing the criminal act of spreading disease since the outbreak of the epidemic. The police also said it detected no such suspicion at the rallies yesterday.

It said that it referred 26 people from yesterday's rallies to the Health Inspectorate, the relevant body issuing fees in health violations. It also said that procedures were still ongoing.

The Mladina editor-in-chief meanwhile responded to Hojs's statement about his presence at the protest, saying that "just like about 20 other journalists, photographers and cameramen, I went to the site of the rally".

He said he had met with the magazine's photographer and exchanged a few sentences with police officers, both with respect of the distance prescribed by the government decree. "In other words, I was doing my job as a journalist."

He added that the decree restricting movement and gathering in public places included exceptions such as going to and coming from work and doing one's work. He expressed hope that Hojs's statement was "merely an aggravated, populist statement and not an actual threat by a minister with repressive actions".

The Information Commissioner's Office also responded to Hojs's tweets, saying that they indicate that the minister perceives all protesters as potential perpetrators of criminal acts and not of violations.

"In a democratic society, this can be a serious reason for concern about human rights infringements," the office said, adding that the police has the power to take photographs and process these automatically only for the purpose of criminal prosecution.

The Information Commissioner's Office wondered whether these cases actually constitute suspicion of a criminal act or whether this would be disproportionate use of police powers.

Under the rules on movement restrictions currently in place and the possible introduction of mobile contact tracking apps, the police must not have the orders to place all citizens under constant surveillance simply because they are all potential perpetrators of criminal acts.

"In a democratic society, it is always key that the mildest form of interference in one's rights is used and that the police use any of their powers only if this is absolutely necessary," the information commissioner also wrote.

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