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News 10 Jan 15

EU Condemns Serbia PM’s Criticism of BIRN

The EU condemned a statement by Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic accusing the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network of being paid by Brussels to publish lies to undermine his government.

Gordana Andric
BIRN
Belgrade

 

The European Commission said on Saturday that it strongly rejected “baseless claims” by the Serbian PM that BIRN is being funded by Brussels to spread lies to destablise his administration.

Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson for the European Commission for neighbourhood policy and enlargement negotiations, said that Brussels was “very much surprised by the recent claims by Serbian PM Vucic that the EU is paying individual organisations to wage a campaign against the Serbian government”.

“We strongly reject these baseless claims. The EU stands by independent and courageous journalism and freedom of speech across Europe and beyond. Freedom of expression is a basic principle of democracy,” Kocijancic said.

“The EU expects the Serbian authorities to ensure an environment supporting freedom of expression and of media. Media criticism (such as that of BIRN) is essential to ensure the proper accountability of elected governments; governments should in turn be ready to act on such criticism in a constructive and transparent fashion, rather than trying to stifle it,” she added.

Vucic on Friday denounced BIRN’s journalists as “liars” over their investigation into state-owned energy company Elektroprivreda Srbije, EPS.

“It’s important for people to know [who published the investigation]... They have got the money from Mr. Davenport [head of the EU delegation in Belgrade, Michael Davenport] and the EU to speak against the Serbian government,” Vucic told a press conference.

“Tell those liars that they have lied again. That’s all I have to say,” Vucic said.

Vucic on Saturday responded to Kocijancic’s statement by accusing the Brussels official of trying to silence him.

“I am shocked by the fact that Maja Kocijancic in the name of the EU is trying to shut me up, to forbid me to even answer the question of the journalists,” Vucic said in a letter to Kocijancic.

Vucic also alleged that BIRN was lobbying for unnamed foreign companies to win a contract to renovate the most important mine in Serbia.

“Those who won your [EU] grants following strict procedures, tried to force the government of Serbia to accept bidding from one Western company, which was 23 million euros more expensive than the offers of a Serbian company,” he said.

On Thursday, BIRN published an investigation into how state-owned Elektroprivreda Srbije, EPS, awarded a contract to renovate the Tamnava mine to a consortium that had no experience of such work, significantly increasing the cost.

The Tamnava mine was flooded in May, and the consortium led by Serbian company Energotehnika – Juzna Backa was hired to pump the water from the pit.

The BIRN investigation revealed that the Juzna Backa consortium was linked to Nikola Petrovic, the director of another state company Elektromreze Srbije and a close associate of Prime Minister Vucic.

The next day, Vucic denounced BIRN’s reporters as “liars”.

But Slobodan Georgijev from BIRN Serbia rejected Vucic’s allegations.

“We stand behind the text that we published. Our text is 100 per cent accurate, everything is clear, we never publish things about which there is no evidence,” said Georgijev.

Gordana Igric, the regional director of Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, meanwhile said that the authorities were targeting BIRN with smears reminiscent of the Slobodan Milosevic regime in the 1990s.

“This kind of propaganda against independent and critical media reminds me of the 1990s,” Igric said.

“The fact that this is again going on in a time that should be much different raises confusion, because the official policy of the Serbian government is that it aspires to join the EU, while additionally it heavily relays on financial aid from that same EU,” she said.

The Independent Association of Journalists in Serbia, NUNS, also issued a statement accusing Vucic of putting pressure on BIRN and media freedom in general.

“Calling BIRN’s journalists liars with the accusation that they have received money to ‘speak against the government’ is a vocabulary that belongs to past times and is unacceptable for a democratic society and a state that, as Vucic himself often says, wants to become part of the EU,” NUNS said.

 

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