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News 26 Jan 15

Serbian PM Slams BIRN Again

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic again accused the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network of lying to undermine his government in an investigation of a controversial mine tender.

Gordana Andric
BIRN
Belgrade

 

Vucic on Sunday repeated his allegation that BIRN was “telling lies” in its mine tender investigation and said that he had managed to defend his country by speaking out against misinformation spread by EU-funded journalists.

“I have protected Serbia from falsehood,” Vucic told Serbian broadcaster TV Prva.

“If I hadn’t done it, unfortunately I’m afraid no one would have,” he said.

Key points from BIRN’s investigation

The tender became the centre of a media storm after BIRN revealed questions about the Serbian company, Energotehnika Juzna Backa, and its partner, Romanian Ness, which won the contract for 15 million euro to pump out 114 million cubic metres of water from a coal mine.

BIRN’s investigation revealed that although one of the tender requirements was for the bidders to have at least one relevant reference, neither member of the winning consortium had previous experience of pumping large quantities of water.

Energetika Juzna Backa’s previous work was on the electrical infrastructure in Serbia, while Ness is a construction company. The Serbian company’s director, Dragoljub Zbiljic, confirmed to BIRN that his company did not have any experience of pumping large quantities of water.

The investigation also revealed that Zbiljic is on trial for tax evasion in the town of Kragujevac and under investigation for the same charge in the city of Novi Sad.

The investigation also revealed that the consortium not only lacked experience in pumping out water, but did not actually carry out the work for which it was contracted on its own. Instead, it engaged a Dutch company, Van Heck, that carried out crucial  works.

The Dutch company, with unique experience in this field, had offered its services to Serbian officials when floods hit the country in May, but was not contracted in direct negotiations, which Serbian law allows in emergency conditions.

The article revealed that Serbian Electric Power Industry, EPS, which launched the tender, could have start dewatering sooner if had it chosen the contractor through direct negotiations, as Serbian law allows.

BIRN wrote that the delay of several months while the tender was carried out and while the work started cost Serbia more than 100 million euros for the purchase of import electricity and coal.

The network contacted several Serbian institutions, querying the tender and the choice of the bidders that were contracted, but they declined to answer.

On December 23 and 25, when BIRN contacted the World Bank office in Belgrade to get more information on the companies that won the tender, a spokesperson directed journalists to EPS as the source of information.

Click here to see full article in English. This text is a literal translation into English of the original in Serbian which has not been edited or adapted in any way to suit an English-language readership.

On January 8, BIRN published an investigation that said Serbia's state-owned power company, EPS, had awarded a contract to pump flood water out of the Tamnava mine to a consortium of two companies with no relevant experience, one of whose directors is standing trial for tax evasion. The World Bank loaned Serbia 23 million euro to finance the process.

The following day, Vucic responded angrily by calling BIRN’s journalists liars.

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

“They got the money from [Michael] Davenport [head of the EU delegation in Belgrade] and the EU to speak against the Serbian government,” he added.

The EU described the Prime Minister’s claim that Brussels funds BIRN to spread falsehoods about his administration as baseless.

“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,” Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson for the European Commission for neighbourhood policy and enlargement negotiations, said.

Vucic then accused Kocijancic of trying to silence him on behalf of the EU.

“Serbia supports independent and daring journalism, and freedom of speech throughout Europe and beyond, and that freedom of expression is a fundamental democratic principle,” he said.

Vesna Kostic, a spokesperson for the World Bank, said on January 12 that the tender abided by Serbian law and that the bank’s experts had conducted an analysis of it that was “more comprehensive than in any previous project funded in Serbia”. 

Vucic on Sunday said that his allegations that BIRN had lied had been “confirmed by an eminent world institution like the World Bank”.

No state institution responded to BIRN’s questions about the mine tender before the investigation was published.

After the row erupted, BIRN sent an open letter to the Serbian government and power company EPS on January 17, seeking clarification.

The World Bank has also stonewalled BIRN’s attempts to secure the bank's review of the bidding process. Tony Verheijen, World Bank country manager in Serbia, refused a BIRN request to release a copy of the bank review of tender on the grounds that it was confidential.

The Bank also refused BIRN requests for an interview with experts who reviewed the process and failed to answer BIRN’s questions regarding the tender.

Only one small-circulation weekly in Serbia has republished the BIRN investigation and few have linked it on their websites. Almost all outlets have however reported Vucic’s claim that BIRN’s journalists are “liars”.

On January 16, 43 NGOs and media organisations issued a joint statement calling on the Serbian authorities to protect the public interest and investigate legal concerns raised by BIRN over the mine tender.

“Regarding the tender for de-watering Tamnava mine, BIRN has revealed a potential violation of the public interest. Citizens have an inviolable right to be accurately and timely informed of how and on what public budget money is being spent,” the letter said.

“The right of journalists to investigate, ask questions and critically review the work of public officials is a basic feature of a democratic society and of a free and independent journalism,” it continued, urging the prosecutor’s office to investigate the tender.

 

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