BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia's prime minister accused European Union's officials late on Saturday of orchestrating a campaign against the government after a regional news organization published a critical article about the reconstruction of a key coal mine.
The dispute came after Sarajevo-based Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) reported earlier in the week that the state-owned power monopoly Elektroprivreda Srbije (EPS) hired an inexperienced local consortium to work on the reconstruction of the Tamnava coal mine, increasing costs.
Fifty one people died in floods in Serbia last May that inflicted damages of more than 1.5 billion euros, including flooding of the Tamnava mine which is supplying coal to TENT power plant complex that accounts for half of country's energy generation.
At a news conference earlier on Saturday, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic accused the EU and Michael Davenport, the head of EU mission to Serbia, of financing media organizations, including BIRN, to slander the government.
In a statement, Maja Kocijancic, a European Commission spokeswoman said she was surprised by Vucic's claims. “Media criticism is essential to ensure the proper accountability of elected governments," she said.
Kocijancic also said that the EU expected that the Serbian authorities would secure an environment that would support freedom of expression and media.
Last June, Vucic also clashed with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), security and rights watchdog, accusing it of lying after it criticized his government of trying to smother online criticism of its handling of the floods.
Later on Saturday, Vucic also accused Kocijancic of trying to silence him.
"I am shocked by the fact that Maja Kocijancic in the name of the EU has tried to shut me up,” he said in a letter to the Commission. "I am refusing to be your puppet," Vucic said.
Vucic is a former ultranationalist who served as the information minister during the autocratic rule of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic in late 1990s. He later changed policies and embraced Serbia's path to European Union membership.
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Robert Birsel)