Serbian rights groups urge probe into mine tender in media freedom row

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 16, 2015 11:06 AM

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbian civic groups called for an inquiry into a media report of irregularities in a government tender to pump flood water from a major mine, after the prime minister called the journalists "liars" paid by the European Union to discredit him.

The report was published last week by the respected Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), under an EU-funded project to promote coverage of corruption issues in the ex-Yugoslav republic, a candidate for membership of the bloc.

The report said a tender to pump water from the mine had been awarded to a local company with no experience in the field. This infuriated Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who accused the journalists of lying at the behest of the EU's envoy to Serbia, Michael Davenport, to undermine his government.

Vucic rose to power partly on a promise to crack down on crime and corruption. He says the tender was carried out in line with the law and that the job went to the company offering the best price.

"The lack of reaction from institutions in charge of the fight against corruption and the rule of law is unacceptable in a democratic, responsible and open society," more than a dozen civil society organizations said in a joint statement.

"Meanwhile, attacks on journalists for doing their job, for protecting public interest, is absolutely unacceptable and undemocratic and so we call on institutions to react."

Some rights groups in Serbia say media freedom has deteriorated under Vucic. He was once a fierce ultranationalist who as minister of information in the late 1990s oversaw draconian media legislation designed to muzzle dissent against the rule of then-strongman President Slobodan Milosevic.

Vucic publicly converted to the cause of Serbian integration with the West in 2008 and renounced his political past. He denies putting pressure on media.

(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Mark Heinrich)