* European watchdog says criticism of flood policy censored
* Prime Minister Vucic says will fight "lies"
* Ombudsman warns of organised bid to stifle criticism
(Adds OSCE statement)
By Aleksandar Vasovic
BELGRADE, June 2 Serbia's prime minister accused
Europe's chief security and rights watchdog of lying on Monday
after it alleged his government tried to smother online
criticism of its handling of devastating floods last month.
Declaring himself "deeply worried" by the accusation, Prime
Minister Aleksandar Vucic accused the Organisation for Security
and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) of waging the "dirtiest
campaign" against him and Serbia.
Some 51 people died in Serbia and thousands more lost their
homes in May when the heaviest rainfall recorded in more than a
century caused rivers to burst their banks, submerging towns and
washing away roads and bridges.
"From you, dear gentlemen from the OSCE, I expect a simple
apology and nothing more," Vucic wrote to the Vienna-based
organisation. "Whether or not I get it, I want to inform you,
dear gentlemen, that I will fight the lies you have spread."
Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE freedom of media representative, said
in a statement last week she was deeply concerned about what she
described as a "worrying trend of online censorship in Serbia".
She cited the removal of online content perceived as
critical of Belgrade's flood response and the detention of three
people for allegedly spreading panic through online posts.
Serbia's human rights ombudsman also warned on Monday of an
"emergency situation" in terms of freedom of expression.
"The sequence of events ... suggests that this is not a
question of someone's poor understanding of the situation, but
an organised effort aimed at stifling criticism," Sasa Janovic
told Serbia's B92 television.
STRONG GRIP ON POWER
Vucic is a former ultranationalist who served as information
minister in the late 1990s, when independent media were fined
and shuttered under draconian legislation designed to silence
dissent as strongman Slobodan Milosevic readied for war with
NATO over Kosovo.
He changed tack to embrace Serbia's path to European Union
membership in 2008 and returned to government in 2012.
Vucic's strong grip on power has unnerved some in Serbia who
fear a return to authoritarianism, something the prime minister
has dismissed. Much of that fear has been channeled through blog
posts and online media.
Using powers under a state of emergency declared during the
flooding, police took three people in for questioning on
suspicion of "inciting panic" by their online posts, and
summoned about a dozen more.
In a statement, Mijatovic on Monday said she spoke with
Vucic earlier in the day and "received assurances that he
personally and his government will tackle these issues."
"My message to the government remains: these actions need to
be investigated and those behind them must be held accountable,"
she said. "It is the role and duty of the government to protect
and nurture freedom of expression whether online or offline."
Mijatovic also said a website was blocked on Monday after
reporting allegations that Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic,
a top-ranking official of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party
(SNS), had plagiarised his doctoral thesis.
Belgrade's Megatrend University, where he completed his
studies, dismissed the allegation as unfounded.
(Editing by Matt Robinson and Tom Heneghan)