BELGRADE (Reuters) - A prominent anti-graft campaigner in Montenegro vowed on Wednesday she would not be silenced by a graphic campaign against her in pro-government media.
The United States has said the campaign is part of a “distressing trend” of victimization in the Balkan country.
The Montenegrin newspaper Informer this week published explicit tapes of a woman and asked whether it might be Vanja Calovic, director of the local MANS campaign group and a fierce critic of entrenched corruption in Montenegro, a candidate for membership of the European Union.
The paper, seen as close to the government of veteran leader and Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, had previously published in June grainy stills of a woman engaging in sexual acts with a dog, asking in a headline whether the woman was Calovic.
Calovic says she has nothing to do with the material released by Informer.
“Those montages and setups are not just a message to me and MANS, but everyone who dares to raise their voice against corruption and organized crime, that anyone can become the victim of such spiteful mistreatment,” Calovic said in an email to Reuters.
She linked the attacks to complaints of electoral fraud leveled by MANS following local elections in May.
Contacted by Reuters, Informer editor-in-chief Novak Uskokovic said his newspaper had never directly claimed Calovic was the person in the tapes. “We just carried what the whole of Montenegro is saying in informal conversation,” he said.
“We’re just asking, why is it wrong to confirm who is in the video? We continue to seek answers as to how the tapes came about and who distributed them, because they are also potentially criminal acts.”
Western governments and watchdogs remain concerned at the level of organized crime and corruption, which flourished in Montenegro during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Critics say the tiny Adriatic republic of 680,000 people is run as a fief by a political elite largely unchanged over the past 20 years, a description the government rejects.
The EU described the June Informer reports as “irresponsible”. An EU spokeswoman could not immediately be reached for comment on the latest publications on Thursday.
On Wednesday, the United States embassy in Podgorica said it was “troubled and disappointed” by the campaign against Calovic.
“This is the latest in a distressing trend in which individuals and organizations who are fighting against corruption, organized crime, and other threats to society are victimized for their important work,” the embassy said in a statement.
Transparency International, of which MANS is a partner, called on the authorities to react.
“Governments should protect civil society space so organizations like MANS can work free from harassment,” said Transparency vice chair Elena Panfilova.
Calovic said she would not be deterred.
“MANS will continue to fight for the creation of democracy in Montenegro and the rule of law, and that aim is worth every sacrifice, even life,” she said.
Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Andrew Roche